Malawi Catholic bishops pastoral letter on homosexuality, abortion: Full text

  1. Introductory Remarks

From the earliest days of the Church, it has been clear that the Bishops have a unique role in passing on the faith and applying the teaching of Christ to the circumstances of the day. Catholic teaching is authenticated by the Church’s teaching office that mirrors and transmits the revelation of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Bishops are the successors of the Apostles, who were given the authority to proclaim the teaching of Jesus Christ.   Jesus himself commissioned the Apostles to preach the Gospel in his name (Acts 1:8).  The Apostles in turn appointed trusted men to succeed them in this ministry.  These successors, the Bishops, have thus been authorized to preach and teach in the name of Christ himself. The Bishops, therefore, have a responsibility to foster among the faithful those actions that promote holiness and are in accord with the Gospel as well as a duty to condemn those actions which are evil and so are incompatible with living a holy life.

In the recent and ever-growing  campaign by the advocates of same sex unions, abortion, population and birth control,  many statements are made that can eventually lead to confusion and doubts in the minds of the people of God.   When a statement is made repeatedly by any strident group, it can reach into one’s subconscious mind leading one to begin accepting it as a truth.   If this happens then people can unthinkingly begin to support goals of a group which espouses values that are foreign to Gospel values and the teaching of the Church.

Bishops of the influential Catholic Church
Bishops of the influential Catholic Church

The Catholic Church in her service to and respect of life and the dignity of the human person, through her consistent teachings over the centuries, has sought to provide objective moral standards not on the basis of their popularity but on the basis of the truth inherent in them.   The Church strongly contends that besides technico-professional competence regarding same sex unions, abortion and populations-birth control, there are also ethical considerations that must be taken into account concerning the creative intention of God, family and personal responsibilities and responsibilities towards society. For, indeed, where God has been pushed to the margins and “people live as though he did not exist, or his commandments are not taken into account, the dignity of the human person and the inviolability of human life also end up being rejected or compromised.”1

Today, we the Catholic Bishops in Malawi want to put before the Catholic faithful in Malawi and all people of good will the Catholic teaching on the issues mentioned above, namely same sex unions, abortion, population and birth control. This pastoral message draws upon the Sacred Scriptures, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the teachings of various Popes, and statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.    We consider it necessary to do this because the debate on such issues as same sex unions, abortion and birth control is often times polarised and emotional.  This in itself is an indication of missing objective ethical parameters through which these issues can be discussed. We sincerely trust that this pastoral message will clarify the Church’s faith and teaching for the Catholic faithful in the country and all people of good will.

Besides presenting this pastoral message we call the attention of the Catholic faithful to the Catechism of the Catholic Church where correct and authentic teaching can be found. The readily available source of the faith and moral teaching of the Catholic Church clearly demonstrates the mistaken character of the positions of advocates of same sex unions, abortion and population-birth control.

  1. Ethical Principles

2.1  The Dignity of the Human Person

The dignity of the human person is a fundamental value, always recognised as such by those who sincerely search for the truth.   The very first pages of the Scriptures in the story of creation points to humanity’s transcendental origin: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).   The human being is God’s creation.   This is the first and fundamental utterance of the Scriptures about humanity.   God created human beings in his own image.   In that lies their incomparable value, as the image of God.   Dignity, as it is used here, indicates the worth of being human.   Consequently, it is not constituted by any human declaration or institution; rather, it is given, universally and it is a shared reality.  For this very reason, every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the Creator of the individual.   The fundamental question to ask in all social issues should therefore be: how much does this protect and enhance the dignity of humanity?   Interventions, decisions and technological advances in the medical and health area must be at the service of the human person, of his rights and his true integral good according to the design and will of God.2

This inalienable dignity of every human being is what is at the foundation of human rights and corresponding responsibilities: the right to life and the corresponding duty to respect and defend it; the right to a worthy standard of living and the corresponding duty of creating a conducive climate for social development; the right to worship God according to one’s conscience; economic rights; and political rights.

It is this understanding of the human person which constitutes the most appropriate point of departure for throwing light on the meaning of morality in general and providing the fundamental criteria that are necessary for dealing with specific questions.

