The horror of polygamy and the persistence of chauvinistic theories in Catholic academia
by Kathleen van Schaijik
I cannot let pass without comment the discussion I heard took place the other day at a certain graduate theology institute, which shall remain nameless. Adult students were (without blushing) explaining to a group of fellow students, including several women, that whereas polygamy (one man having several wives) is permissible according to natural law, polyandry (one woman having several husbands) is forbidden.
All the great philosophical and theological developments of the age—on the essence of the human person, on the meaning of the body and human sexuality, on the dignity of women—all of these notwithstanding, there evidently still exist any number of serious Catholic intellectuals (my guess is they are all men) who can calmly expound such appalling theories. And they are, moreover, surprised that anyone should take offense.
Of course these men would not deny that the positive moral law of the Church forbids polygamy as well as polyandry. Still, they want to say natural law (at least in one sense) has nothing against it. They seem to base their notion on two things: 1) that St. Thomas said it and the Church has endorsed his theory of natural law, and 2) that physically men are capable of impregnating innumerable women, while women are conspicuously designed to bear the children of only one man. (If any one has a better defense of this position, I wish he would bring it forward, for I have yet to hear it.)
As to the second argument, it is, first of all, in no way clear to me how the physical construction of woman indicates that she was made for only one man. But, suppose we grant it for the moment. Suppose we allow it be true that, biologically speaking, men are ready to serve as husbands to various wives, while women are made for one husband. Let us grant it. What then? Is the moral law to be derived from biological facts? Are we beasts? Or are we persons whose deepest nature is to be “the image and likeness of God,” whose law is inscribed not in our anatomy but, so to speak, in our hearts. Of course the moral law is reflected in our anatomy (see, for instance, the Pope’s profound essays on what he calls “the nuptial meaning of the body”), but it cannot be derived from our anatomy.
We can understand the true meaning and purpose of our physical nature only when we look at it in the light of our deeper nature as human persons. When we consider the natural law this way—as the law proper to our being as embodied persons—we see the perfect equality and complementarity of men and women and the horror of polygamy becomes immediately apparent.
Polygamy degrades woman unspeakably because, rather than treating her as man’s companion, equal in dignity and therefore worthy of his entire self, it subordinates her to him, making her one among the many objects of his pleasure and subjects of his domination. Such an arrangement can never be a marriage in the true sense, which always entails the absolute and exclusive self-donation of both spouses, whereby “the two become one flesh,” and each lives, so to say, in the other and for the other. In polygamy, the man lives for himself—only agreeing to meet certain needs of the women who (willingly or not) are entirely in his hands.
This is why any self-respecting woman today is so horrified to hear Catholic men being so blase about polygamy. We may expect it of hedonists, who live explicitly for their own pleasure, or of Muslims, who are kept in the dark by their strict traditions. But how is it possible for Catholics, living in the light of the 20th century and under the leadership of our present Pope, to entertain ideas that are such an affront to feminine dignity? To us, it is just as if they were saying it is only natural for women to be subordinated to men; that there is nothing shocking and frightful about our being reduced to sexual slavery. We had thought the Church had long ago put such chauvinism decisively behind her.
Which brings me to the other argument urged by these men, namely, that St. Thomas approved it and the Church approves St. Thomas. Now, I do not know St. Thomas well enough to know what he really says on this subject. Perhaps his theory allows polygamy to
be in accordance with the natural law; I couldn’t say (though I’d hate to think it of him). But I know enough of the habits of the Church and the nature of the intellectual life to know that she would not bind us to follow Thomas’ ideas in all their particulars; that she is more than open to the fact that the developments of history and the reflection of the Church over time leads to an ever-deeper penetration of the mysteries of philosophy and theology, which in turn necessitates our completing and in some cases correcting the previous understanding. And to my mind, the mysteries of the meaning of human sexuality and of the dignity of women are cases in point; we (as a people) have not understood them fully until very recently.
And now that we have understood them (at least with far more depth and completeness than before) it is our duty to cherish them. And cherishing them means, in part, not allowing theories about the naturalness of polygamy to stand uncorrected.
Kathleen van Schaijik is an alumna of the class of ‘88 and editor-in-chief of the Concourse. She and her family are living in Gaming, where her husband Jules (class of ‘89) is Academic Secretary at the International Theological Institute for Marriage and Family.
1 The practical importance of this distinction can hardly be exaggerated. If we examine the facts of our sexuality from a biological perspective, then what we notice is the striking similarity between human reproduction and animal reproduction. We mark, for example, that man—much like a stallion or a bull—is capable of fecundating a whole herd of females. From this we may conclude that polygamy is perfectly natural. But if we examine the same facts from a personalist perspective, we are immediately and forcefully struck by the abyss of difference between human and animal sexuality. For instance, we notice that the human body is so designed that sexual contact takes place, “face to face,” that our sexuality is pervaded with rationality and that our natural drives and instincts are under the dominion of a free and intelligent will.
2 It is important to point out that, to a woman, this is much more than a mere academic question of natural law theory; it is a very intimate, existential concern. For us to hear polygamy defended is almost to be personally insulted. Imagine, for a comparison, how a black person would feel to have a white person serenely expound his notion that, since the white race is on the whole more intelligent than the black race, we can say that whites were made to dominate, and that therefore, according to natural law, there is nothing wrong with slavery. Would we be surprised to find him indignant? Could we blame him for “taking it personally”?
3 Not that no one who lived prior to the 20th century had an adequate appreciation of women, or that we understand these mysteries fully in the sense of having no more to learn; I mean rather that until this century, women had not really, so to say, “come into their own” in the self-understanding and cultural practices of the Church. Indeed, many (including our Pope) have remarked that the unfolding of the mysteries of human sexuality and the personal dignity of women are some of the greatest developments in the Church of our day.