Polygamy, Sons and the Priesthood

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Polygamy, Sons and the Priesthood

ROME, 14 FEB. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I would like to know the position of the Church on the ordination of men whose parents do not have a Church-blessed marriage or where the parents could have been wed in the Church but the marriage has since been interrupted by either divorce, separation or has become polygamous. The fathers in the Synod of Bishops last October expressed concern over the shortage of young men joining priesthood. I personally went through the minor seminary in Uganda but could not continue to the major seminary because my daddy was stuck to his second wife and there was a constant threat that I would not be ordained if the marriage remained polygamous. — E.K., Tororo, Uganda

A: The pastoral challenge of a tradition of polygamous marriages is prevalently found in Africa. There especially the Church must surmount great hurdles in order to bring home the fullness of Christ's teaching regarding the sanctity and beauty of the perpetual union of one man and one woman.

In general, if a polygamist asks for baptism he knows that only one of the women may remain as his wife, not necessarily the one he first married (Canon 1148). Of course he must provide for the upkeep of the other women, especially if age or other cultural elements prevent their remarrying, as well as for any children, all of whom are considered legitimate.

Unlike earlier times, the present Code of Canon Law (Canons 1140-1049) contains no specific impediment to the possible priestly ordination of a son of an unmarried mother. Nor, for that matter, is there any canonical obstacle to the children of separated, divorced or polygamous relationships.

However, canon law is not the only element that has to be brought to bear in considering a candidate's possibilities of entering ministry.

Even when there was a canonical impediment of illegitimacy, it was always understood that this impediment was not absolute.

Nor did it imply a moral evaluation regarding the candidate but was rather a prudential judgment insofar as the social stigma attached to this status — and the need to defend the Christian ideal of matrimony — could hamper a priest's pastoral effectiveness.

In some cases however, the superiors also have to consider whether being brought up in irregular circumstances could affect the candidate's personal balance and capacity for interpersonal relationships — important traits for a priest's mission.

These, among other considerations, quite possibly form the reasoning behind the seminary superiors' decision not to allow the child of a polygamous father to proceed in his priestly formation.

Because polygamy is such a pressing pastoral problem in the country it would be difficult for a priest to defend and uphold Catholic doctrine if it were widely known that his own parent contradicted it by his way of living.

It might even have been a cause of difficulty to some if it were known that he was studying in the seminary, as it is not infrequent for seminarians in these countries to engage in active pastoral work on Sundays by directing Communion services for Catholics at outstations where Mass is not celebrated.

This is, of course, no reflection on the intrinsic worth and even sanctity of the prospective seminarian, who is in no way responsible for a parent's foibles.

It appears to be a sad consequence of pastoral reality in a concrete situation which may be extremely hard to fathom and comprehend for those of us who live in a different reality.

Since such things as social stigmas vary with time and place, in some cases it might be possible for a candidate to pursue a vocation in a different cultural environment.

History provides several examples of how the stigma associated with illegitimacy varied over the centuries and how consequently the canonical norms were enforced with more or less rigor.

In some periods illegitimate children were easily accepted as part of the family, often regularized through adoption or other legal tactics, and not infrequently entered Church service.

The 16th century, for example, saw a Pope (Clement VII 1523-34), a brilliant military commander (John of Austria), and a great artist (Leonardo da Vinci) accepted at the pinnacle of society — in spite of being born out of wedlock. ZE06021422

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Follow-up: Polygamy, Sons and the Priesthood [02-28-2006]

Several correspondents wrote in reply to our Feb. 14 column about a man excluded from the seminary in Uganda because his father was involved in a polygamous marriage.

A Ugandan priest wrote: "In your treatment of the topic of polygamy, sons and priesthood, you rightly pointed out the nonexistence of impediments to sacred orders in current canon law, arising from the irregular condition of one's parents' marriage, unlike in the past. You also pointed out that even in the past, this impediment was not absolute. It was dependent on the particular situation of the particular candidate, considering factors such as the social stigma attached to illegitimate children and the negative effect on the pastoral effectiveness of such candidates as well as their personal and psychological balance.

"On the whole, however, your answer weighed toward the continued exclusion of such candidates today. Based on my lived experience in Uganda, I think we should be moving in the other direction, for the two main reasons you mentioned: the absence or rather the revocation of such an impediment by the legislator of universal canon law (cf. Canon 6) and the need for dealing with such situations on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, because of the widespread nature of irregular marriages among baptized Catholics even in Uganda, the social stigma attached to such families is no longer as great, nor does the situation have any notable effect on the pastoral effectiveness or personal balance of potential candidates. After all, the communal nature of raising children in African families ensures that there are always good examples of Christian marriage among other members of extended family."

Another priest, writing from Cameroon, made a similar point, although the concrete social situation in that country may differ somewhat from Uganda.

In my former piece I specifically mentioned that judging such situations from outside was very difficult and thus I tried to take a neutral stance.

Although I suggested a possible motivation for the exclusion of candidates, my intention was to explain and offer neither a defense nor a critique of the seminary superior's decision.

In this sense I agree with my Ugandan correspondent who quoted an address by Pope John Paul II to a group of American bishops asserting that diocesan guidelines for the administration of the sacraments should not be more restrictive than norms issued by the Holy See (L'Osservatore Romano, June 16, 1993).

He cited Canon 18 of the code: "Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation." It is also pertinent to this argument although, strictly speaking, nobody has a right to priestly ordination.

I further agree with the Ugandan correspondent that all questions regarding vocations should be decided on a case-by-case basis and not subject to a restrictive general law at the local level.

Another correspondent, from the United States, asked about impediment due to age.

He writes: "In the U.S. there is a constant call for men to the vocation of priesthood because of the shortage that is being seen. Why then, are some bishops putting age limits on those they will even consider for priesthood if that person has a call to that vocation? Instead they discourage them. Our diocese's vocation director says there is a need for more men to enter the priesthood but I know that at times he has discouraged men, even refusing to interview them. One young man eventually left for another diocese who accepted him with open arms and this young man will soon be ordained a priest for this other diocese. I myself was seeking to enter seminary studies after graduation from college with my degree in theology, with emphasis on pastoral ministry. I was allowed to take the pre-seminary evaluation and did well on it, but due to my age, my bishop said no, too old. At that time I was 53 years of age with a strong desire to serve God as one of his shepherds."

Many factors may be involved in vocational discernment or acceptance, and age plays a role.

That said, while canon law sets the minimum age for ordination at 25, there is no universal canonical maximum age and many recent vocations to the priesthood are from the ranks of older men.

There is even a seminary in Rome and at least one in the United States that specifically cater to such vocations as older men often find it difficult to fit into seminary programs designed for men in their early 20s.

Some religious congregations do have an upper age limit for admittance as experience has taught them that older people may be too set in their ways to adapt to the particular demands of certain forms of religious life.

I have no idea why this particular diocese would not wish to accept older vocations. The reasons probably concern the diocese's concrete pastoral situation, the makeup of faithful and the clergy, the seminary formators' experience (or lack thereof) in guiding older vocations, and many other factors that may have nothing to do with the candidate's actual worthiness.

If, for serious reasons, a diocese considers that it cannot undertake the formation of older vocations, it should be willing to recommend a worthwhile candidate to another diocese that has this need or possibility. ZE06022824

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