Sunday, August 21, 2011


A few months ago, Archbishop Dolan "warned" everyone that legal recognition for polygamy could follow upon recognition of gay "marriage."

Sensationalism, perhaps, but...frankly don't see why polygamy didn't come first. Or why that is the bogeyman he's chosen to use. At least there is historical (and Biblical!) precedent for polygamy!

Heck, in traditional Catholic thought, polygamy isn't even considered against the primary precepts of the natural law, and certainly is/was allowed for non-Christians at least. It's even recognized still in Canon Law:

Can. 1148 §1. When he receives baptism in the Catholic Church, a non-baptized man who has several non-baptized wives at the same time can retain one of them after the others have been dismissed, if it is hard for him to remain with the first one. The same is valid for a non-baptized woman who has several non-baptized husbands at the same time.

§2. In the cases mentioned in §1, marriage must be contracted in legitimate form after baptism has been received, and the prescripts about mixed marriages, if necessary, and other matters required by the law are to be observed.

§3. Keeping in mind the moral, social, and economic conditions of places and of persons, the local ordinary is to take care that the needs of the first wife and the others dismissed are sufficiently provided for according to the norms of justice, Christian charity, and natural equity.
This canon is relevant mainly in pagan mission territories, of course, Africa and Papua New Guinea and the like. Still, as a Catholic, I actually have a lot fewer qualms about polygamy (polyandry is a bit more problematic; one man can impregnate several women at a time, but the reverse is not true) than about gay "marriage." For the unbaptized, I mean.

And there is perhaps some indication of the first steps of pushes in that direction. I'm not saying it's comparable. Those people are trying to make their situation (which they conceive of as polygamy) legal in Utah as opposed to being covered by the bigamy law for simple cohabitation. They aren't seeking positive legal recognition, merely for their current living situation to not be illegal.

It's not "really" a big deal. But, then again, people said striking down sodomy laws wasn't really a big deal because "they were never enforced anyway. Not that I'm saying I support laws attempting to regulate private behavior between consenting adults (I don't), but there's no denying that it was a legal wedge that, just a few years later, did play out as positive state recognition (as opposed to just toleration) for homosexual unions, and the manipulative tactics of social re-engineering apparent there are fascinating, and potentially alarming for Christians.

I'm not saying it's comparable. But I am saying that even discussing "polygamy" at the level of the Supreme Court could be (in an imaginable scenario, even if it's not the way things actually play out), a step in "opening the conversation" culturally (I also think of TV shows like Sister Wives).

Whether this will ultimately become part of the pattern remains to be seen. But there is an eerie pattern to how things previously unthinkable are normalized in our culture, with the media and the courts playing a big role (as well as denial, up to the last minute, that there is any sort of slippery slope).

Even if it remains "fringe"...polygamy is no longer "off the radar" in our culture. There has been a lot of coverage all decade, some positive, some negative (one thinks of that case with the FLDS). But it's being discussed, it is in people's heads now.

And I think we can expect that activists for it will try to appropriate the banner of "progress" that the gay rights movement, in turn, appropriated from the civil rights movement, etc. It's a powerful narrative to attempt to plug oneself into symbolically in the collective consciousness.

I'm not going to make any predictions about whether they'll succeed or not in convincingly becoming the "heirs" of the progressivist banner in their endless parade of "causes," but I will say at least that I wouldn't be surprised if some sort of legal framework was created to deal with such households.

It may not get all the benefits if marriage (can an insurance plan really be expected to cover potentially dozens of separate individuals??) but when it comes to things like needing to sort out custody of children, power of attorney, visitation rights, property ownership, almost seems negligent to me at this point not to have some sort of arrangement legally when such cases exist. At that point, ideology aside, there is a practical reality that has to be dealt with.

And if one man is the father of children by several different women...does the State really think that making him choose only one as his "wife" and just having the others be "merely" baby-mamas whom he owes really any "better" than letting him be married (and share health-care benefits, etc) to all of them?

Really, I'd be all for recognizing the ability to have care-taker relationships with multiple people. The only reason I doubt it will happen is practical: companies can't really be expected to pay for insurance for multiple wives, and it doesn't really solve the problem of who has the "final" word when it comes to important decisions, etc.

