Mulieris Dignitatem and the exclusivity of marriage under law.

Author:Bromberg, Howard

Jesus Christ established monogamy, the marriage of one man to one woman, as the canonical norm of his church and the juridical norm for all nations. (1) This was a unique event in the history of the cultures and religions of the world. The Catholic Church has always defended its canonical norm of monogamy, often with great opposition. (2) Through its influence, monogamy has been established as law in the Western world and in almost all cultures influenced by Western law and norms. (3) The emerging jurisprudence of the United States, however, rejects any religious derivation as the basis of our laws. With that rejection, how can our laws affirming monogamy--our laws against polygamy--survive on a principled basis?

Jesus lifted marriage to its most sublime level. He declared it indissoluble and reserved it to the union of one man and one woman. As illustrated in the Gospel of Matthew:

[Jesus] answered, "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one'? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder." (4) Building on the initial commandment in Genesis 2:24, this is a starting and unique command. (5) It is a misconception, held by many people, that societies and religions have long been monogamous and that a religion like Islam, which permits a man to take up to four wives, is an exception. (6) In fact, the reverse is true. It is difficult to find a strict juridical norm against polygamy anywhere in the history of the world other than in the Christian religion and nations it has influenced. Polygamy--marriage of a man to two or more women, often referred to under the specific term "polygyny"--was widespread in cultures in Africa, Asia, pre-Columbian America, Polynesia, and early Europe. (7) As recently as the twentieth century, to take the most prominent examples, kings in Africa, the King of Thailand, emperors of China and their chief officials, and other figures of great stature boasted numerous wives or consorts who enjoyed the status of lesser wives under the law. (8) It is true that Greek and Roman civilizations, the foundation of Western culture, did not favor polygamy, and as the power and sophistication of Rome grew, it found polygamy to be a relic of barbarism. (9) But neither Roman law nor Roman religion strictly forbade polygamy as a moral or juridical norm, and concubinage was widely accepted. (10) A quick review of the lives of such noble Romans as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony shows the Romans' relaxed standards in regard to their leaders taking more than one wife, if done for political reasons and with discretion. (11)

The history of religion tells a similar story. As noted, Islam not only permits polygamy, but according to some scholars it encourages it--up to a limit of four wives. (12) The Prophet Muhammad, who was granted the privilege of having an even greater number of wives, is taken as the exemplar of virtue by Muslims. (13) Hinduism and Confucianism have little negative to say about polygamy, and Buddhism is seemingly indifferent to it. (14) Polygamy was practiced in ancient Israel with biblical authority. (15) The Hebrew patriarchs had multiple wives, and Leah and Rachel, both wives of Jacob, are classified as matriarchs. (16) While the Jewish religion in Christian countries has not allowed polygamy, the rabbinical tradition cannot unequivocally condemn a marital practice that is permitted in the Torah. The fixed rule against polygamy in post-biblical Western Judaism is attributed as much to external Christian law as developing Jewish norms. (17) In Muslim countries that have permitted polygamy, it has always been practiced by some Jewish men without conflict with their religious strictures. (18)

Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem shows what is to be made of this history of marriage. (19) In his apostolic letters and encyclicals, Pope John Paul II, following in the example of the Second Vatican Council, aimed to clear away the excrescences of history to attain the essence of the Gospel. As he describes in Mulieris Dignitatem, Genesis presents the "structural basis of biblical and Christian anthropology." (20) The story of our first parents--created, as Pope John Paul II writes, as a "unity of the two"--is of perennial value. (21) Correctly understood, this story outweighs the often "incomplete and temporary" laws of the Old Testament and the often obscured lessons of human history. (22) As the Pope writes, "[t]he whole of human history unfolds within the context of th[e] call" of the first man and woman to be an exclusive and mutual help and gift to each other. (23) At the beginning of human history, before the commencement of organized human society, man and woman were created as a communion of exclusive love. (24) "In the 'unity of the two,' man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist 'side by side' or 'together,' but they are also called to exist mutually 'one for the other."' (25)

Pope John Paul II's perspective in paragraph seven of Mulieris Dignitatem allows one to draw important conclusions about the divine history of the exclusivity of marriage. By divine mandate, marriage in its original institution was required to be exclusive to one man and one woman, reflecting in mutual faithfulness a sincere gift of self and the self-revelation of the Triune God. Polygamy was permitted according to the contingencies of human history for the hardness of hearts, and God's plan even made use of it in divine history, but it was not part of God's original plan for marriage. (26) In this way polygamy can be compared to the institution of slavery and, to some extent, capital punishment. Slavery and capital punishment are both practiced in the Bible; both exist throughout salvation history. (27) But in modern times the Church has determined these practices to be inconsistent with human dignity. Pope John Paul II himself demonstrates this in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, again returning to Genesis and in particular to the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain is not killed for his murder of Abel but banished, reaffirming the primacy of human life even over the requirement for strict retribution. (28)

Following its founder, the Church understood this great truth from its inception. Needless to say, the Christian church has opposed polygamy from apostolic times, as is clear from the New Testament, the writings of the first Christians, the records of the first church councils, and early canon law. (29) For example, St. Paul tells those who aspire to leadership in the Christian church that they must be the "husband of one wife." (30) Early Christian writers echoed the command that marriage be between one man and one woman. (31) Justin Martyr condemned Jews for permitting several wives. (32) Irenaeus likewise condemned the pagans for polygamous practices. (33) Tertullian writes that, for Christians, marriage is lawful but polygamy is not. (34) Methodius, Pseudo-Clementine, and Basil of Caesarea are...

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