2.2  Human Life: A Fundamental Value

The gift of life which God in creating human beings in his own image has entrusted to humanity calls us to respect what has been given and to take responsibility for it.   God created human beings in his own image and likeness, “male and female he created them” (Gen.1:27).   Human life is surrounded by God’s love and carries with it a divine vocation.  Human life, irrespective of any religious focus, has a value in itself and for itself and is the foundation on which any other human value can develop.   This is why there is a natural drive to preserve one’s own existence.   In fact, it can be argued that without recognising the right to life no other right can make sense.  Realisation and promotion of human dignity in Bioethical terms means welcoming everything that favours life and rejecting any move that goes against life.

This recognition of the value of human life is behind the principle guiding Catholic Sexual and Reproductive ethics, namely: the inviolability of the innocent human being’s right to life from the moment of conception until death which itself is a sign and requirement of the very inviolability of the person to whom the Creator has given life.3  Put simply, nobody is allowed to violate the life of another person from the moment of conception till death.


2.3 The Integrity of the process of transmission of life

God himself who said, it is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18) and who made man from the beginning male and female (Mt 19:4), wished to share with man a certain participation in his own creative work. Thus he blessed male and female saying: Increase and multiply” (Gen 1:28). The generation of a new human being is therefore an event which is deeply human and full of religious meaning, in so far as it involves both the spouses, who form ‘one flesh’ (Gen 2:24), and God who makes himself present.

The integrity of the process of procreation requires that human life be transmitted in marriage.  By comparison with other forms of life in the universe, the transmission of human life has a special character of its own deriving from the special nature of the human person.  Human life should be transmitted through a personal and conscious act in a way that is subject to God’s law, that is, transmitted in the context of marriage where the unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal life are respected.  Only those means that facilitate the conjugal act or help it to reach its natural objective can be morally acceptable.

2.4  The Complementarity and Differentiation of the Sexes

In the Creation narratives of Genesis, and specifically in Chapter 1, we have indications that humanity was created in God’s image and that human heterosexuality – male and female – is the will of the Creator:

God said, “Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground”.   God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

“God himself who said, it is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18) and who made man from the beginning male and female (Mt 19:4), wished to share with man a certain participation in his own creative work.

2.5 Relationship between Freedom and Truth

There can be no morality without freedom.   However, the kind of freedom that the Church believes in is not licence to do whatever one wants but that freedom that enables one to manifest the image of God in one’s life.   Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one for that matter, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.

Human freedom has an essential and constitutive relationship with truth. Discernment of legal and ethical positions must be examined in the light of the fundamental dependence of freedom upon truth, a dependence which has found its clearest and most authoritative expression in the words of Christ: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32).

2.6 Principle of Nonmaleficence and Beneficence

In its simple form, this principle (also referred to as ‘principle of patient benefit and avoidance of harm’) states that do good and do not do harm on anybody.   This principle is expressed in the Hippocratic oath4: “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but I will never use it to injure or wrong them.”5   Nonmalificence (not doing harm) and beneficence (doing good) could be said to be two sides of the same coin.   However, in most cases, the obligation not to do harm is greater than the obligation to do good.

Specific Moral Issues

3.1 Homosexual Acts and Homosexual Persons

God created human beings male and female in his own image and wants humanity to participate in his love and creative power. Married people, as Blessed Pope John Paul II affirms, are called to be givers of life and to recognize that human life is a gift received in order to be given in marital love as gift as well.6  Married persons and unmarried persons can engage in sexual activity in ways that fail to respect the values that must be honoured in sexual activity.  The objective standard to be used in evaluating sexual expression is this: does my action preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love?7

In Malawi, the issues of same sex unions and the same sex orientation have become a matter of public debate ever since the controversy of the two alleged homosexual persons who attempted to get engaged in public some two years ago.

