Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
When a Catholic man weds a non catholic female it doesn’t steer up much controversy save for the baptism (or re-baptism) of the lady involved and administration of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The lady becomes whole and whole Catholic just like her husband. They become one. But when a Catholic lady intends to marry a non catholic man a serious controversy steers up.
Here is the issue. There has always been this age long law of the Catholic Church as regards to mixed marriages. From a very strict position, the Vatican in 1966 as part of some minor reforms relaxed some of the law. The Holy See in the document softened some restrictions and eliminated the penalty of excommunication for Catholics who are married before a non-Catholic clergyman. This provision is automatic and retroactive. For the non-Catholic partner, the impact of the promise that children born of the marriage be baptized and raised in the Catholic faith was softened. The nuptial Mass may be celebrated, the nuptial blessing imparted, and a clergyman of another faith may assist at the marriage of a Catholic and a non-Catholic. (see 1966 Religion Archive Article of Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009).
One place where apparently the 1966 relaxation of the mixed marriage law has not taken effect is South-East Nigeria. Here, a lady marrying a non Catholic man is viewed almost as an anathema or a sacrilege. The trauma undergone by the persons involved is better imagined. The biggest victims in most cases are the parents of the bride who have to withstand the greatest challenge to their faith. It is often a case of choosing between the wishes/happiness of their Children or respect for the Church. This trauma is transferred to the children in forms only those who have experienced it can explain.
Spelling it out, in most parts of south east Nigeria today, the parents of a lady wishing to marry a non catholic stand the risk of excommunication. I am very certain of the situation in many towns in the region. In fact to the minds of the Catholic villagers there, such a thing should not even be mentioned to the hearing of the ear.
Where the normal practice of the lady dragging her would be husband to the Catholic church for the wedding is done, the lady and her husband have to promise (I prefer to say swear) that the lady will maintain her faith after the wedding and that children born of the marriage would be baptized and raised in the Catholic faith.
For the purposes of proceeding with the marriage usually, the couples make this promise, but do they keep it afterwards? Since there is usually no mechanism to enforce the promise the couples made before the marriage, why insist on the law in the first place? Is the Catholic Church not just holding onto something that has been overtaken by events; a law that is both retrogressive and archaic?
Out side the need to keep people within the faith which informs the insistence that both wife and children remain Catholics, isn’t the Church simply causing more troubles for such mixed marriages? How does it look that on a Sunday morning the wife dresses up and heads in a particular direction and the husband dresses up and heads in a different direction. What does this portend for the unity and oneness of a family which is critical to the success of marriages? Aren’t the two supposed to become one after wedding?
The offspring’s of these marriages are even in a greater dilemma. They are by the law supposed to be baptized in the Catholic Church and to follow their mother to that church. The father we know is still the head of the family. How many fathers with the ego that goes with being one in Africa would see his children going against his own faith? Does a situation where father and mother are in a battle to secure the allegiance of their children to their own faith mean well for any marriage?
The questions here in summary are, why make couple make promises they wouldn’t ultimately keep? Why indirectly encourage instability and lack of unity in marriages? And thirdly, why threaten parents who had no hand whatsoever in determining the person their daughter met and fell in love with, with excommunication if she doesn’t wed in the Catholic Church?
I know a host of persons who have been held hostage by the insistence of some Parish Priests with Vatican I ideologies and conservative village Catholic communities who would not bulge or relax the law. We have a situation of parents some of who are high up in the catholic lay leadership and who are expected to know better insisting on their daughter’s compliance on the one hand and a daughter caught up in love and the desire for marriage on the other hand. The end result of most of the situations I have known of had not been very pleasant ones.
It is important to enquire if the practice in Southeast Nigeria does not negate the 1966 document of the Vatican to that effect. There is also enough reason to wonder why the situation appears worse in the southeast. Does it have to do with the traditions of the people, the age long battle for supremacy between the Catholics and the Anglicans, or does it have to do with the world view of the Bishops in this region?
This issue is a very disturbing one for my generation. In the absence of verifiable statistics, I can safely state that Catholics dominate the Christendom in Nigeria. Among these are many young ladies who need to get married. With increased association made possible by education, business and travel they meet with and have greater chances of falling in love with men of other Christian faiths. Should this law (or the obsession of some clergy men to enforce this law) be a hindrance to their pursing love and happiness?