An African cardinal asks a good question: What about Communion for polygamists?

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban at the Catholic University of America in Washington last year (CNS)

Every now and then someone says something interesting on Twitter. Just yesterday Cardinal Napier, the Archbishop of Durban, reminded us all of something we ought not to forget.

Cardinal Napier describes a real and pressing question: polygamy is widespread in Africa, and Catholics in the West cannot ignore this. Catholic teaching and practice must be such that they are able to be inculturated in a wide variety of settings. An initiative might go down well in Berlin or Vienna, but how will it play in Peoria, or Nairobi, or Durban, or Delhi or Manila? No one particular local Church has a monopoly on truth, and no one particular local culture can claim to have absolute insights that other cultures have to take on board. Cultural imperialism cannot be Catholic. When the missionaries came to Africa, they aimed – at their best – to introduce the Gospel of Christ, not Western culture.

But just as Western cultural insight cannot claim a monopoly on Christianity, African culture too must adapt to Christ and not the other way around, for Christ is the absolute value, and while the cultures of Africa are of value too, they are such only relatively speaking. Hence, on coming to Africa, the missionaries challenged certain deep-rooted cultural practices and did their very best to stamp them out. Missionaries in Kenya, for example, have fought against female genital mutilation for a century. And they have also condemned throughout Africa the practice of polygamy.

Progress against both practices has been patchy to say the least. We all know of famous polygamists such as the King of Swaziland who currently has 13 wives, and President Zuma of South Africa, who has six. The Church condemns this practice. Not only is it a form of institutionalized adultery, it is also deeply detrimental to the dignity of women. Polygamists may not receive Holy Communion, and polygamists who wish to be baptised have to abandon the practice first.

President Zuma’s six wives are all concurrent wives, not to mention various other liaisons, but here in the West we have serial polygamy, where people have one spouse at a time, getting a divorce between each new union. What Cardinal Napier’s question raises is this: is there a difference between the two?

For the African Church, this is a pressing issue. For example, in 2004 it was reported that nearly half of marriages in Senegal are polygamous. I know from my own former ministry in Kenya that polygamy is not at all unknown among Catholics. People in that sort of situation might well think that the admission of those in irregular second unions throws them some sort of lifeline.

Four Cardinals, as we know, have submitted five dubia to the Pope on the matter of the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. Virtually every priest who has ever worked in Africa could submit a dubium on this matter too, namely, to quote Cardinal Napier: “If Westerners in irregular [marital] situations can receive Communion, are we to tell our polygamists and other ‘misfits’ that they too are allowed?”

If polygamists were ever admitted to Holy Communion for whatever reason, it would undo a century of work by the missionaries who have consistently taught that marriage is an exclusive and lifelong union between one man and one woman, and can only be dissolved by death. It would also severely damage the credibility of the Church, and undermine the authority of Scripture. Dubium means doubt, but on this matter there can be no doubt. We cannot admit polygamists to Holy Communion, whether serial ones of concurrent ones, whether Westerners or from other continents.