3.1.1 Homosexual Condition and Homosexual Acts

A distinction must be drawn first between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual acts.  Homosexual acts are genital acts performed between persons of the same sex.   A person with a homosexual condition (a homosexual person) is an individual who (1) is attracted physically and erotically by persons of his or her own sex; (2) usually has no similar attraction to the opposite sex; and (3) in many instances has a positive revulsion for sexual actions with a member of the opposite sex.  Our focus is on the moral character of such acts, and not on the homosexual condition.  In other words, there is a difference between those who are homosexual in personality and homosexual acts.

One may be a homosexual and not engage in homosexual acts, and one may not be a homosexual and nevertheless engage in homosexual acts.  However, one is always responsible for the behavior that stems from his or her sexual orientation.

3.1.2  The Teaching of the Church

The Church maintains that while the homosexual orientation is disordered, it is not sinful in itself.  However, once a person with this orientation or indeed a person without this orientation indulges in homosexual acts, such acts must always be judged as objectively evil and totally unacceptable. Since such acts lack the finality that is proper to human sexuality, that is, the possibility of and openness to transmission of life, they are of their very nature objectively immoral. This teaching is clearly based on Scripture.

God, in his infinite wisdom and love, brings into existence all of reality as a reflection of his goodness. He fashions mankind, male and female, in his own image and likeness. Human beings, therefore, are nothing less than the work of God himself; and in the complementarity of the sexes, they are called to reflect the inner unity of the Creator. They do this in a striking way in their cooperation with him in the transmission of life by a mutual donation of the self to the other.

In Genesis 3, we find that the truth about a person being an image of God has been obscured by original sin.   This deterioration due to sin continues in the story of the men of Sodom in Genesis 19:1-11 who wanted to have sexual intercourse with the two male guests staying at Lot’s house.  There can be no doubt of the moral judgment made there against homosexual relations as the response of God was swift: “Then Yahweh rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire of his own sending” (Genesis 19:24). In the Book of Leviticus, in the course of describing the conditions necessary for belonging to the Chosen People, the author excludes from the People of God those who behave in homosexual fashion: “You will not have intercourse with a man as you would with a woman” (Leviticus 18:22) and “The man who has intercourse with a man in the same way as with a woman: they have done a hateful thing together; they will be put to death ; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).   .

In Romans 1:18-32 still building on the moral traditions of his forebearers, but in the new context of the confrontation between Christianity and the pagan society of his day, St. Paul uses homosexual behavior as an example of the blindness which has overcome humankind:

That is why God abandoned them to degrading passions: why their women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural practices; and the men, in a similar fashion, too, giving up normal relations with women, are consumed with passion for each other, men doing shameful things with men and receiving in themselves due reward for their perversion. (Romans 1:26-27)

Finally, 1 Timothy 1 in full continuity with the Biblical position, singles out those who spread wrong doctrine and in v. 10 explicitly names as sinners those who engage in homosexual acts.

Thus, Scripture teaches that marriage provides the normative condition for genital sexual expression; all other expressions outside this, whether between a man and woman or between members of the same sex are to be evaluated in the light of this norm.

In the light of this teaching, the Church authoritatively affirms:

For, according to the objective moral order, homosexual acts lack an essential and indispensable finality. In Sacred Scripture they are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God.8

3.1.3 Pastoral care of Homosexual Persons

The Church understands that the glorification of individual’s right and freedom to choose one’s own lifestyle and create one’s own values has produced a situation in which not only acceptance of homosexual persons is called for but also legalization of the same on the grounds of non-discrimination.   The Church’s ministers must ensure that homosexual persons and those indulging in homosexual acts, if any exist in their care, will not be misled by this movement “lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.”9

As a loving mother and reflecting the unconditional love of God, the Church understands that for most of the homosexual persons, their condition is a trial.  As such “they must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”10  The Church detests sin but loves all her sinful children, seeking their true good by teaching them the truth, offering them ways to escape the slavery of sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and praying constantly for them.  Considering the fact that all are called by God to fulfill his will and to repent of their sins (Mk 1:14-15), people indulging in homosexual acts share with all sinners the need of conversion and repentance.

