By Fr. Dr. Ambrose John Bwangatto
There have been voices of concern that the Catholic Church in Uganda has not intervened strongly in the current raging debates surrounding the proposed constitutional amendments especially the controversial article 102b of the 1995 constitution. But, Bishop Robert Muhiirwa Akiiki made history when he was reported as saying that “Supporting age limit Bill is blasphemous” (Cf. The Daily Monitor, Monday, November 6th, 2017). Sometime back, I wrote in one of the national newspapers to argue that the Church takes time to study and reflect before she pronounces herself on an issue of national importance. This is motivated by the fact that the Church’s intervention in any discussion for the wellbeing of peoples and stability of societies constitutes her teaching repertoire.
There’s a whole collection of the Church’s intervention on issues affecting peoples and society in her social teaching. Since independence, the Church has taken upon herself a critical role in the socio-political affairs of this country and in all these instances, the critique of the church against the state actors has by some means shaped the social, political and cultural landscape of this country. In fact, the church has proved an effective voice in the national discourse especially on issues of injustice, marginalisation and corruption. If we scale back into history, we remember that after the overthrow of Idi Amin in April 1979, there was a sigh of relief and the catholic Bishops seized the opportunity to issue a pastoral letter calling on all Ugandans to concentrate on two main duties: cultivating a sense and culture of justice and nation building. This is what the Bishops said: “The new order of things, however, cannot be brought about unless a sense of justice is restored in the mind of the people. A sense of justice means respect for the rights and property of other people, respect for each one’s personal dignity and the dignity and the acquisition of wealth through just and honest means.” This pastoral letter highlights the main problems which had bedeviled Ugandan society during the era of Amin’s rule.
There was a violation of the dignity of the individual citizens in Uganda and the country was in complete chaos. Sectarianism and injustice had been the main features in Uganda’s society as the Bishops implicitly indicate in their pastoral letter. However, the optimism which followed the overthrow of Idi Amin did not go on for long. During the course of 1982, several anti-government fighting groups had been formed. The Ugandan army began to hunt the enemies both real and imaginary. The Bishops called on Ugandans to an inner spiritual conversion: “We ask other Christian denominations in the country to join us in admitting honestly before God that we have failed to put a significant imprint in our country, because Christians have not been true to their name.” The Bishops proclaimed a year of penance throughout the country. Although the late Fr. Waliggo added on that, this would have been appreciated and effective had it combined Penance with organized protest against the unjust government and its total disregard for people’s human rights.
The repeated appeals by Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga for a Round Table Conference with ‘rebels’ having been rejected by government, the role of the Bishops was reduced to voicing the atrocities done to people, corruption and injustices within the government, and to encourage the people never to despair but to ‘resolve to work together for the salvation of our country’. When the NRM government came to power through a successful popular revolution in 1986, the Catholic Bishops described it as a most welcome breath of fresh air for us in Uganda and an example to the rest of the world. The Bishops endorsed the swearing – in pledge of President Museveni for a fundamental change in Uganda of which they said “A fundamental change is urgent and necessary in our country. Indeed, we have been calling for such in our pastoral letters. Indeed, it is an essential part of the Church’s mission to promote such a change for the good of our country.”
The Archbishop Emeritus of Kampala Archdiocese, His Eminence Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, in his Christmas sermon of 1998 emphasised the challenge of peace and reconciliation in Uganda during the New Year 1999. He said: “We shall be able to be reconciled once we understand and protect the Human Rights of every person without discrimination. Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that a mere act of casting a vote to decide an issue is by itself sufficient to make people feel at ease. Had it been the case, the Israelites and Palestinians would have already cast such a vote. Even in Northern Ireland, there would be no longer any shedding of blood. The vote assists people who have a heart of reconciliation”. The cardinal raised an important point here which we may call the fulcrum onto which the whole society revolves. The cardinal’s remarks were intended at enlightening the politicians who were stressing the right to participate in voting but at the same time muzzle other rights which are so fundamental in a country’s unity. Many people operate with opportunism seeking to justify one’s right which will help them in their agenda, without consideration that rights have different generations which are intertwined and they operate in such a fashion that they keep succeeding each other and hence may be inexhaustible.
The Ugandan Bishops have intervened ceaselessly in many situations and have deplored the worrying state of human rights practices in Uganda. In their Memorandum to the Uganda Constitutional Commission, Kampala 1992, the Bishops expressed their dissatisfaction about the bad history of our country. They stated thus: “We believe that Jesus Christ redeemed all people, the human person was created with the gift of rationality and freedom which must be respected by whatever power that be”.
There is an entire Catholic Social Teaching on the dignity of persons, their freedoms and rights. This is the teaching we proclaim to all people, Christians and non-Christians alike. It is from this teaching that nations have drawn and continue to draw rights and freedoms of people throughout the ages. Since our political independence, we have constantly insisted on the respect of human dignity and human Rights in all our joint Pastoral Letters and in the letters of individual Bishops. We have protested openly and in the strongest terms possible whenever and wherever human dignity and human rights have been abused by people in leadership positions, the security forces and by ordinary people. We believe the foundation of any healthy, just and democratic nation is the respect of human dignity and human rights of all people living in it. The Bishops’ contribution contained in the memorandum was prompted by the historical past in which Uganda had gone through. The years of Amin’s dictatorship and the civil war which spanned from 1981 to 1986, strained the church in Uganda, since the church was responsible for the thousands of people who were looking for a moral voice to address the worse situation of the time. Then Archbishop of Kampala,
His Eminence Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga (R.I.P) issued countless statements to the press deploring the state of anarchy in which the country was by then. And Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga has, on several occasions, followed in the footsteps of his predecessors to actively address situations of injustice and marginalisation and anarchy in this beloved country, Uganda. The Church has been speaking and has intervened persistently in issues of national importance to promote justice and peace and reconciliation and human rights.
But the nagging question is: DO WE LISTEN TO HER VOICE?
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