So, I suppose for men are stuck with a system of one primary "official" bride and then multiple mistresses or concubines, just as we've always been...


Robert said...

Why do you have fewer qualms about polygamy than polyandry? If the purpose of sex is to assemble the ingredients for procreation and not procreation itself, then what difference does it make for the ratio of man to woman to be skewed one way or the other? A woman who is already impregnated could still receive the ingredients for procreation from multiple males multiple times for quite sometime. I fail to see why polygamy is better than polyandry.

A Sinner said...

Well, neither might be be against the primary precepts of the natural law. Of course, a woman who is already pregnant having sex is not wrong, so it shouldn't matter in THAT sense whether it's with one husband or several.

However, I note what Catholic Encyclopedia says here:

"Neither polygamy nor divorce can be said to be contrary to the primary precepts of nature. The primary end of marriage is compatible with both. But at least they are against the secondary precepts of the natural law: contrary, that is, to what is required for the well-ordering of human life. In these secondary precepts, however, God can dispense for good reason if He sees fit to do so. In so doing He uses His sovereign authority to diminish the right of absolute equality which naturally exists between man and woman with reference to marriage. In this way, without suffering any stain on His holiness, God could permit and sanction polygamy and divorce in the Old Law."

It seems that both polygyny and polyandry would be in some sense against the "secondary precepts" of the natural law (ie, not intrinsically self-contradictory, but not generally prudent or maximizing of the good life)...but I'd argue that polyandry is MOREso, hence why God did NOT allow it in the Mosaic Law in the way he did for polygamy.

One reason I can think of is that the paternity question is not an issue with polygamy. Yes, there are multiple women, but there is one father that can be presumed. Whereas, in polyandry, before technology allowed DNA would not be known which man's child it was. Children should be able to know who their father was, but polyandry utterly confuses this.

So, I think a big reason it's important that women can only be impregnated by one man but men can impregnate multiple women is important for this NOT out of some notion that sex must always actually lead to reproduction, or that sex during pregnancy is wrong, but related to the paternity issue.

There is no confusion of paternity in polygyny, there is in polyandry. And even though we can now DNA test and stuff, they couldn't in the past, and even now...there is something more inhuman about a relationship (of paternity) being conceived as just a materialistic fact of genetics rather than being set in the holistic context of a relationship that by its very nature establishes a presumption of paternity.

For a variety of reasons (rooted mainly in this dynamic) of a sociological nature, too, polygamy just "works" better than polyandry.

A Sinner said...

Also, as Catholic Encyclopedia says:

"Taking the word natural in its full sense, we may unhesitatingly affirm that monogamy is the only natural form of marriage. While promiscuity responds to certain elemental passions and temporarily satisfies certain superficial wants, it contradicts the parental instinct, the welfare of children and of the race, and the overpowering forces of jealousy and individual preference in both men and women. While polyandry satisfied in some measure the temporary and exceptional wants arising from scarcity of food or scarcity of women, it finds an insuperable barrier in male jealousy, in the male sense of proprietorship, and is directly opposed to the welfare of the wife, and fatal to the fecundity of the race. While polygamy has prevailed among so many peoples and over so long a period of history as to suggest that it is in some sense natural, and while it does seem to furnish a means of satisfying the stronger and more frequently recurring desires of the male, it conflicts with the numerical equality of the sexes, with the jealousy, sense of proprietorship, equality, dignity and general welfare of the wife, and with the best interests of the offspring."

You will note that it treats both as unnatural (in the strict sense of being against both the primary AND secondary precepts of the natural law).

But polygamy seems MORE "natural" in some sense (ie, like not against the primary precepts, even if against the secondary) than polyandry for the reasons described in the article and for which I have described above.

Anonymous said...

Why does paternity matter?

This is not a snide or frivolous question. In Kerala, a province in the south of India that practices polyandry, paternity is unimportant. The children are raised not by a mother and father, but by the mother and her brothers. In turn, the husband does not raise his wife's children, but rather his sister's children. This is actually a common attribute of polyandrous communities. The children are raised by their mothers and uncles, not their mothers and fathers.

It's also important to remember that in these communities inheritance is from mother to daughter, not from mother to son. It does not matter who the father is, because the father does not pass along property or wealth to his son. Rather, the mother passes it to her daughter.