It is also important to recognize that neither a homosexual orientation, nor a heterosexual one, leads inevitably to sexual activity. One’s total personhood is not reducible to sexual orientation or behaviour.11

Finally, it must be noted that defending marriage as a unit of man and woman should not be the responsibility of Churches alone but also of conscientious civil authorities and any serious member of Society, for marriage, the first cell of society, provides the healthiest environment for raising the next generation of citizens.

3.2 Abortion

Abortion means expelling or causing the expulsion of a presently-living foetus from the womb prior to its viability.   Much as we are conversant with the child and maternal health and rights, the crucial issue for us Christians is whether this ‘expulsion’ amounts to the killing of human life.   In other words, the question of abortion for us borders on the fundamental question of: when does human life begin?     Our reply to this question is crucial in determining the moral evaluation of abortion.

3.2.1  The Beginning of Human Life

Although the foetus is obviously not a fully developed human being, there is something of the human being already in it, otherwise it wouldn’t grow into a human being.    From that moment of conception there is a new genetic package present which is certainly not a part of any species other than the human one, and which is different, moreover, from the genetic make-up of either of the parents.   The innate dynamism with which the fertilised ovum develops by cell division in the fallopian tube and then finds its way to the uterus after five to seven days, creates an environment favourable to further development and implants itself in the uterus – all this suggests the presence of a marvelous principle of life. The Catholic Church has always taught that fertilisation of the ovum by the human sperm is the beginning of a new human life.   “From the moment that the ovum is fertilised, a life is begun that is neither of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth.”12   From its earliest forms and stages, this new life possesses internal mechanisms which will enable the individual to be a fully developed human being.   From the very beginning, this minute being possesses the basic programme to enable him/her to be a future individual.   This continuous and uninterrupted development of the conceptus into a new-born child suggests that human life is present from the moment of conception.

Biological and scientific data alone cannot solve the problem of when human life begins.   It should be acknowledged that people will always speculate on the precise moment when human life begins.   The ultimate judgement will reflect our value system, that is, it will be a human judgement giving meaning and interpretation to the biological data and scientific data available.

As human beings and as Christians we must promote and stand for the position that most ensures and respects human life.   We cannot take chances with life.

3.2.2 Human Life justly or unjustly taken before birth

Having discussed the central issue of abortion, that is, the status of the foetus, we have to consider the arguments that are usually offered for the justification of abortion.   All the arguments compare the value of the developing human life with some other value.

There are cases when the life of the mother can be in danger if a pregnancy continues.   One such instance is that of an ectopic pregnancy.   This occurs when the fertilised ovum does not descend into the womb but becomes implanted in the fallopian tube and begins to develop there.   The embryo has no chance to grow to viability in the tube, and surgical removal of the foetus can save the mother’s life. Here we have an instance of one human life opposed to another human life. Another example is when a pregnant woman is diagnosed to have cancer of the uterus.   By removing the cancerous uterus then the cancer is stopped from spreading to other parts of the body but by this very act the life of the foetus is terminated as well.

In both the case of ectopic pregnancy and a cancerous womb, the aim is not to directly kill the foetus but to preserve the life of the mother.  The life of the foetus is terminated only indirectly.   In both these cases we speak of an indirect abortion.   An indirect abortion is the foreseen but unintended loss of the baby following a medical procedure necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

An indirect abortion is morally permitted because we deal with a situation in which there is a real conflict of important values.

The clear conflict of maternal and foetal lives as we have seen in the two cases above, however, is not the controversial issue in the abortion debate.  Most abortions are procured not to save the life of the mother but to obtain some other human value that is opposed in some way to pregnancy.   Most abortions carried out involve healthy women and fetuses.   The foetus is looked at as a burden because the woman is unmarried, or poor, or at the beginning of her career, or at school, or that she has enough children already (birth control).   At stake is an effort to break the traditional link between sexual intercourse and procreation.

Today, with our emphasis on individual freedoms, many people maintain that everyone has a right over his or her own body.   Since they say that the foetus is part of the body of the woman, then they claim that it is up to her alone to decide which pregnancy to carry to its final end and which one to terminate.

