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John L. Allen, Jr.

African voices in Catholic divorce debate boost conservative side

ROME—In the mounting Catholic debate over whether a ban on divorced and remarried believers receiving communion and the other sacraments should be relaxed, bishops from Africa are invoking an argument against change that wouldn’t occur naturally to most Westerners: polygamy.

According to several cardinals who spoke to the Globe in Rome, African prelates told their brother cardinals last week that they’ve been trying to break the hold of polygamy in their cultures by insisting that the church regards marriage as a bond between one man and one woman for life. Anything that appears to blur that message, they said, won’t help that effort.


The African voice in the debate, in other words, appears to bolster the conservative side.

Most of the roughly 200 cardinals of the world held two days of meetings with Pope Francis last week, devoted to issues of marriage and the family. The question of revising the rules on divorced and remarried believers was in the air during the run-up to the meeting, with some cardinals appearing to open the door to change and others slamming it shut.

Catholic rules presently hold that if a believer divorces and is remarried without obtaining an annulment, a declaration from a church court that the first marriage was invalid, then that person is excluded from receiving communion.

According to prelates who took part in the sessions, cardinals from the developing world struck a note of caution about softening the stance.

“You had cardinals from the third world who got up and said that if they’re dealing with polygamy issues, they don’t want to hear about divorce,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Texas.

DiNardo paraphrased their message as, “If you try something with this, it’s going to hurt us on polygamy.”

“They’ve been telling people that if you come into the church, you’ve got to choose one wife,” DiNardo said. “If you suddenly change that, couldn’t [people in polygamous marriages] say, can’t you give me a break too?”


Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom said it was important to hear these voices.

“To think of the church purely from the point of view of Europe, and our preoccupations in Europe, is not to see the whole picture,” he said.

While polygamy may seem a fringe concern in the West, that’s not the grassroots reality in many other parts of the world, including Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

Anthropologists believe tens of millions of people are involved in some form of polygamous union, which tend to be especially common in the Middle East and some African societies. In Senegal, for instance, nearly 47 percent of marriages involve multiple partners according to United Nations figures.

Catholic bishops in Africa have long led the charge against the practice.

In a 2007 interview, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, told the National Catholic Reporter that on polygamy, “the Catholic Church is particularly firm and consistent, giving no room whatsoever for doubts and exceptions.”

DiNardo said some bishops from those regions seem to regard the Western obsession with divorced and remarried believers as a kind of debate only affluent churches can afford.

“If you’re a wealthy and developed enough nation where this can become an issue, then it’s an issue,” he quoted those prelates as implying, ‘We’ve got other things we have to deal with.’


“I thought that this was a good corrective balance [to the discussion],” DiNardo said.

Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec, Canada, one of 19 new princes of the church elevated by Pope Francis on Feb. 22, agreed.

“We got to hear from every part of the world, from every continent,” Lacroix said. “Africa is very different from what we’re living in Quebec, and that was part of the discussion.”

Nichols said the African voice adds to the complexity of the debate.

“Even in the West, the ‘solution’ of admitting remarried people to the Eucharist isn’t that obvious, but it’s even more complicated when looked at globally,” Nichols said.

Africa is today the zone of the Catholic church’s most dramatic expansion. During the late 20th century, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa shot up from 1.9 million to more than 130 million, representing a growth rate of 6,708 percent.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Boston Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook,