Print Version    Email to Friend
Africa poses some curly questions on communion

DURBAN (SE): Divorce and communion may be a hot topic in Europe and the United States of America, but the archbishop of Durban in South Africa, Wilfred Cardinal Napier, is saying that in his land the big issue to be faced is not communion for the divorced and remarried, but combining it with polygamy.

On January 13, the bishops of Malta declared in new guidelines for the implementation of The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia) that the divorced and remarried should receive communion if, after careful consideration of their situation, they are at peace with God.

However, Cardinal Napier says that this is not the pressing question in his part of the world, pointing out that any priest who has ever worked in Africa knows how widespread polygamy is and the difficulties that it spawns.

There are well-known characters like the king of Swaziland, who currently has 13 wives, and the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who has six.

The Church condemns this practice, as not only is it a form of institutionalised adultery, it is also deeply detrimental to the dignity of women.

However, Zuma argues that by limiting the number of possible wives to one, Christianity is actually creating the need for orphanages and retirement homes by destroying the traditional African societal structures.

“Those were times that the religious people refer to as dark days, but we know that, during those times, there were no orphans or old-age homes. Christianity has brought along these things,” Zuma told The Telegraph in 2011.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Napier points out that polygamists may not receive communion and, anyone with more than one wife who wishes to be baptised has to abandon a few first, as well as attend to their future welfare and life situation.

“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,” one commentator says.

But the bottom line question that Cardinal Napier is raising is whether there is any difference between the two types of polygamy or not, and whether or not the same guidelines can be applied as regards receiving communion.

The bishops of Malta say the divorced and remarried should first examine the possibility of conjugal continence, but add that in some cases this is humanly impossible.

They conclude, “If a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she is at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

Cardinal Napier is asking how much of this logic can be applied to the situation of polygamy on his African continent.

It is a matter that can easily be ignored by Catholics in the west, as Catholic teaching and practice must be 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 out in Pretoria or Nairobi, New Delhi or Marrakesh?

There is no 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, but not all cultural values are positive.

The Catholic Herald reported Cardinal Napier as asking, “If westerners in irregular situations can receive communion, are we to tell our polygamists and other misfits that they too are allowed?”

Divorce and remarriage are now common in the western world, but polygamy has been the widespread norm in many African societies for a much longer time.

More from this section