3.2.3 Abortion and Law

Judging that abortion is immoral is a very important Christian step in the direction of respecting and protecting life.   The question is: Is it enough to condemn abortion personally and privately or should there be a legal framework to ensure that this protection of life is undertaken?   One of the characteristic marks of a civilised society is actually the protection it affords towards the defenseless.

The debate on abortion is a debate not just of maternal health and rights but also a matter of life and/or death of the unborn. It is indeed a matter of the right of the unborn to life and the duty to preserve and protect life. One can never claim freedom of opinion as a pretext for attacking the rights of others, most especially the right to life.13   Therefore laws are imperative to prevent unjustified foetal killings.    The law to be put into place in this regard should take this into account and not just settle for what is easy and convenient for the mother.  In other words, the law should be more than a mirror of a society’s present values and achievements; it should also challenge that society to become its better moral self.  It should also be noted that once abortion is legalized, in the minds of many who will not differentiate what is legal from what is moral, procuring an abortion will be considered morally acceptable.

3.2.4  The Teaching of the Catholic Church

Inspired by the Scriptures and human wisdom, the Church holds that human life, even on this earth, is precious.   The Scriptures do not make any philosophical observations on when life begins, but they speak of the period of life which precedes birth as being the object of God’s attention: He creates and forms the human being, which is moulded by His hand (cf. Ps. 118:73).  This theme finds expression for the first time in Jeremiah. 1:5: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; and appears later in many other texts (See Isaiah 49:1-5; 46:3; Job 10:8-12; Psalms 22:10; 71:6; 139:13). In the Gospels we read in Luke 1:44: “For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy”.

Infused by the Creator, life is again taken back by Him (see Genesis 2:7; Wisdom 15:11). It remains under His protection: man’s blood cries out to Him (See Genesis 4:10) and He will demand an account of it, “for in the image of God man was made” (Genesis 9:5-6).   Thus, the commandment of God is formal: “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13).   Life is at the same time a gift and a responsibility. It is received as a “talent” (cf. Matthew. 25:14-30); it must be safeguarded and put to proper use.

Therefore, the Catholic Church condemns all direct abortions as gravely sinful: “Life must be safeguarded with extreme care from conception; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”14 Pope Paul VI, speaking on this subject on many occasions, was not afraid to declare that this teaching of the Church “has not changed and is unchangeable.”15

Thus, in 1974, the Church made a definitive declaration on this matter:

Any discrimination based on the various stages of life is no more justified than any other discrimination. The right to life remains complete in an old person, even one greatly weakened; it is not lost by one who is incurablysick. The right to life is no less to be respected in the small infant just born than in the mature person. In reality, respect for human life is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother, it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.16

In recent years, the Church has reasserted strongly her teaching on this issue through the powerful words of Blessed Pope John Paul II:

Therefore by the authority which Christ conferred on Peter and his successors, in communion with the bishops – who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who . . . have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine – I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.   This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.17

With regard to the issue of legalizing abortion, the Catholic Church has the following instructions:

It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover, he may not collaborate in its application. It is, for instance, inadmissible that doctors or nurses should find themselves obliged to cooperate closely in abortions and have to choose between the law of God and their professional situation.

On the contrary, it is the task of law to pursue a reform of society and of conditions of life in all milieux, starting with the most deprived, so that always and everywhere it may be possible to give every child coming into this world a welcome worthy of a person. Help for families and for unmarried mothers, assured grants for children, a statute for illegitimate children and reasonable arrangements for adoption – a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honourable and possible alternative to abortion.18

Cases of indirect abortions when another proportionately more important value is at stake constitute exceptions.   As regards the other excuses given for carrying out abortion, respecting human life and conscious that God alone is the master of life and death, there is no other reason that can justify the taking of human life.  The life that is coming is a separate life and not the woman’s and she has no right to take it.

Against the argument that the woman has a right to her own body and therefore she can decide what to do with the foetus, it must be asserted that the right of the unborn to life takes precedence over the right of a woman to control her body.   If anything, time to exercise control is before pregnancy!   Precautions, planning, self-restraint and prudence could prevent tragic situations from causing tragic circumstances.  Whatever difficulties a pregnancy poses cannot be removed by terminating life.   It would be disproportionate and unreasonable to deprive the foetus of life in order to deliver the woman from distressing circumstances.   What the woman needs at that point is help and reassurance.

