Synod: Church in Africa Called to “theological, pastoral discernment” on Polygamy Issue

African delegates in the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome. Credit: Vatican Media

The delegates at the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops are encouraging the leadership of the people of God in Africa to discern pastoral care towards persons in polygamous unions.

In the Synod on Synodality’s “synthesis report” that the Vatican released in Italian on Saturday, October 28 night, a document written by “experts” invited to participate in the Synod and overseen by a commission of 13 Synod delegates, some 20 topics are discussed, each of the topics having “convergences,” “matters for consideration,” and “proposals”.

Under the topic, “For a Church that listens and accompanies”, the highly anticipated text, which was reportedly approved paragraph by paragraph on October 28 by a vote of 344 Synod delegates, addresses members of the Symposium of Episcopal Conference of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).

The continental symposium of Catholic Bishops, the Synod delegates say, “is encouraged to promote theological and pastoral discernment on the issue of polygamy and the accompaniment of people in polygamous unions coming to faith.”

In this topic, under “matters for consideration”, the Synod delegates encourage the people of God across the globe to enhance Small Christian Communities (SCCs), a new way of being Church that the leadership of the Church in Africa has included in its evangelization structures.


“Widespread in many parts of the world, grassroots or small Christian communities foster listening practices of and among the baptized,” the Synod delegates say in their 42-page document, adding, “We are called to enhance their potential, including exploring how they can be adapted to urban contexts.”

In Eastern Africa, the Catholic Church has fostered SCCs for five decades.

In August, the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) launched the Golden Jubilee Year of SCCs to assess the status of this new way of being church in the region.

“By December 2023, it will be 50 years since the Small Christian Communities were adopted by the AMECEA Region as a pastoral priority,” Bishop Rogatus Kimaryo of Tanzania’s Same Diocese and Chairman for AMECEA Pastoral Department said in his key address during the launch that was held in Malawi’s Dedza Diocese.

Bishop Kimaryo added that the Pastoral Departments of Bishops’ Conferences in the AMECEA region will be spearheading the yearlong Golden Jubilee celebrations, “not as an event, but a process comprising of several strategic activities involving all AMECEA member Conferences.” 

More in Africa

In the synthesis report that aims to be “a tool at the service of ongoing discernment”, the Synod delegates also address the reality of SCCs under the topic, “Participating bodies” from the perspective of “matters for consideration”.

Hinting to this new way of being church in Africa, the Synod delegates say, “Synodality grows in the involvement of each member in processes of discernment and decision-making for the mission of the Church: in this sense we are edified and encouraged by many small Christian communities in emerging Churches, which live a daily fraternal "body to body" around the Word and the Eucharist.”

Still under the topic of “a Church that listens and accompanies”, the Synod delegates pose the question of what needs to “change so that those who feel excluded can experience a more welcoming Church” and go on to affirm, “Listening and accompaniment are not just individual initiatives, but a form of ecclesial action. This is why they must find a place within the ordinary pastoral planning and operational structuring of Christian communities at different levels, also valuing spiritual accompaniment.”

“The Church is not starting from scratch, but already has numerous institutions and structures that carry out this valuable task,” the Synod delegates further say, and acknowledging the service of Caritas, propose pastoral care to migrants and refugees.

They say, “Think, for example, of the capillary work of listening to and accompanying the poor, marginalized, migrants and refugees carried out by Caritas and many other realities linked to consecrated life or lay associations. It is necessary to work to strengthen their link with community life, preventing them from being perceived as activities delegated to a few.”


Under the topic, “The poor, protagonists of the Church's journey”, the Synod delegates had consensus about the fact that there are different kinds of poverty.

They say, “Among the many faces of the poor are those of all those who lack the necessities to lead a dignified life. Then there are those of migrants and refugees; indigenous, original and Afro-descendant peoples; those who suffer violence and abuse, particularly women; people with addictions; minorities who are systematically denied a voice; abandoned elderly; victims of racism, exploitation and trafficking, particularly minors; exploited workers; economically excluded and others living in the peripheries.”

“The most  vulnerable of the vulnerable, on whose behalf constant advocacy is needed, are babies in the  womb and their mothers,” the Synod delegates say, and add, “The Assembly is aware of the cry of the ‘new poor,’ produced by the  wars and terrorism that mar many countries on different continents, and condemns the  corrupt political and economic systems that cause them.”

The plight of migrants and refugees is also addressed in the topic, “A Church from every tribe, tongue, people and nation’”. Here, the Synod delegates call on Church to take decisive strategies, “particularly in pastoral formation programs”, to address the challenges of racism and xenophobia.

“In a world in which the number of migrants and refugees is increasing while the willingness to  accept them is decreasing, and in which the foreigner is viewed with increasing suspicion, it is  appropriate for the Church to engage decisively in education in the culture of dialogue and  encounter, combating racism and xenophobia, particularly in pastoral formation programs,” they say.

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The Synod delegates add, “It is equally necessary to engage in projects for the integration of migrants.”

Over 80 proposals were approved in the Synod vote, including establishing a new “baptismal ministry of listening and accompaniment,” initiating discernment processes regarding the decentralization of the Church, and strengthening the Council of Cardinals into a “synodal council at the service of the Petrine ministry.”

The summary report does not have definitive conclusions on blessing of same-sex unions, the ordination of women, and optional Priestly celibacy, among other hot-button topics, which have drawn the lion’s share of media attention in this first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Still, the hot-button issues, which the Synod delegates call “controversial”, were addressed. For instance, among the proposals during the October 4-29 meeting at the Vatican, was the request for continued theological study of the possibility of women deacons. The Synod delegates requested that the results of such a study be shared at the next session of the Synod on Synodality, which Pope Francis extended to October 2024.

In the October 28 Synthesis report, the Synod delegates recognize their differing views regarding the possibility of a female diaconate.

The Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Communications, Dr. Paolo Ruffini has been quoted as saying that over 1,000 amendments were submitted by Synod delegates to the original draft of the report after it was presented to the assembly on October 25.

It has also been reported that in the exercise that saw every paragraph approved in the voting process, the paragraph describing “uncertainties surrounding the theology of the diaconal ministry” and calling for more reflection on women’s access to the diaconate received the most negative votes.

The Synod delegates, who, for the first time included the Laity with the power to vote on the final document, agreed that persons who feel excluded because of their sexuality or gender identity stand in need of accompaniment and that the Church needs to defend their dignity.

Fr. Don Bosco Onyalla is ACI Africa’s founding Editor-in-Chief. He was formed in the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Spiritans), and later incardinated in Rumbek Diocese, South Sudan. He has a PhD in Media Studies from Daystar University in Kenya, and a Master’s degree in Organizational Communication from Marist College, New York, USA.