77. Church and customary marriage—the challenge
77. Church and customary marriage—the challenge

77. Church and customary marriage—the challenge

There have been many proposals for developing a single marriage rite that incorporates elements of customary law and canon law. Some proposals focus on the traditional marriage ceremony itself, which, interestingly, is not where the couples exchange their consent. Unlike the compatibility between statutory and Church marriages, customary marriage is largely incompatible with Church marriage. I must state that I base my analysis on the Igbo customary marriage that I know.

First, consent differs in the two matrimonial systems. Canon 1057 states:

§1. The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons qualified by law, makes marriage; no human power is able to supply this consent. §2. Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage.” Therefore, only the bride and bridegroom can exchange their consent in a Church marriage.

However, this differs in customary marriage, which is between two families. Here, parents of the contracting families (or the bridegroom and the bride’s father) exchange consent, and not the bridegroom and the bride. Irrespective of the number of proposals or visits between a man and a woman, marriage only takes place when the man pays the bride price and the bride’s father (or, in his absence, the next head of the family) accepts it.

We sometimes erroneously assume that couples exchange consent when the bride presents a horn of palm wine to the bridegroom amidst the dancing. This ritual cannot happen if the groom has not paid the bride price and the bride’s father has accepted the payment.

As bridegrooms often pay the bride price before the day of the traditional wedding, it means that marriage in customary law does not actually take place on the traditional wedding day. Yet, the bridegroom can present gifts to the extended family or community on the wedding day. Some couples even omit the traditional wedding ceremony for certain reasons.

Therefore, customary marriage always precedes Church marriage. While not paying the bride price is not a canonical impediment that invalidates marriage, I am yet to hear of a priest who assists at a Church marriage without confirming that the bride price has been paid. In fact, if the bride’s father has not accepted the bride price, the marriage banns will return negative. Yes, the traditional wedding ceremony can come after the mass because customary marriage had already occurred before the mass.  

The second challenge is unity. Canon 1056 says that “the essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which in Christian marriage obtain a special firmness by reason of the sacrament”. Unity has to do with fidelity to one partner. Customary marriage is open to polygamy, which threatens Christian marriage. Some communities even allow an old widow to marry another woman to bear children for her late husband.

The third challenge is indissolubility. As provided in canon 1056, indissolubility means that once a canonical marriage is validly contracted, it cannot be dissolved. What we have in the Church is annulment (declaration of nullity) and not divorce. An annulment means that the marriage that occurred on that day was invalid for certain reasons. A divorce means that the marriage celebrated on that day was valid, but it is now dissolved for some reason.

The Church also has separation of spouses, meaning the spouses are separated for certain reasons. However, the marital bond remains; therefore, the man and woman are impeded from contracting a new Church marriage. However, in customary marriages, divorce is obtainable.  

Furthermore, the husband decides and executes the divorce in a customary marriage. The bride’s father can also return the bride price, which ends the marriage. However, in canonical marriage (and statutory marriage), all actions concerning the declaration of nullity or official separation of spouses require the act of a public officer, namely the judge and the ordinary.

Based on the above, can we merge the two marriage systems or at least develop a ceremony that accommodates the two rites without jeopardising the integrity of one rite?

May the light of the newborn King continue to inspire and direct us🙏🏾

Merry Christmas in advance



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