Monday, 21 January 2013

Roman Catholic polygamy - temporarily permitted in 19th century Paraguay


This is something I knew nothing about until a couple of weeks ago.

Following the incredibly destructive Paraguayan war in the mid-1800s

so many men had been killed, and so few remained, that there was apparently a temporary but official Roman Catholic dispensation allowing 'polygamy' in the sense of plural marriage - in order to enable repopulation.

This is of interest in the context of Mormon polygamy which was official policy for about 40 years up until 1890 when it was forbidden within the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

For a fascinating contextual framing of the nature and function of Old Testament polygamy, listen from 1:59 in Alastair Roberts' latest (extraordinarily long! - but in places extremely important) podcast:



Arakawa said...
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Bruce Charlton said...

ARAKAWA SAID: Generally speaking, nobody in modern society will touch polygamy with a ten-foot pole because there's no visible authority that is both powerful (universally authoritative) enough and uncorrupted enough to determine the times when it's permissible and the times when it's socially destructive. And secular society is so used to dealing in crude universals that it can't countenance that a 'right' (I have to use scare quotes) to practice polygamy might be warranted at some times in some places and not at other times in other places.

(I notice that in the linked forum thread, the guy asking about it keeps trying to return to arguments from general principles, and seems utterly incredulous that the Roman Catholic Church could do something so utterly brash as to exercise its explicit authority to grant a dispensation on this matter.)

I recall the posts on this blog describing Byzantium as the apex of the Orthodox religion, based on an integration of church and state which does not just seem impossible nowadays -- it seems utterly inconceivable to many people. (Even buying the idea that an Emperor is appointed through divine acclamation, putting him at the head of the church still takes a lot of effort to wrap your head around these days.)

Reading about what was possible in the 19th century in Paraguay makes me worry that RC Christianity is starting to fall away from its own apex nowadays. A lot of its greatest strengths seem to depend on Catholicism being the default state of belief in society. That taken away, it is still good, it is perhaps still powerful in places, but it's less likely to do such things as unilaterally solve a potentially-catastrophic demographic crisis. At least, people have trouble imagining how it would do such a thing, if the forum is any indication.

This is not as a dis-endorsement of Catholicism, but it points to a worrying problem. The modern "mating market" (bleah, what a terminology) has its own severe problems, and the only action that can be contemplated to address these is taken on the individual level, often without the help or with the active opposition of existing authorities. As the Catholics aren't able to bail everyone out this time, it is to be expected, then, that we will see people try all kinds of things on their own. That is not especially good, since for every insanely brilliant strategy that someone tries, there will be 144 merely insane strategies attempted by other people.

B. Shelley said...

After the changes made during Vatican II, the Roman Church grew (seemingly) infinitely weaker. In fact, its shock-waves were felt throughout Christendom. Fifty years later, Catholic clergymen are looking at whether Vatican II was implemented as it was intended to be. If the pope remains alive and enthroned long enough, perhaps there will be some healing back to the kind of spirituality man requires.

However, the choice of Pope Benedict as pontiff was seen by many to be a place-holding move due to his advanced age. After he passes on, the next pope will more clearly set the trend for future Roman Catholic viability.

Mr. Charlton, thank you for bringing up an interesting part of Christian history.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BShell - I regard Pope Benedict as a great man among pygmies. His creation of the Anglican Ordinariate was an extraordinary event that surprised the world. How this eventuates will take decades to know, and of course human choices may kill the potential before it gets going.

But I find it hard to be optimistic about the RC Church. At the very least, it will (As Benedict XV! has said) need to re-grow from a much smaller base.

Anonymous said...

It should be noted that this entire post is based off of a comment on a Catholic forum.

There is no evidence that there was ever an official dispensation from the Vatican regarding this. In fact, I was not able to find any evidence even of a local (Diocesan Bishop's) dispensation regarding this.

The only evidence the person on the Catholic Forum provides is a citation of "The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour," by Gary Stanley Becker.

This book is available on Google Books. I searched almost every term I could think of and found no mention of any sort of Catholic dispensation, official or otherwise.

Finally, if one could find actual evidence of an official dispensation anywhere, at any time, subsequent to Christ's ascension then it would destroy the Catholic Church completely, as it would mean that the Magisterium (teaching authority) granted by Christ to the Church, had failed. Catholics believe this is impossible, and if it were to happen, the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church would be called into question.

See the following:

The language of Christ is very explicit (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18). Catholic tradition has consistently interpreted Christ's teaching as absolutely forbidding polygamy, and the prohibition was defined by the Council of Trent, pronouncing anathema against anyone who says that "it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that it is not forbidden by any divine law" (Denzinger 1802).


Marc Mason, Sacramento, CA

Bruce Charlton said...

Marc Mason - I had heard from someone I trust that there was widespread polygyny in Paraguay - I don't think there is much doubt about that.

The question may be whether the church 'turned a blind eye' or whether there was some level of official permission for a limited period.

I don't have a dog in this fight (as they say) - so I'll leave it to others to sort out.

Alat said...

Mr. Mason is right. Polygamy was de facto tolerated in postwar Paraguay, as the ratio of women to men was at least four to one, and perhaps more. Everyone, including the Church hierarchy, tolerated the situation. But there was no official acceptance of polygamy either.

BTW, I'm from the country that destroyed Paraguay - that is, Brazil. I imagine the Paraguayan War is a footnote of history for you, but it is very central in Brazilian and Argentine history, not to speak of Paraguay itself, of course.

There is a long tradition of scholarship about it. The best work is "Maldita guerra" [Damned war], by Francisco Doratioto, which has been published in Portuguese and Spanish and won many prizes. I heard some time ago that an English translation was being prepared, which you could consult if the subject interests you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alat - How exactly did the Church turn a blind eye?

After all, the priests were the ones who were marrying the polygamists, presumably.

Maybe it was regarded as OK for priests to marry more than one wife so long as each wife lived in a different household, or village, or something like that?

Or, were these not actual religious marriages, but only secular and unofficial cohabitings?

Alat said...

Bruce, I see my formulation was open to misunderstanding. (Sorry, English is not my first language).

They were only secular and unofficial cohabitings, as you say. Each man had only one wife in lawful wedlock, and several mistresses. But the mistresses were known to all, including the priests, and not shamed.

Resulting children were sometimes considered bastards and later legitimized, or were all ascribed to the legal wife in the documents. Again, in the real world, everyone, including the priests, knew who was the real mother of whom.

Another point to keep in mind is this: this toleration lasted very little, from 1870 to early 1890s at most. In one generation, the sex ration returned to normal, as expected. (Indeed, if you ever need a real-world example of the dictum that men are biologically expendable because the tribe can always get back on its feet if women survive, postwar Paraguay is the best test of it).

And if you take into account how destroyed was Paraguay, you must not forget that the Church partook in this destruction. If there were very few men overall, it also means that there were very, very few priests as well.

BTW, let me thank you for your always interesting blog.