Synod for Africa ponders how to tackle polygamy, meddling by foreign interests
Vatican City, Oct 9, 2009 / 10:21 pm (CNA).-
Vatican City, Oct 9, 2009 / 10:21 pm (CNA).-
Yesterday and today at the ongoing Synod for Africa, bishops raised issues of concern that ranged from how to deal with polygamy to asking sister Churches in developed countries to persuade their governments to stop trying to impose “ideologies that are foreign to Africa.” (Catholic notions of monogamy and celibacy are also an imposition of ideologies that are foreign to Africa--especially African males.)
Bishop Evaristus Thatoho Bitsoane of Lesotho took the floor on Thursday afternoon to explain how his local Church can fulfill the synod's theme. “The Church in Lesotho, like many other local Churches of Africa is involved in the area of health, education and in the service of the poor. Lesotho is about fifty percent Catholic and the Church has the majority of schools in the country. From these numbers one would hope that Catholic principles would prevail in the running of the country,” he explained.
But this is not the case, Bishop Bitsoane continued, “On the contrary, people embrace anything that will enable them to have bread on the table even if it is opposed to the teaching of the Church.” (It's pretty hard to embrace any ideology when one is starving.)
Pointing out that Lesotho is just one of many countries of Africa who have signed the Maputo Protocol, he said that even though “the services of our Catholic hospitals are appreciated by many, we are afraid that many abortions will be performed in private hospitals.” (The Maputo protocol is an addition to the African Union statements on human rights. It deals specifically with the rights of women. The Catholic Church in Africa rejects this document principally because of article 14 which deals with reproductive rights and includes a right to abortion in certain circumstances.)
“What the Church of Lesotho needs urgently in order to continue her service to the poor,” Bishop Bitsoane stated, “is for the sister Churches of the developed world to influence their governments not to impose ideologies that are foreign to Africa.”
The Synod Fathers also reflected on how to bring the values of the Gospel to African cultures that are rooted in pagan practices.
Bishop Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi of Sunyani, Ghana said on Friday morning that, "In some parts of Africa because of the culture and tradition of the people before the Church was introduced, many African women find themselves in polygamous marriages through no fault of theirs.” (How is this no fault of theirs if it is an accepted cultural practice? These women must know they are likely to wind up in a polygamous marriage. Why punish the second and third wives? Where's the call to men to stop this practice?)
According to Bishop Gyamfi, this situation means that “many of the women attending church are denied the Sacraments of Initiation, Reconciliation and Marriage.”
The bishop pointed out that this treatment is unjust and has damaging effects for those women who were “first wives with children” of polygamous marriages. “The Church needs to address this painful and unpleasant situation in Africa by giving some special privileges to women, who have been the first wives with children and through no fault of their own have become victims of polygamous marriages, to receive the Sacraments of Initiation and others,” he said.
If these “sorely tried women” are allowed to receive the Sacraments, Bishop Gyamfi said that they will be able to “share in the peace and reconciliation offered by the compassion and peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ Who came to call sinners and not the self righteous.”
I realise this is a CNA article and is most certainly written with a bias, but this article is almost funny in it's blatant hypocrisy. I guess it's OK for Roman Catholicism to introduce foreign ideologies in African culture, but no one else--especially if those ideological intrusions involve the rights of women. It's no secret that priestly celibacy and monogamous marriage have not exactly been received by Africans as compatible with their prevailing culture and tradition--especially by male Africans. Maybe it's this failure to convince African men to give up their historical traditional sexual rights that necessitates the attempt to police and curtail the reproductive rights of women.
Bishop Gyamfi doesn't even try to address the issue of polygamy, but instead suggests special privileges for first wives. This is certainly an interesting theological proposition in that it further fractures the status of lay women while leaving men free to pursuit other wives--if outside the Church. It seems to me that according to the Catechism it's not which wife you are in the polygamous pecking order, it's that a polygamous pecking order even exists and you are participating in it. Sorry, I just can't get my head around this one.
What's even more fascinating is that the 'sister churches' of the West, (the churches that are supposed to be convincing their governments and NGO's to keep their secular sexual notions out of African culture) are also being asked to accept an accommodation with polygamy at the very same time those churches in the West are using the threat of legalized polygamy to block gay marriage. Oh, and these bishops are also reserving their right as Roman Catholic bishops to add their two cents to the gay marriage and abortion debates of the West. I think I'm having trouble accepting their two cents.
What we seem to have operating in Bishop Gyamfi is good old fashioned guilt and a de facto admission that the Church has been generally unsuccessful in convincing African males to rethink their traditional reproductive rights. Since the Church hasn't made much headway with men they are building the fort of Catholic sexual teaching on the backs of women. So the Official Church pushes no condoms in HIV marriages, no access to contraception much less therapeutic abortion, no sexual education for women, and tries to minimize their little problem with illicitly married clergy. Then in order to feel less guilty Gyamfi suggests some sort of bizarre special theological status for first wives and the bishops deplore the genital mutilation of women. Give me a break.
African women know what the issue really is. In a culture that has traditionally privileged male sexual expression, privileged male clerics are not going to threaten the male status quo. Excuses will be made and compromises invented which will skirt around this issue. It seems to me that it's past time to bring the voices of women fully into the discussion of where Catholicism is headed in Africa. (and everywhere else) It maybe that women would tell the hard truth about their family experiences, not just for themselves and their children, but also for the men they love.
In the weird world of Catholicism the women have nothing to lose and everything to gain. On the other hand, African Catholic bishops, some of whom have hidden wives and children, have everything to lose and nothing to gain. It's not hard to figure out where the truth will come from in that dynamic.