Flexible Marriage Vows? Enter Polygamy

Flexible Marriage Vows? Enter Polygamy September 13, 2014

John Allen reminds us that two thirds of the world’s Catholics are outside the developed world and their concerns about moral matters and family issues are not always the same as ours.

While we debate divorce and re-marriage for Catholics and think same sex “marriage” is a hot topic, in many African cultures the difficulties are with traditional African acceptance of polygamy.

Discussion of polygamy is likely to surface at the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family in the Vatican, and could be a factor in the politics of an expected debate over whether the church’s ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion ought to be revised.

Polygamous marriage (also referred to as “polygyny”) is widely practiced in many regions of the world, including Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

Though estimates vary, sociologists believe that tens of millions of men and women worldwide are involved in some form of polygamous marriages. In Senegal, for instance, nearly 47 percent of marriages involve multiple partners, according to United Nations figures.

Facing those realities, some churches in Africa have tried to encompass polygamy within the traditional Christian understanding of marriage.

As on many other moral issues, the Protestant churches take a flexible and relativistic approach.

In 1987, the Fifth General Assembly of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, a Protestant ecumenical body, concluded that “the rather harsh attitude of the Church has been a painful but real cause of disintegration of some otherwise stable marriages and families.” In 1988, the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion decided to admit polygamists under certain circumstances, in response to pressure from bishops in Kenya and Uganda.

Catholicism, however, has held the line. Speaking to a Black Catholic Congress in the United States in July 2007, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, said that on polygamy, “the Catholic Church is particularly firm and consistent, giving no room whatsoever for doubts and exceptions.”

The church’s tough stance has been shaped not only by defense of tradition, but also impressions that polygamy discriminates against women. In the late 1990s, a survey of African Catholic theology cited 23 female African Catholic theologians who argued that since mutuality and equality are Biblical ideals, Scripture should not be used to justify polygamous marriage.

The tightrope between unchanging Christian moral values and the pastoral demands of various cultures and circumstances is tighter than ever. The Catholic Church finds it more difficult to change her teaching on marriage because of the integration of moral principles with theological beliefs. “This Catholic stuff is all connected!” as one Protestant convert discovered.

Catholic teaching on marriage is linked with what we believe about the human sexuality and that is linked with what we believe about the dignity of the human person and that is linked with what we believe about the human person’s relationship with the creator, and that is linked with what we believe about human free will, sin and redemption and that is linked with what we believe about Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and the whole shootin’ match.

Pick at one thread and the whole sweater begins to unravel.

Read Allen’s whole article here.

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