One of the observations at the Nairobi conference on preparation for the 2015 Family Synod, by the Kenyan Bishop of Malindi, Emanuel Barbara, should be of interest to all. For Africans, he said, seeing marriage as a single, one-step process of saying “I do”, is in conflict with the traditional African understanding of marriage as a gradual process, beginning when a couple start to live together, and only formalized some time later. He criticizes the Church’s insistence on a formal sacrament of matrimony before approval for living together in universal marriage practice as the imposition of a “Latin, German culture” on Africans.
We could expect Pope Francis to have some sympathy with this. In his recent visit to South America, he apologized for the way in which European colonists and missionaries had imposed their cultural norms on indigenous peoples. What he did not say, but should have done, was that this cultural colonialism of the mind, included ideas of sexual morality that had nothing to do with the Gospels.
Where Bishop Barbara is mistaken however, is his belief that an incremental approach to the marriage process is specifically African. In fact, as the Catholic lay theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler have shown. this was for many centuries, also common practice in Europe, where there used to be a clear distinction between “marriage” and “wedding”.
“Marriage”, they argue, used to be seen as a private commitment between two people, which began when they started to live together in a committed, faithful sexual relationship in a shared home. The “wedding” was a public celebration of that marriage, which followed later, often with the onset of pregnancy or childbirth, (For poorer people who could not afford it, there might never be a wedding). Conflating “marriage” and “wedding” into the single event of “matrimony” is a relatively late development. Seen in historical perspective, the Vatican insistence on avoiding cohabitation before “marriage” is a nonsense: marriage used to begin with cohabitation. Avoiding cohabitation before the church wedding, is not only in conflict with African culture, it’s also in conflict with widespread European practice of earlier centuries – and is also no longer practised by real – world Catholics even in the modern West.
This is an important issue that the theologians really should be grappling with. It will be a challenge though, because it is in absolute conflict with the assumption in Vatican doctrine that the only licit sexual activity is after marriage. Remove that cornerstone, and the entire shaky house of cards of sexual teaching collapses.
Here’s Bishop Barbara’s observations, as told by National Catholic Reporter:
…….. the Kenyan bishop said traditional African marriages normally involved much more than the simple “Yes, I do” that provides for consent between married couples in Christian marriages. In the past, he said, consent between couples was even made over years — as the couples lived with one another, and their families came to be gradually meshed together.
“Can we still today speak of a universal form of marriage where the only consent — ‘Yes, I do,’ coming from a Latin, German culture — will be sufficient to sanction a marriage?” Barbara asked.
“In the African context, it used to take stages,” he said. “There used to be involved both families before the marriage will come to be something. Is it enough today still to insist in our own culture, in our environment in Africa, that it is enough that you go in front of the priest or the minister and say, ‘Yes, I do?’ “
Truly Human Sexual Acts: A Response to Patrick Lee and Robert George By Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler in Theological Studies, September 2008