It had to happen sooner or later, and now it has: following on from the legalisation of same-sex partnerships, a Muslim in Italy has called for the legalisation of polygamy.
The first thing to be said is that the Muslim in question, one Hamza Piccardo, has a point. If the state can legislate for same-sex partnerships, which have had, until now, no existence in law, then there is no reason why the same legislature cannot do the same for polygamy, also until now illegal. After all, if the basis of legality is solely in the will of the legislators, what possible objection could there be?
It is at this point that readers might like to be reminded of St Thomas Aquinas’s definition of law: it is an ordinance of reason, made for the common good, by him who has care of the community, and promulgated (ST. IaIIae, Q.90, art.4).
That is a good definition, and it rules out a law enabling polygamy for the following reasons: such a law would not be for the common good, and such a law would not be reasonable. Please note that the force of law does not arise from the will of the legislator, which is one reason why Christians have always been urged to disobey unjust laws. The trouble for us, of course, is that we live in an age where parliaments seem to think that they can legislate exactly as they wish, without reference to reason or the common good.
A wide coalition of interests, I am reasonably confident in thinking, would oppose legislation to recognise polygamy. And for several reasons.
While polygamy has a history in the East, among peoples of nomadic or pastoralist background, it has never been a feature of life in the West. It is not part of our tradition, and there is no reason for it to be so now.
Polygamy, or more accurately, the system where a man takes multiple wives, systematises the mistreatment of women and children. Second, third and fourth ‘wives’ and their children never get the same consideration as the ‘first’ wife and her children. As a system, it is intrinsically unfair and unjust.
Any form of legalised polygamy in a developed welfare state such as ours would make intolerable demands on the benefits system. One man might have dozens of dependants, all of whom might well have a right to his support, and by extension, to be supported by the state in certain circumstances. (There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that this happens already. See here, for the government position, and here.
Finally, do men need more than one wife? No, of course not!
Those are just some reasons that polygamy must be resisted, but of course the overwhelming reason is that polygamy is intrinsically opposed to human dignity.
However, I do not expect many of our contemporaries to take up that argument, as, though it is the best one, they sadly cannot ever agree among themselves what human dignity means, being loath to make any reference to the One who created human beings to have dignity in the first place.
As for Signor Piccardo in Italy, if he wants polygamy, he ought to realise that that would also mean legislation allowing for women to take multiple husbands. It is hard to imagine legislation allowing men to take multiple wives without it being legalised the other way around as well.