81. Customary marriage and Church marriage–the juridical plan
81. Customary marriage and Church marriage–the juridical plan

81. Customary marriage and Church marriage–the juridical plan

In the past weeks, I argued that the proposal to merge customary marriage with Church marriage is problematic. Yet, it is against natural law and inculturation theology to conclude that we can do nothing. Therefore, I propose two plans: juridical and pastoral. Today’s post considers the juridical proposal. By juridical plan, I mean a proposal that seeks to develop a marriage contract format that will be valid in customary and canon laws.

Since marriage comes into being in customary law (among the Igbos of Nigeria) when the bride price is paid and not necessarily at the traditional wedding ceremony itself, any proposal must involve the Church when the bride price is paid. 

Two essential elements to a possible unification are the payment of the bride price and the canonical form of marriage.

First, the payment of the bride price occurs between the bridegroom with his family and the bride’s father with the other family members. The canonical form of marriage celebration entails that valid marriages are only those “contracted before the local ordinary, pastor, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and before two witnesses” (Canon 1108 §1).

These are the two elements that one can consider without undermining the integrity of either legal system.

The most convenient way is for the priest to be present at the payment of the bride price.

In Nigeria, we often call the two witnesses ‘sponsors’. Yet, canon law does not provide for sponsors in marriage. In any case, those two persons (usually a couple) can accompany the priest as the two witnesses. After the payment of the bride price, the couples declare their consent before those gathered, and the priest blesses them. Both the exchange of consent and prayers should follow the prescribed prayers in the liturgical books. In doing this, marriage is valid in both legal systems.

In reality, unlike the merging of canonical marriage and statutory marriage, the proposal does not merge customary and canonical marriage systems. It simply integrates the two marriage rites into the same ceremony.

Of course, before one gets to this point, the preliminaries and checks for impediments must have been done because canonical impediments are not always impediments in customary law. Are there any challenges to this proposal? 

First, where will the event take place? It is common for the bride’s father to receive the bride price at his home. The place for the celebration could vary in canon law. 

The 1917 Code of Canon Law affirmed that marriage between Catholics is to be celebrated in the parish church and that such marriages cannot be celebrated in another church or oratory without the permission of the local Ordinary or the pastor (Canon 1109 §1 CIC 17). It also provided that marriages can be celebrated in private buildings by the local Ordinary and only in extraordinary cases and for a just and reasonable cause (Canon 1109 §2 CIC 17). Regarding marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, the code provided that this takes place outside a church. The Ordinary can dispense of this in particular cases (Canon 1109 §3 CIC 17).  

The 1983 Code of Canon law abrogated the prohibition in private buildings except for a just and reasonable cause. Canon 1118 §2 states: “The local ordinary can permit a marriage to be celebrated in another suitable place”. A suitable place could be a hall, a private house, or a church belonging to another denomination.

Therefore, the combined celebration could be in a church or at the bride’s home. Since the Holy See approved the Zairian Rite, there can be a new liturgical rite where the bridegroom pays the bride price to the bride’s father before the bridegroom and bride exchange consent within the Mass. In the absence of this, we can use the existing prescribed rite for celebrating marriage outside of the Mass. This structure also means that the bride’s father and bridegroom must agree with the kinsmen and women on their own gifts before the ceremony to avoid the impression that marriage happened through the backdoor.

A second challenge is the one who will preside over the ceremony. As Catholics, the priest should lead the ceremony, whether it takes place in the church or at the bride’s house. Although there may be a challenge if the bride’s father is a lapsed Catholic or is not baptised, this will not pose a problem because priests occupy a place of honour, even in traditional religion and culture. 

 The form of prayer is the third challenge. As Catholics, there are already prescribed liturgical prayers said by the priest. However, the bride’s father may also want to make spontaneous prayers immediately after receiving the bride price. Parental blessings are very important and powerful in our culture. They are also scriptural. For instance, Jacob blessed his sons (Genesis 49). A rite allowing parental blessings alongside the priest’s blessings would resolve this challenge. The priest’s blessings must always come last.

The fourth, and arguably, the principal challenge, is the danger of polygamy and divorce after marriage, which can threaten the faith of the Christian community. Statutory law places sanctions on those who attempt bigamy or polygamy. The Church can also do so within the limits of its competence without causing scandal.  

Many married Catholics have divorced. Those who had their marriages annulled remarried in the Church. Those whose marriages did not scale through the annulment process or who didn’t even bother to go through the process simply remarried civilly or in another Christian denomination. All three post-synodal documents explored a few weeks ago sought to help those in these situations.

Against this backdrop, one might not sincerely argue that danger to the faith should stop an attempt to have a celebration that merges Church and traditional marriage rites. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

My concern is really about how we can manage traditionalists who oppose Christianity; nationalists who will see the proposal as superimposing western marriage on ours; ultra-conservative Catholics who will consider the marriage as not being catholic enough even if the Church approves it; and Catholics obsessed with spiritual warfare who may consider the ceremony as establishing a marriage with the devil. Dealing with these concerns is where the real work lies.

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


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