3.2.5 Pastoral Care of those who have Procured Abortion

So strongly does the Church feel about the gravity of abortion that she imposes the penalty of excommunication on those who are involved in the deliberate procurement of an abortion.19   However, for those who have already procured an abortion, while the Church condemns their action as gravely sinful, her attitude is that of compassion towards them as God’s children.  The Church condemns the sin of abortion, but she does not condemn the sinner and especially those who have been pressured into abortion and exploited by others.   The unborn child is the first victim of abortion, and the mother is the second.   The challenge before us does not stop at the mere condemnation of abortion but also goes as far as setting up mechanisms and groups in which those who have carried out abortions can be listened to with love and compassion as they tell their story.   In this mission, the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II directed to those who have had abortions should be our inspiration:

The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision.   The wound in your heart may not yet have healed.   Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong.   But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope.   Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly.   If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance.   The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child who is now living in the Lord.   With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life.   Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.20

3.3 Population and Birth Control

In the Catholic Church we tend to speak of birth regulation or family planning or, indeed responsible parenthood rather than birth control.  Responsible parenthood is a wider term involving (i) planning birth interval (child spacing which does not necessarily involve birth control) and (ii) planning the size of the family (that is, how many children a couple wants to have) in the light of their responsibilities, obligations, needs and desires.

In the secular world a linkage is often made between population and birth control.   Population policies usually tend to respond to the demographic situation which in turn is influenced by the relationship between birth rate, mortality rate, and migrations.   Yet for some reason, population control policies often times are looked at from a birth control perspective.

3.3.1 Ethical Questions in Population Control

The question of population control raises a number of ethical questions.  The first question is on the role of the State or public authorities in controlling population.   The State is for the interest of the individual and generally it harmonises the individual good and common good, therefore it can be conceded that it has legitimate interest in the area of population and in the social implications of human reproduction. However, interventions of the State in this area should:

    1. respect the freedom of the individuals;
    2. be based on their genuine good;
  1. respect the principle of subsidiarity, that is, whatever the individual can do let him do, whatever an individual family can do, let it do; the State should not take over this responsibility.  Free individual decision should always be respected.

The second question deals with the freedom and right to marry and procreate.   As a matter of principle, respect should be given to the rights of persons to determine in a free, informed and responsiblemanner, the number and spacing of children.   The freedom of the couple to determine the method they wish to adopt to arrive at the desired number and spacing of children cannot be absolute; it should be exercised in a responsible manner.

By way of conclusion, it must be said that the question of population calls for an objective and an adequate understanding of the nature of the issue at stake.  Often times child spacing is also confused with population control: spacing of children is necessary even if it is not for population control!   So, how should we understand birth control?

3.3.2  The Catholic Church and Birth Regulation

It must be admitted that in today’s world people are becoming more and more aware of their responsibility to regulate human fertility.  At stake has been the realisation by the Church that human reproduction is so crucial that it must not be left to instinct, hazard or fate.   Human reproduction is so intimately connected with personal and social interests that it should be regulated in a responsible way.   God created human beings not only as his collaborators in the mission of building the world, but also as free responsible agents.  What remains contentious, though, are the means couples will use in child spacing and birth regulation.   This is why discussion on family planning often degenerates into debate on the legality and morality of the methods to be used.

The Church has always held in high esteem the primacy of reproduction in marriage and for many centuries has been opposed to the separation of the conjugal act from its natural procreative end.

The Second Vatican Council spoke of the transmission of human life in which parents are both co-operators with the love of God the Creator and the interpreters of that love.21   In so doing the Council placed the mission of transmitting human life under human and Christian sense of responsibility.  Calling for the respect of God’s law and an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation in this mission, the Council says that in the final analysis the question of how many children should be born belongs to the honest judgement of the parents themselves.22

Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood. Thus, we do well to consider responsible parenthood in the light of its varied legitimate and interrelated aspects.

With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.

With regard to man’s innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man’s reason and will must exert control over them.

