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The Role of Social Teaching in Times of Political Transaction

(Dr. David Kaulemu, AFCAST Regional Coordinator for Eastern and Southern Africa)


The title of my presentation requires me to talk about the role of the social teachings of the Church in political transition. But really, we in Zimbabwe, are not just in a political transition. We are in a crisis. The crisis is not just a Zimbabwean crisis. It is an epochal crisis. It is the crisis of modernity.

Modernity encourages us to look at life in technical terms. Life is seen as a technical project that will be described in terms, for example, of civilization, development, or even liberation. In interpreting life this way, human beings are turned into cogs in the grand project of modernity. The development project can be understood in economic, political or social-scientific terms. Thus all solutions to modern development problems are said to be technical. “Just learn the appropriate scientific techniques and your problems will be solved.” They are not understood in moral or spiritual terms. In fact, morality and spirituality are regarded, in modernity, as part of the problem. However, we are in a crisis precisely because all our techniques have not worked. They have failed because life cannot be turned into simply a technical project. Humans cannot be turned into cogs in a machine, no matter how powerful big brother can be. Rather, development ought to be centered on the human person. True development is human centered development. It is “is for each and all the transition from less human conditions to those which are more human.” (Pope Paul VI in On the Development of Peoples, par. 20.)

Thus the crisis in which we find ourselves is not technical. It is moral. To express it is another way, it is a crisis which is a result of our having banished moral knowledge from our social, political and economic lives. As Hans Jonas put it, “never was so much power coupled with so little guidance for its use….We need wisdom most when we believe in it least.” The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explained this crisis in the following words.

It is true of many things that the more they are needed the less readily are they available. This is certainly true about commonly agreed ethical rules, such as we can also hope to be commonly observed: such rules as may guide our conduct towards each other – ours towards others and, simultaneously, others’ towards us – so that we may feel secure in each other’s presence, help one another, co-operate peacefully and derive from each other’s presence a pleasure untainted by fear and suspicion. (Bauman, Postmodern Ethics, 1993:16)

I want to emphasize, in this presentation that we have a human crisis which stems from the way we have conceptualized ourselves, other humans, and the relationships we have created between each other. This self-conceptualization has impacted on our personal and social cultures as well as how we have organized our social, political and economic institutions and organizations. In modernity as a whole, we have tried to banish morality and spirituality from all our social realms such as education, politics, economics and health. Where we have tried to use morality and spirituality, we have subsumed it under utilitarian and selfish goals which, are dominated by the desire for power, wealth and personal glory. We have lived the logic of this approach and now we suffer from its consequences. Hence our crisis. On a general level, we suffer from the results of conceptualizing the human person and society in a certain way and of attempting to live a life without basic moral laws. The role of the social teachings of the church is to remind us where we have gone wrong and put us back on track.

However, this crisis takes a local twist in Zimbabwe. The crisis in Zimbabwe is a result of attempting to interpret the richness of life in narrow party-political terms. This politicization of social, economic, moral and spiritual life distorts our vision of the purpose of life and hence we cannot read the signs of the times and interpret the true significance of politics in relation to other realms of life. Sometimes well meaning people have been victims of this political distortion. The social teachings gives us perspective.

There is no special role for the social teachings which just apply to the times of political transition. The social teachings are for all times. They are always “shedding the light of the Gospel on the social questions of their times.” (Pope Paul VI, On the Development of Peoples, par. 2) However, our special need today, stems from the fact that we have ignored them for a long time. We suffer from the effects of not taking advantage of the benefits and insights of the social teachings.

What Are the Social Teachings?

The social teachings are a cumulative body of social wisdom. It is wisdom about human individuals. But human individuals who are essentially linked to others in society. The social teachings are a cumulative body of social wisdom about the structures, institutions and cultures of society that enable each individuals human person and humanity in general to grow and come to its fullness. This body of wisdom can be found in
• Scripture
• Writings of theologians
• Documents of Churches
• Witness of just persons and communities
• Research and reflections by different scientists

It is important to understand that the social teachings are both constant and new. They are constant because they remain the same in their fundamental inspiration, in their “principles of reflection”, in their “criteria of judgement” in their basic “directives for action” and above all in their link with the Gospel. On the other hand they are ever new, because they are subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the changes in historical and cultural conditions.

