African Archbishop Reflects on Challenges to Marriage and Family

Archbishop John Baptist Odama, Uganda’s delegate to the Synod of Bishops on the Family, discusses the Church in Africa.

(photo: CNA)

SIDEBAR ARTICLE: African Missionary: The Family Is Indispensible to the Church's Mission


KAMPALA, Uganda — Archbishop John Baptist Odama, chairman of the Uganda bishops’ conference, is Uganda’s delegate to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.

The synod, which is taking place through Oct. 19, is discussing pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.

In an interview with the Register before the synod, Archbishop Odama highlighted some key issues negatively impacting marriage and the family, such as the crisis of faith and family, the breakdown of families, violence and physical abuse, dependence on the media and social networks and external pressures. He also listed other issues that might generate serious debate, such as consumerism and individualism, the impact of work on the family and the counter-witness within the Church.


What is your view of marriage in an African context?

In an African context, marriage is between a man and woman, whose relatives are drawn to endorse and support this union. It is a communal event; relatives of the man and woman are involved, and this creates the relationship of in-laws, aunties and uncles.

Marriage is meant to last and must bear the fruits of children. When there are no children, a man must go for another wife — but divorce is not encouraged, thereby creating the problem of polygamy.

But in the context of the Church, the union between man and woman is indissoluble, and this union is for the purposes of procreation and the education of children.


What are the main challenges in ministering with respect to marriage and the family in Africa? How are they the same, and how do they differ from those present in other regions in the world?

The Church in Africa generally faces the same problems experienced around the globe. And just like in other regions, some of the major pastoral challenges in ministering to marriage and the family include divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, mixed/interfaith marriages, the right to abortion and homosexual unions, among others. All these pose a formidable pastoral challenge when it comes to ministering to the family.

But there are some pastoral challenges which are peculiar to the Church in Africa: Polygamy is a particularly significant problem. Since marriage is meant to last, some men, after finding their wives can’t conceive children, take on another wife without having to divorce the other. Often, this is in harmony with the African culture.

Coupled with this is the practice of wife inheritance. This is a practice whereby, when a man dies, his brother or closest male relative takes over the wife, and, often, she might be in addition to his wife of choice.

Then there is the issue of child-headed homes. This is becoming a particularly major problem. Many children lose their parents to HIV/AIDS, and, often, these children are left with no one to take care of them.

This is a difficult situation, but the Church intervenes by trying to bring in their extended families. When these children have adult relatives, we encourage them to take in these orphans and bring them up like their own. Many times, however, this is not successful, due to serious economic problems which relatives may face.

Also, in some African countries, marriage is done in stages: trial marriage, traditional [cultural] marriage and, finally, a Church marriage. The Church has been trying to convince its followers to celebrate marriage once and for all, but so far, this has not taken root.

Last, but not least, there is the issue of dowry payment. In fact, many are unable to receive the sacrament of matrimony because the woman’s parents often insist on a dowry payment before the marriage is consummated. So men who are unable to fulfill this obligation use this as an excuse for cohabiting, and this is big pastoral challenge.


Is the institution of marriage under threat today?

Today, marriage is threatened by many factors. First and foremost, the traditional understanding of marriage is weak. Free use of sex is rampant, and, as such, there is a lot of non-commitment on the part of spouses.

Abortion is another threat to marriage. Traditionally, abortion was not allowed, but, today, abortion is rampant and is looked upon as a right.

Another threat is homosexual relations. There might have been homosexual relations in the past, but this was not openly practiced.


What do you think regarding the debate about the reception of Communion by divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics? Is this a significant issue for the Church in Africa?

First of all, I would like to admit that cases of divorce and remarriage are significant pastoral challenges here in Africa. But I would like to say this: The divorced and remarried are not admitted to the sacraments. If a man and woman have divorced, the case for the divorce must be examined by the Church’s marriage tribunal. If the case for the divorce is valid, then the marriage is annulled.

In the case of the remarried, their previous marriage must be examined by the Church’s marriage tribunal, and if their marriage is proved to be invalid, the marriage can be annulled. Before they are admitted to the sacraments, however, their remarriage union must first be convalidated by the Church.  


What is your comment on the Western world’s notion of tying foreign aid to the acceptance homosexuality?

The two things are totally different. One is an ethical and moral problem, while the other is an economic and political problem.

For instance, if the aid was given to address a critical health issue like HIV/AIDS, then a government that puts such a precondition becomes criminal. To me, issues of pleasure should not be mixed with issues of life and death. All said and done, I stand with the position of the Catholic Church.

Over and above all else, if humanity is to flourish, then it should be the responsibility of every Christian — not only bishops, priests and religious — to promote marriage and the family and to fight against the practice of homosexuality.

We need to protect and promote the authentic union between man and woman so as to build loving families. And there is need for guidelines to promote marriage and the family.

Register correspondent Sister Grace Candiru,

of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church,

writes from Kampala, Uganda.