Polygamy in natural law

by Eric M. Weldon

Having known Katie van Schaijik for some time, I can understand her concern over any indication of chauvinism in Catholic academia. I also remember that during conversations with her over coffee she rarely paused to drink. Nevertheless, it is evident that a more in-depth reading of St. Thomas Aquinas is needed in order for us to be able understand the nature of marriage and spousal relations. After all, how would it be possible to attain “more depth and completeness” in our understanding of these mysteries without Thomas? The issue here is the Church’s understanding of polygamy and marriage.

Polygamy (in both its forms) is forbidden according to the moral law of the Church. But there is a weak case to be made for polygyny in natural law, which goes as follows: It is critical for a child’s self-identity to know who his parents are. Therefore, the practice of polyandry is unthinkable as “man naturally desires to know his offspring, and this knowledge would be completely destroyed if there were several males for one female. Therefore, that one female is for one male is a consequence of natural instinct.” (Summa Contra Gentiles III. 124.1) In the practice of polyandry there is no certainty of family relations as the woman has sexual relations with numerous men. Simply put, according to Thomas, polygyny does not directly conflict with natural law because in it the child knows who his parents are. However, this is not where Thomas’ discussion of marriage ends.

Relying on Aristotle, Thomas speaks of the need for friendship within the marriage covenant. Polygyny debases women because there is no opportunity for friendship. Friendship demands equality, and “the greater that friendship is, the more long lasting it will be, [and] there seems to be the greatest friendship between husband and wife.” (SCG III. 123.6) An unfortunate type of abandonment takes place in a polygynous environment. A covenant of love is eradicated for the utility of a contract involving the breeding of offspring. If this were the precedent for marriage, then there could be no real friendship, and no effectual love for children coming from a plurality of wives. The wife (wives) would then be relegated to a position of servitude. (SCG III 124.4)

Throughout Church history the love of God for his people has consistently been in reference to the marriage of one man and one woman. Ephesians 5: 24-32 speaks of this and, indeed, the analogy is widely used in the Old Testament, as in Hosea and the Song of Songs. Holy Mother Church holds steadfast to the sanctity of marriage and has done so from its creation. Our Faith wrapped in the warmth of its living tradition edifies and uplifts both the man and the woman in a marriage covenant.

When the dignity of one spouse is gone, the unity of husband and wife suffers. This could hardly be contrived as chauvinism. St. Thomas Aquinas knew this because he studied nature, Scripture and the traditions of Holy Mother Church.

Eric M. Weldon

Eric Weldon is a seminarian for the diocese of Wichita, Kansas, studying at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus. He graduated from the University in 1989.