African bishops have ruled out blessings for gay couples. But how about polygamous unions?
Sometime last year, I had a meeting with a priest friend at a wayside inn near my village. As we were walking out at the end of our meeting, which had taken about an hour, we came upon a group of men who had congregated in the courtyard around a table loaded up with enough bottles of beer to intoxicate an elephant.
My priest friend, as it happens, was dressed in a cassock with a collar. A number of the men in the group must have been Catholics, because as soon as they saw him, they laid down their bottles, eagerly shouted out greetings, and invited him to join them. Since he had a long drive ahead, the priest politely declined. And the men, without missing a beat, asked him for a blessing instead.
And that’s how I got to witness perhaps the most bizarre blessing I’ve ever seen. A gaggle of middle-aged and elderly men, gathered around a table of brown bottles in the courtyard of a random roadside inn, in different states of inebriation, reverently bowed their heads while a priest in a white cassock stretched out his hands over them and said a few spontaneous words of blessing.
It may be that those men moved on, shortly after we left, to morally questionable topics of conversation. Some of them, no doubt, ended up blind drunk that evening. A few, perhaps, never even remembered anything about the blessing the next day. But, as a believing Catholic, I am sure that that was a special moment, and the blessing didn’t go to waste.
As the Catholic world adjusts to the bombshell declaration Fiducia Supplicans (“On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings”), I have found myself going back to that moment over and over again. Sure, it wasn’t exactly the same sort of circumstance explicitly covered by the document, but it was most definitely the sort foreseen by it – people in a weird situation getting God’s blessing, extra-liturgically, from his priest.
Like in the rest of the world, much of the initial reaction to the document in Africa focused on its most controversial element, the possibility of priests blessing same-sex couples. This idea ruffled more than a few feathers here. It didn’t help that, predictably, much of the media coverage, even locally, wasn’t exactly attuned to the nuances of the document’s subject matter.
Caught up in the frenzy, African bishops, individually and through their episcopal conferences, made multiple statements, most of them proscribing such blessings within their jurisdictions. Some were emphatic, like the statement from the bishops of Cameroon. Others, like the Nigerian bishops, were less so. But all of them focused on the same aspect: blessings for same-sex couples.
So hectic was the clamour that the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the continental body of bishops, decided to develop a synthesis of the reactions of African bishops and conferences. Meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, over the first days of January, they hashed out a unified stance for the entire continent’s Catholic community.
The document they came up with, published on January 11, doesn’t bury the lede. Its heading is “No Blessing for Homosexual Couples in the African Churches.” It states that the “African Bishops do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.”
Now, believing Catholic that I am, I do not presume to criticise the bishops. But I do find it perplexing that they invariably chose to respond to the matter of blessings for same-sex couples – which is hardly a pertinent problem for the African Churches – while saying almost nothing about the other major concern of Fiducia Supplicans, blessings for heterosexual couples in irregular situations.
The latter is indeed a major issue all over the continent. And while blessing same-sex couples would insult the “cultural ethos of African communities,” as the bishops rightly say, the very same cultural ethos are paradoxically at the root of why many Catholics on the continent are in irregular marital situations. That sword of culture cuts both ways.
Polygamy is perhaps the most visibly scandalous of these marital situations. Early Catholic missionaries on the continent found many pastoral techniques of drawing people in polygamous unions into the faith. Had they been too judgemental and particular about it, it is possible that the continent’s Catholic population would be orders of magnitude smaller than it is right now.
But thanks to their pastoral wisdom, not only were people in polygamous unions drawn into the Church, but the practice also gradually ebbed over time, as new generations shunned it, partly as a result of getting increasingly deeper formation in the faith. However, since we are still in the early days of Christianity in most parts of the continent, there are still many Catholics in polygamous unions here.
In my own tiny village, there are dozens of them. Not one of them, if they were to spontaneously ask the parish priest for a blessing, would be sent away without at least a sign of the cross. I know this because I have seen it happen multiple times. Yet no African Catholic, not even these people themselves, would claim that their domestic situation was legitimate in the eyes of the Church.
The other culturally-driven marital malpractice that lingers among African Catholics, perhaps even more than polygamy, is cohabitation before marriage. Unlike in the West, where widespread cohabitation is a relatively new phenomenon driven by cultural collapse, cohabitation, in much of Africa, is often considered to be marriage, at least from the cultural point of view.
This is because the Christian view of marriage is still quite new on the continent, and marriage is still driven primarily by cultural traditions. Here, a wedding doesn’t have to happen for a couple to be considered, by society, to be husband and wife. What is needed to settle it is for their families to consent to their living together, often signified by the exchange of bride-price or dowry, or an agreement to do so.
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In fact, many legal regimes across the continent have provisions for marriages contracted in this manner, alongside those undertaken within a Christian context. As a result, the Christian view of marriage, while dominant in most parts of Catholic Africa, is yet to definitively supplant the cultural practices that predispose people to first cohabit, before walking down the aisle, which most of them eventually do.
As with polygamy, the Church in Africa has a well-endowed toolchest of pastoral approaches to deal with the phenomenon. Cohabiting couples are rarely made to feel unwelcome in liturgical celebrations; they live their lives publicly, and while they cannot receive Communion, they can be sure that, should they ask for a blessing on themselves or their households, it will not be denied. I have seen it happen. Multiple times. In my tiny village. In fact, a priest once blessed my house with the mistaken understanding that I was in such a situation.
In a sense, we, African Catholics, didn’t need Fiducia Supplicans to raise for us the possibility people in complicated marital situations being blessed by priests. The document, in our case, was merely recognising reality. We have been doing such blessings for ages. It’s quite unfortunate, therefore, that the chance to share our experience with the world was immediately overshadowed by the cloud of controversy over same-sex couples getting the same treatment.
The position of the African bishops on the matter is probably right. But I’m not sure they needed to stake it in the first place. There are hardly any same-sex couples in Africa, leave alone Catholic same-sex couples who would have the temerity to live as such publicly and, even further, approach a priest jointly for a blessing. This really isn’t a problem, at least right now, for African Catholicism.
What is a problem is that many African Catholics are in polygamous unions or are cohabiting without contracting sacramental marriage. The Church has found very effective ways of offering them pastoral care, including through blessings.
Perhaps it would have been more useful to focus on this.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
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