In the past weeks, I explored the juridical and pastoral approaches to resolving the challenge of customary marriage and the Church. I must state that the situation is so complex that a single approach may not be sufficient.
The model of the Italian Bishop’s Conference (CEI) can serve as an example. Three principal documents regulate canonical marriages in Italy. They are the 1983 Code of Canon law, the Lateran concordat (Treaty between the Holy See and the Italian Republic signed in 1929 and revised in 1984), and the General Decree on Canonical Marriage (issued by the Italian Bishop’s Conference in 1990).
In the General Decree, the bishops affirmed that Catholics who intend to contract marriage in Italy are obliged to celebrate a single ceremony according to the canonical form and to utilise the recognition of the civil effects guaranteed by the Concordat. A concordatory marriage is one celebrated according to the provisions of the Concordat, that is, according to the canonical form and subsequent registration with the civil authority. It is analogous to combined Church marriage with statutory marriage in Nigeria.
The support material for local Ordinaries and parish priests identifies thirty-two distinct possibilities of people seeking canonical marriage. They are
1. Non-Concordatory marriage (canonical marriage celebrated differently from civil marriage)
2. Canonical marriage of persons only married civilly
3. Marriage of Italians living abroad or foreigners in Italy
4. Concordatory marriage with the suspension of registration with the civil authority (Marriage celebrated only according to the religious ceremony)
5. Concordatory marriage before or without clearance from the civil authority
6. Marriage with dispensation from the canonical banns
7. Marriage of a catholic married only civilly, currently separated and awaiting divorce
8. Marriage of divorced Catholics who married only civilly
9. Marriage of persons whose canonical marriages were declared null
10. Marriage of persons who obtained a dispensation for ratified and non-consummated marriage
11. Marriage of cohabiting persons
12. Marriage of a non-believing Catholic
13. Marriage between a Catholic and a person who has notoriously abandoned the faith
14. Marriage between a Catholic and a person who has formally defected from the Catholic Church
15. Marriage between a Catholic and a person under censure
16. Mixed marriages
17. Marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptised person (disparity of cult)
18. Marriage between blood relatives
19. Marriage between persons in the direct line of affinity
20. Marriage with the impediment of public propriety
21. Marriage with the impediment of a legal relationship arising from adoption
22. Marriage with the impediment of abduction
23. Marriage of minors
24. Marriage of persons civilly forbidden due to mental infirmity
25. Marriage with the impediment of crime
26. Marriage in case of presumed death
27. Marriage of a transient (vagus)
28. Marriage “with a condition”
29. Secret marriage
30. Marriage of an HIV-positive person
31. Simple convalidation
32. Radical sanation/retroactive validation
In each case, the document explains the configuration of the case, the duty of the parish priest, and the considerations by the local Ordinary before granting the dispensation or permission for the marriage to be celebrated. With these various options, the bishops of Italy created every opportunity to assist the faithful. This is the model I propose for Nigeria, that is, having different options to suit various needs. Hence, we can have various options for Nigeria.
1. Church marriage for those who have celebrated customary marriage. This does not require a dispensation or permission from the Ordinary. It follows the current process.
2. Church marriage for those who have not married customarily (that is, the bride price has not been paid). This requires the permission of the Ordinary.
3. Marriage for those who only want customary marriage. This requires dispensation from the Ordinary. I must state that dispensation may not always be granted
4. Marriage for those who want the combined rite of customary and canonical marriage (the juridical plan). This requires the permission of the Ordinary.
One can expand the list to include the various impediments, other cases provided in canon law, or even other cases that come up. These options eliminate the sense of cultural subjugation or marginalisation. As laws are not retroactive except they expressly provide for the past (Canon 9), these proposals concern the future, giving room for awareness and catechesis. Doing this is necessary because of possible discrimination or classism based on the type of marriage contracted. One sees a bit of this in some lay groups.
The Church attempts to accommodate various situations because marriage is a human right governed by divine (natural) law. Hence, the Church’s involvement is only to safeguard the sacrament of matrimony. People will still marry even if we cannot help or refuse to accommodate them. We have many cases of divorced and remarried Catholics whose canonical marriages did not scale through the nullification process. Some did not even bother to go through the process. Yet, as a loving mother, the Church keeps seeking ways to help them. If we do these for situations beyond the competence of the ecclesiastical authority, should we not do so for cases entirely within the competence of the ecclesiastical authority?
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
 Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, “Decreto Generale sul matrimonio canonico”, Notiziario della Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, n.10, 5 novembre 1990, 1, available at URL: https://www.chiesacattolica.it/documenti-segreteria/decreto-generale-sul-matrimonio-canonico/