One of my uncles was a devout Catholic who was active in his parish even as a member of the parish council. Whenever European missionaries came to our village for Mass, they stayed at his house. Nevertheless, he had two wives with whom he had many children.
Polygamy is deeply rooted in African culture. It is not only widely accepted; it is also seen as the preferred form of marriage by many. They associate monogamy with people of lower social status since polygamy allows a man to have many children and ensures the immortality of his family, as the African theologian Elijah M Baloyi has put it.
This presents a conundrum for the Catholic Church as many polygamists are Mass-goers and, like my uncle, even occupy prominent positions in the Church.
In 2017, the South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier raised the question of polygamy in the context of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be permitted to receive Holy Communion on a case-by-case basis. “If Westerners in irregular situations can receive Communion, are we to tell our polygamists and other ‘misfits’ that they too are allowed?” he asked.
Around the same time, Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, signalled his support for Communion for the remarried and suggested that the Church might reinterpret Scripture as allowing the “unbinding” of marriages. “There are people in polygamous relationships, who were involved in it before becoming Christians [customary marriages sealed with the traditional payment of a bride price]. Their family had to make a choice: to let go of one woman or two women with all their children without hurting the children, without hurting the wives. So it is an issue,” he said.
“How do I baptise children of polygamous marriages? What do I teach them?
If I’m going to tell them, ‘Your daddy must let go of your mommy’, will that not hurt the child emotionally, even spiritually for the rest of his or her life, to the point that he or she may even decide the Church is bad because it broke up my family?”
Fr Gabriel Ngbe, a Nigerian priest, has argued that, in light of African culture, Catholic doctrine should be amended in order to accommodate every member of the Church. He suggested that anybody who practised polygamy before accepting Christ should be given equal treatment in the Church with those who have only one wife. “It is better to have many wives at home than to have only one and yet have many girlfriends and lovers outside,” he said.
Many African priests and bishops are themselves the sons of polygamous unions. According to a UPI report from 1987, Kenya’s Cardinal Maurice Otunga (1923-2003) baptised his polygamous father on his deathbed and said that he could hardly be expected to condemn the practice.
The UPI report quoted Fr Terry Drainey, a missionary among the Luo people in Kenya, as saying that the Church was “fighting a losing battle” against polygamy. His parish was in the heart of the predominantly Christian South Nyanza district, where 40 per cent of married women were in polygamous unions. Fr Drainey said: “Many people do not see any contradiction between Christianity and polygamy. Both coexist happily side-by-side in their minds.”
Polygamy is legal in 58 out of nearly 200 sovereign states worldwide, according to Wikipedia, including around 25 African countries. The practice was legalised in Kenya in 2014.
It is not possible, however, for the Church to compromise on this issue. During a trip to Tanzania in 1990, John Paul II denounced polygamy, saying: “It is God’s will that this sacred union exists only between two people. When a man marries a woman he pledges to give his love to her and her alone.”
The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, must remain true to biblical teaching, even if this causes both disaffection and the haemorrhaging of its flock. The chief beneficiaries of this exodus in Africa are Islam, which allows polygamy, and the Evangelical churches, which often accuse the Catholic Church of being too closely wedded to Europe’s individualistic culture.
Given Africa’s dire economic situation, polygamy brings inequality, strife and competition among wives and children. It is difficult even for middle-class polygamists to meet their commitments to support several wives and large families. In the framework of Catholic social teaching, polygamists should be advised to take the cost of living into account before deciding to marry multiple wives and also to lead exemplary lives in terms of fidelity. This is only possible when cultural convictions in support of polygamy are truly converted into Christian convictions.
Social justice must also play a role. It was in Kenya that Pope Francis called for “a genuine concern for the needs of the poor and a just distribution of the natural and human resource”. The practice of polygamy will only lose popularity when women are empowered economically. This involves the sharing of new technologies with African countries so that they can build their own infrastructures, exploit their natural resources themselves, transform them on the spot, and create jobs and markets for their people, especially women. Once women in Africa have a choice, it will be less attractive to them to enter into a polygamous marriage.
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