The Vatican on Thursday released a working document for the continental phase of the Church’s global “synod on synodality.”
The text, issued by the Permanent Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, covered a wide range of topics intended to guide the discussions that will take place during the next stage of the synod.
Topics for discussion include subjects that generate significant attention in the West - among them outreach to youth, LGBT people, and the abuse crisis - as well as topics that are less often discussed, such as polygamy.
Mention of the practice of plural marriage has raised eyebrows among some synod observers.
Is polygamy really a major issue in the Church? And what exactly did the synod document say about it, anyway?
The Pillar explains:
What does the synod working document say about polygamy?
The Vatican document referenced polygamy in two sections.
In a section called Listening to Those who Feel Neglected and Excluded, the synod text said that:
Among those who ask for a more meaningful dialogue and a more welcoming space we also find those who, for various reasons, feel a tension between belonging to the Church and their own loving relationships, such as: remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, LGBTQ people, etc. Reports show how this demand for welcome challenges many local Churches: 'People ask that the Church be a refuge for the wounded and broken, not an institution for the perfect. They want the Church to meet people wherever they are, to walk with them rather than judge them, and to build real relationships through caring and authenticity, not a purpose of superiority.”
In another section, the text explained that:
“Many summaries also give voice to the pain of not being able to access the Sacraments experienced by remarried divorcees and those who have entered into polygamous marriages. There is no unanimity on how to deal with these situations.”
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How common is polygamy?
According to a Pew report, 2% of the world’s population lived in 2019 in a polygamous household. That’s more than 153 million people.
Polygamous marriages are not legally recognized in the United States. But polls show significant increases in the number of Americans who believe polygamy to be morally acceptable. Gallup’s Values and Beliefs poll illustrates the trend:
When Gallup first included polygamy on the list in 2003, 7% of Americans said it was morally acceptable, and that fell to 5% in 2006. But over the past decade, this percentage has gradually increased -- moving into double digits in 2011, reaching 16% in 2015, and [in 2020], at 20%, the highest in our history. In short, there has been a fourfold increase in the American public's acceptance of polygamy in about a decade and a half.
Polygamy is most common in sub-Saharan Africa, especially West and Central Africa.
In Burkina Faso, more than 1 in 3 people live in a polygamous household, including 24% of Christians. In Chad, 21% of Christians live in a polygamous home, in Mali, 14%.
In all, there are six African nations in which at least 10% of Christians live in a polygamous household, and another six in which at least 5% of Christians live in a polygamous household, according to Pew.
In fact, Cardinal Phillippe Ouédraogo of Burkina Faso said during the 2014 Synod on the Family that polygamy is of greater concern in parts of Africa than is divorce.
What have the African bishops said about polygamy?
In recent years, several African bishops have spoken about the challenge presented by polygamy.
Kenya legalized polygamy in 2014, with lawmakers citing single mothers who were forced into poverty when a child’s father was already married. Legislators said the solution was to let women marry a child’s father, even if he was married.
But the country’s bishops criticized the new law, calling for solutions to social problems that would respect the dignity of marriage and the family.
During that 2014 synod, Bishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria explained that the “aim” of polygamy is often “to get offspring. To get children, that can be like a legacy.”
When a couple is infertile, “the tendency is to get a second wife. And a third wife. To get as many children as possible.”
The bishop raised a unique pastoral question: The circumstance of Catholics who were in a polygamous union before converting to Christianity.
“Where we already have people who are in the polygamous setup, how do we help them? How do we bring them to conversion? How do we allow them to receive the sacraments? That is what we are asking,” he said.
Has the Church addressed polygamy before?
The Church is clear in teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that polygamy is “not in accord with the moral law” and is a grave offense against the dignity of marriage.
The Catechism also recognizes the challenges posed in societies where polygamy is common:
“The predicament of a man who, desiring to convert to the Gospel, is obliged to repudiate one or more wives with whom he has shared years of conjugal life, is understandable…The Christian who has previously lived in polygamy has a grave duty in justice to honor the obligations contracted in regard to his former wives and his children,” it says.
Polygamy was mentioned in the bishops’ document of the 2014-2015 Synod on the Family.
In their final report to Pope Francis, the bishops of the synod listed polygamy among the “unique challenges” facing marriage in some parts of the world, along with arranged marriages, cohabitation, and civil legislation undermining marriage.
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