General Purpose of the Social Teachings

The social teachings are “directed towards an authentic development of man and society which would respect and promote all dimensions of the human person.” (Pope John Paul II, Social Concern, par.1)
To guide individual consciences in making decisions e.g. about wages to pay, the treatment of women and children, respect of the environment.
To shape the response of the Church to social issues eg. About racial attitudes, tribal attitudes, political involvement, care for the poor. The Church ought to have an independent, consistent message and universal vision of hope and salvation. It is also a message that condemns evil and all structures of sin that hinder the full and integral development of peoples. Eg. Tribalism, racism, sexism and all forms of xenophobia.
To influence the activities of the public sector. The social teachings suggest values that influence the public sphere to accept and serve all citizens. It is wrong to privatize the public sphere. Hence the social teachings are meant to influence public policy positively. E.g. about economic policies, international relations, peace and war decisions.

Principles of the Social Teachings

1. Entry Point: Dignity of the human person: Every human person was created in the image of God. Their dignity comes from this fact, and not from what they have done or achieved. Hence all social structures and institutions and organizations are to uphold the dignity of each human person.
2. Process: Subsidiarity through participation: Respect of the human person demands that each person participates in the institutions and cultures that shape their life. Presently, democratic practices are the most advanced processes or forms of facilitating universal participation.
3. Content: promotion of common good, preferential option for the poor, universal destination of the earth’s goods, respect of creation or the environment.
4. Outcome: Solidarity

Dealing with Political Transition

Political transition as a time of
• Ambiguities: these come as a result of challenges to established ideologies, political structures, systems and institutions
• Challenges to dominant social values and moral authority.
• Creation of power vacuums
• Struggles for power
• Privatisation of social life and the rise of individualism
• The rise of autocratic leaders who lack moral authority
• The rise of cultures of individualism, opportunism and corruption
Political transitions are times when there is great need for values framework which
• Reveals a deeper reality that is focused on the human and not simply technical
• Motivates to action through the spirit of love, justice and service.
• Provides criteria for evaluation according to ethical norms such as justice,

Focus on Zimbabwe Today

Many will explain our situation in Zimbabwe today, in terms of the existence of some evil people who have terrible agendas for Zimbabwe. I do not doubt that there are such people in Zimbabwe. But our crisis in this period of political transition cannot be fully accounted for in this way. It is true that there are evil and unjust individuals who need to be dealt with. But there are also ways if thinking, ways of organizing society that hinder human flourishing. Social, economic and political structures and cultures can be devastating to human life.
From the point of view of the social teachings, our crisis stems from a certain way of interpreting social reality and the cultures that have emanated from them.. Thus we all have contributed to the crisis by the way we have understood ourselves, our relationships and reality generally. Given the social teachings, we could avoid the mistakes that we made during the struggle for independence and in 1980. In many ways we participated in the creation of the culture of intolerance, violence and corruption. If you think I am lying just look at our families, our work place, an dour communities, even in our churches. We must take responsibility for having contributed to our crisis. We ignored (suspended) some of the basic principles of the social teachings because of the demands of the moment. We tolerated some injustices against women, some cruel forms of punishment, use of violence, tribalism, overzealous nationalism on the pretext that they were useful tools that we could use during liberation, but we could drop them as soon as we got independence. Well, they are haunting us today, for they have developed into persistent sub-cultures which are threatening to be with us for ever.
In many ways, we reflect our political leaders at our different levels of operation; as priests, pastors, at work, in our homes. To what extent do we work according to the principles of the social teachings i.e. Respect of the human person, common good, solidarity? It is precisely during times of political transition that we need the social teachings. We should not argue that the situation is so urgent that we need to suspend the social teachings until we are free enough to use them.
The social teachings remind us what the true roles of our positions, structures and institutions are. They give us guiding “principles of reflection,” guiding “criteria of judgement” and “directives for action”. They give us the opportunity to ask ourselves the question, “Given the kind of beings we are, what institutions, and cultural processes could best facilitate our full blossoming?
In our Zimbabwean context, they give us a “universal perspective” that we so much lack because of political polarization.


The role of the social teachings of the church, during the time of political transition, is to read the signs of the times and to encourage the transformation of society in such a way that its structures and institutions facilitate the full and integral development of each human person in relations to others. In Zimbabwe today, those who are inspired by the social teachings ought to fight the privatization of social space. We must restore our national and public institutions and systems.