Why the polygamy problem is not as passe as it appears: Kathleen van Schaijik responds to critics

by Kathleen van Schaijik

It is no simple matter to give a succinct reply to criticisms as many and varied as those excited by my “polygamy piece.” Happily, subsequent articles have made it unnecessary to answer some of them—such as Mr. Brust’s charge that the article would do nothing to stimulate intelligent discussion.

Even so, to treat the others point by point would be too laborious, I think, and mostly uninteresting. So, I will instead address myself to what I gather to be the more general reaction to the article—viz., that it was out of touch with Franciscan University, where no one advocates polygyny; that it was “too emotional,” and that I might have spared everybody some annoyance and myself some loss of esteem if I had “taken the trouble” to find out what St. Thomas really says on this matter, in which case I would have seen that the whole discussion was moot, since he nowhere says that polygyny is in accord with natural law.

If I can make some headway against this view of my article, I will be well satisfied.

I should begin by clearing up a point which seems to have been widely misunderstood. The students I criticized were not arguing that polygyny is morally acceptable! (If they had been, the article would have included a suggestion that they be booted—or hooted—out of Catholic academia.) Everyone in the discussion agreed it is wrong and against Church teaching. They only claimed, using St. Thomas as their authority, that it does not go against natural law. I thought the claim worth public attention because it is bound up with at least three different problems, all of which are very common in orthodox intellectual circles: 1) a bad notion of natural law; 2) a failure to give women their due; and 3) a misuse of Thomas’ writings.

The first seems to come at least in part from the ambiguity of the term “nature.” Many confuse a philosophical examination of a thing’s nature—in other words, its essence—with observations of nature in the sense we mean when we say “nature park.” For instance, I once read an article in a serious Catholic journal in which a woman wrote of trying to persuade her homosexual brother that his lifestyle is “unnatural” (i.e., immoral) by pointing out that we do not find male squirrels mating with each other. To my mind, this “argument” tells no more against homosexuality than the fact that one bull serves dozens of cows tells against monogamy. The wrongness of homosexuality comes from its being an offense against the essence and meaning of conjugal love as a personal self-donation, not from its being out of keeping with the usual practice in the animal kingdom!1 And, personally, I find it surprising that any human being can bear to have his sexual morality likened to that of squirrels, chickens, chimpanzees and so forth without becoming a bit “emotional” (I do not say “irrational,” which is a different thing).

The second problem is more difficult to expose. It is very subtly and very deeply entrenched. As Elizabeth Magaletta showed in the last issue, it is easy for men especially (though women cannot be entirely exempt from guilt in this area) to think that so long as they acknowledge the “equal dignity” of women in theory, they cannot be guilty of sexism2 in fact. And the excesses of the feminist movement can incline us to dismiss even its valid concerns as stemming from a rebellion against the divinely-ordained “proper place” of women in society. Thus we can become reactionaries, and prevent ourselves from seeing what the Holy Father has pointed out with such clarity and firmness: that human society has failed throughout history to give women their due, and that the time has come to repair the injustice. The first task in the reparation is to get us to acknowledge that the problem is real—something many Catholics seem strangely reluctant to do.

This is another reason why I thought it might be useful to make the polygyny discussion public: it provided striking evidence that Catholics have a long way to go before our declarations about the worth of women have made their full impact in our intellectual life and cultural habits.

The third problem (i.e., the misuse of Thomas) is similarly well-entrenched in Catholic academia, and exceedingly difficult to challenge—because it is so mixed up with praiseworthy religious sentiments. Devout students do well to look with reverence to someone so highly recommended by the Church as St. Thomas is. The difficulty only comes in when, as so often happens, he is treated as an authority in philosophical matters—not in the sense of someone to be consulted (which of course he is) but rather as someone to be obeyed. It is as if the measure of our worth as thinkers were the extent to which we acquiesce in whatever St. Thomas has said.

Again, I thought the polygyny discussion a good opportunity to highlight this anti-intellectual tendency in Catholic schools. Here you had graduate students claiming the authority of Thomas for a patently bad idea, and putting religious pressure on the consciences of fellow students—in effect telling them that they had to agree that polygyny was natural if they wanted to be genuinely Catholic. The readers may think the particular example too improbable to be taken seriously, but this kind of thing goes on continually in Catholic universities, our own included.