With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.

From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.23

Responsible parenthood involves the will and the ability of parents to respond to the needs and aspirations of the family and children. Responsible parenthood is achieved through a series of decisions couples make to ensure the best possible life for the family and the community they belong to; one of which concerns the regulation of birth. If properly practiced, responsible parenthood programmes can have a positive impact on the socio-economic development of a country as a population growth would be controlled through morally accepted means. However most families do not recognize this responsibility as evidenced by the high fertility rate in Malawi.

With regard to the lawfulness of the methods of birth regulation, Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae reiterated the teaching of the Catholic Church on this matter:

  • In the task of transmitting life, the couples should conform their activity to the intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts and manifested by a constant teaching of the Church;24
  • There is an inseparable connection established by God between the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage, each and every marriage act must be open to the transmission of life.25
  • Therefore, any action, which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or as a means – is morally inadmissible.26   It would be against God’s will to go beyond the plan of God clearly indicated in the biological process, the biological laws of procreation and rhythm, because man does not have “unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his generative faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination towards raising up life, of which God is the principle.”27

A line of demarcation is therefore drawn between artificial and natural methods of birth regulation.   It is licit to take into account the natural rhythms in generative functions.28  This then leaves complete sexual abstinence and the rhythm method (that is, the restriction of sexual relations to the infertile periods in the woman’s menstrual cycle) as the only morally permissible methods of family planning. These are judged admissible because they do not interfere with the natural laws of the generative process.   The Church, on the contrary, does not at all consider illicit the use of those therapeutic means truly necessary to cure diseases of the organisms, even if an impediment to procreation should be foreseen – provided such impediment is not directly willed.29

  1. Concluding Remarks

‘You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32)

The ethical issues we have dealt with in this document presuppose and express the truth about humanity as expressed in the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church handed down the centuries from the Apostles.  In the question of the morality of human acts, and in particular the question of whether there exist what is objectively right and wrong, righteous and sinful, we find ourselves faced with the question of humanity itself, of its truth and of the moral consequences flowing from that truth. By acknowledging and teaching that the morality of human acts does not depend on public consensus or legalisation, the Church remains faithful to the integral truth about humanity and thus respects and promotes the dignity of the human person.

We acknowledge the difficulties and challenges of living a moral life that is based on the truth about humanity and, with St. Paul, in humility, we confess: “We are aware that the Law is spiritual; but I am a creature of flesh and blood, sold as a slave to sin.  I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate” (Romans 7:14-15).  Yet even with such admission of human weakness and the complexity of the moral decisions facing humankind, the last thing one wants to do is to remove the parameters that enable us to determine objectively between right and wrong, righteous and sinful.  It is in this context that we remind Catholics and all people of good will that a lot can be done in the present climate: by defending the dignity and role of marriage, by practical acts of support to those struggling to accept an unborn child, by insistence upon the right to conscientious objection without discrimination for health-care workers, and by commitment to a legal and moral framework which will respect life.   Society needs to rediscover a concern for the common good, respect for life and the dignity of the human for, at present, we seem to be incapable of making ourselves into the kind of people God wants us to be.

We ask Blessed Mary, our Mother, who in her life respected the will of God – Let it be done to me according to your will (Luke 1:38), to intercede for all of us so that we may be strengthened by God’s grace to do and uphold what is right and detest what is wrong.



Right Reverend Joseph M. Zuza  Chairman and Bishop of Mzuzu

Right Reverend Thomas Msusa  Vice-Chairman and Bishop of Zomba

Most Reverend Tarcisius G. Ziyaye  Archbishop of Blantyre

Most Reverend Remi Ste-Marie  Archbishop of Lilongwe

Right Reverend Peter Musikuwa  Bishop of Chikhwawa

Right Reverend Emmanuel Kanyama Bishop of Dedza

Right Reverend Alessandro Pagani  Bishop of Mangochi

Right Reverend Martin Mtumbuka  Bishop of Karonga

Right Reverend Montfort Stima  Auxiliary Bishop of Blantyre



Dated: Sunday, 2nd March, 2013


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