Several of my critics have proposed that I might have solved the problem by simply checking to see what Thomas actually says on the subject. But would this really have solved it? As it happened (so I heard afterwards) these students themselves later recanted their original claim. They went to the Summa, saw they had misunderstood Thomas and (to their credit) frankly acknowledged as much. But, glad as I am to hear it, I do not think it touches the more serious concern. Their change of opinion came not from having been convinced that polygyny was “unnatural,” but rather from having been convinced that they had misread Thomas. In other words, though they had made philosophical claims, they never investigated the question philosophically at all. They treated the Summa almost as if it were the Catechism, and expected others to do the same.

My argument was that the personal dignity of every woman, coupled with recent developments in our understanding of the nature of marriage and sexuality, should be enough to make any Catholic shudder at the manifest “unnaturalness” of polygyny. Thomas’ view, however worthwhile in itself, was simply not directly to the point.

In sum: though I would not count the “polygamy piece” among my top ten favorite Concourse articles, and though I would not append it to my vita as an example of my best writing, neither will I allow that it was irrelevant or irrational or overblown or in any other way beneath the attention of Catholic intellectuals or the standards of the University Concourse.

Kathleen van Schaijik graduated from FUS in 1988. She edits the Concourse from Gaming, Austria.

  1. This is not to say that we can learn nothing of philosophical value from observing the world of nature. We can learn a lot—about the greatness of the Creator, about the analogy of being, about the mysterious harmony of the different orders of creation, about the differences between personal and non-personal being, and so on. But if we want to learn about the moral law, then we must turn our philosophical attention first and foremost to moral facts of human experience. We will not learn much, or rather we will learn badly, if we instead look primarily at non-moral reality. ↑
  2. I am indebted to Dr. Holmes for his fascinating and helpful criticism of my use of the term “chauvinism,” (see p.5 of this issue). He is entirely right to take me to task for adopting the word without rightly knowing to what it referred. I switch to “sexism” (though the word repulses me) in order to be more precise, as well as to cease offending his delicate etymological sensibilities. ↑

issue cover

Related articles:

Same issue

Same topic: polygamy

Same author

I,1 NFP, by itself, does not compromise the marriage vocation I,2 What is a ‘real’ Catholic education? I,3 Orthodox not paradox I,4 How does a university evangelize? I,4 NFP and connaturality I,5 Thomism and intellectual freedom I,7 Keeping our worship in step with ‘what the Spirit is saying’ to FUS II,1 Can charismatics and traditionalists peacefully coexist? II,1 The horror of polygamy and the persistence of chauvinistic theories in Catholic academia II,2 The challenge of the Concourse: discussion without (much) contention II,3 When old ideas are breaking up II,4 Why the polygamy problem is not as passe as it appears: Kathleen van Schaijik responds to critics II,9 Why ‘charismatic spirituality’ belongs at the heart of our communal life III,1 What is the University Concourse? III,1 How not to help households III,3 Silence betokens ... What? III,4 The freedom of stricture III,5 What were households meant to be? III,5 Different degrees of authority IV,1 Love Never Leaves IV,2 Faith and Reason IV,5 A different perspective on the modesty question IV,6 Strangers to the world V,1 New face, same spirit V,3 The ‘Stratford man’ and the Shakespearean canon: no match at all V,4 Bringing the masses from starvation to full strength V,6 Branching out through Christus Magister V,6 Kathleen van Schaijik replies to John Doman on Shakespeare V,7 A Catholic critique of a current notion of courtship VI,1 The evil of exorcising judgement VII,1 Jump Start VII,1 Abusing NFP VII,1 It’s not the Vatican, it’s the laity III,6 Last words (for now) III,6 A suggestion regarding Extraordinary Ministers III,6 Catholic teaching on capital punishment III,6 A final thought on the household issue III,6 What is our mission, really? III,6 What if Shakspere wasn’t Shakespeare? III,6 Clinton’s sorry legacy III,6 Evolution III,6 Intimidated? Please don’t be. III,6 A gift for the graduates of ‘98 III,6 A point of policy III,6 A point of principle III,6 A word of thanks IV,7 Happy & sad IV,7 Oxford gaining on Shakspere IV,7 Of private and collegiate morality IV,7 Newman, education and context IV,7 Witnesses to Faith in the face of death IV,7 Viva the class of ‘99! IV,7 A prize winning physicist out of his depth IV,7 A positive psychology IV,7 How to become a leader IV,7 Campus politics IV,7 Thanksgiving V,8 Fr. Michael’s achievement V,8 Charity may be severe V,8 On the other side of the same coin V,8 The Weimar Republicans V,8 Drawing out an analogy V,8 Beware of economic Puritanism V,8 How to support the Concourse by buying books V,8 Shakespeare debate update V,8 What the education debate is and isn’t about V,8 Dear Class of 2000 V,8 Thanksgiving