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In 1534 the act of of supremacy passed by the solidified the break from the Catholic church and made the king the supreme head of the church of england. Although there were many reasons for this going back centuries, one that forced the issue at that moment was the Pope refusing to release king Henry from his marriage vows. This was the act that broke the schism and let to Catholicism being less dominant in England.

In this alternate history, I would like things to play out differently. A form of polygamy is allowed, but limited to the noble class to prevent it from going out of control. This would allow Henry to stay married to his barren wife while marrying another who could give him an heir. While this won't prevent the schism by itself, it will by the church some time to set about making peace with Henry to keep Catholicism dominant. However, there are several obstacles to this that prevent it from becoming the norm.

The purpose of an ecumenical council is to define doctrine, reaffirm truths of the Faith, and extirpate heresy. The Pope would have to steer this group into accepting this radically different direction in order for it to become a social norm. By this time, Christianity had a long abhorrence to polygamy, associating it with barbarianism. In the civilized world, it was expected that a man would take one wife. This has been the accepted practice wherever Christianity was present, and any change in this tradition would likely be met with uproar. In addition to this, it is a basic doctrine that both man and woman are equal in the eyes of God. To have separate rights for the wealthy would appear anathema to Catholic faith.

An example of polygamy in Christianity would be some sects of Mormonism. however, Mormons are often considered a fringe Christian sect bordering on heretical, and not wholly accepted by others as a legitimate denomination. I would like to make limited polygamy and acceptable norm while leaving the faith somewhat recognizably Catholic. I also need to limit the backlash as much as possible. Is there a way to make this happen?

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    $\begingroup$ I take it you have never heard of Mormons? The early LDS Church had polygamy and some of the more radical ones do as well. Just look up Mormon Polygamy apologetics and you’ll find all kinds of justifications for this practice in an ostensibly Christian framework. (Note, I’m not Mormon and I don’t mean to cause any offense to their religion despite my personal disagreements with them) $\endgroup$ – NixonCranium Feb 21 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ Christianity inherited monogamy from the Hellenistic world. It was not a Christian invention, it was a Greek and Roman invention. The early Church practiced monogamy simply because there was no other legal choice. (And what @NixonCranium said; moreover, some people in some countries, notably the U.S.A., consider Mormons to be sort-of Christians.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 21 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, a cursory reading of Genesis, which predates Christianity, disagrees with you. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Mar 5 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew: A cursory reading of Genesis... Genesis 4:19-22: "And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah." And, of course, Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 5 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew: The social and moral life of the barbarians who populate the Old Testament was very different from ours. When we read those books it is not with the goal of emulating the bizarre and outlandish customs of their characters. It may be a good thing or not, but the uncontestable reality is that our civilization is descended from the classical Greco-Roman civilization and not from the stereotypically oriental civilization of the Old Testament. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 5 at 21:45
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It’s Been Done Before

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons as more popularly known have a history of polygamy Joseph Smith claimed to be a prophet, and he and his successor Brigham Young taught that God had ordained plural marriage (polygamy). They used a mixture of new revelations claimed by Smith and also Old Testament Laws on Concubines and Levirate Marriage

Several notable figures in the Old Testament were Polygamists, with Moses, David, and Solomon all having multiple wives and concubines.

So the Pope in your scenario needs to argue that since there are laws in the Old Testament that concern the practice of having multiple wives, that several exemplary figures in the Old Testament practiced polygamy, and therefore there is a biblical precedent for allowing a king to have more than one wife, particularly if it is for producing an heir

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Given NixonCranium's Excellent Answer which addresses the "conformable with Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Traditions" limitation, this should fall neatly into the realm of Papal Infallibility. The Pope doesn't need to convince the council of anything. He just needs to inform them of this newly revealed truth.

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    $\begingroup$ Papal infalllibility was established in the 19th century, waaaay too late for king Henry VIII. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 21 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the compliment $\endgroup$ – NixonCranium Feb 21 at 23:15
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Christianity inherited its initial social structure from Judaism, which allowed polygyny (though not polyandry) - it occurs several times in the Torah, and is never forbidden at any point. While it could be argued that the monogamous ideal was present from the start, Adam and Eve being the archetypal couple (forget the apocryphal Lilith for now), several prominent and positively-regarded Biblical figures had multiple wives: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon to name a few. There is a verse that forbids a king from "greatly increasing" his number of wives (or horses) but the exact amount is left vague. (Solomon, whose partners numbered in the hundreds, is sometimes criticized for this.)

The shift in Abrahamic religions towards and away from monogamy has gone back and forth over history, with several early hints to monogamy as an ideal but not explicitly forbidding polygamy until later periods. (Generally every verse that is used as evidence towards the monogamous ideal could be just as easily interpreted as forbidding extramarital relationships - which is what Christian polygamists, such as some Mormon sects, argue.)

In practice, religious ideology has largely followed sociological paradigms. Feudal societies tended to follow a "winner take all" structure, where the difference between the wealthy (who had abundant resources) and the poor (who barely had enough to support themselves, let alone a family) was far more significant than it was in periods with a larger middle class. In such societies there is a natural tendency for wealthy men to take multiple wives, both because there was an abundance of women seeking men who could support them, and having large numbers of children was a good way of maintaining control over large plots of land. Using marriages to cement treaties between landowners was also a common practice in feudal societies, and naturally this paradigm favored polygamy.

Periods with a larger middle class tended to favor a monomagmous structure, since middle class (skilled-labor) families function best when a family's resources (especially time, money, and energy used for education) are focused towards a small number of children. Religious practice and ideology often enforced this tendency when it occurred. Modern societies tend to have a much larger middle class compared to earlier ones overall, so monogamy tends to be the ideal, but this could easily be reversed if social structure changes back.

To make the concept of polygamy become mainstream again, simply increase the split between the wealthy and the poor.

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The Pope loses his secular power struggle with Germanic kings, or never engages in it in the first place.

The whole reason why Christianity bans polygamy has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with secular cultures and power struggles. As IndigoFenix notes, Christianity first got its monogamous slant from the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire; even in the New Testament, the only verse banning polygamy only banned it for priests/church elders.

Then in the Middle Ages, when Germanic tribes and kings started moving in Europe, they brought with them a tradition of polygamous marriages. The Catholic Church got into some secular power struggles with them, and decided that one of the better ways to do so was to control the institution of marriage, and thereby gain a degree of control over the monarchies; as a part of doing that, they banned polygamy as a way of asserting control.

So, for that not to have happened, either the Catholic Church lost this particular power struggle, or they decided not to try to exert this kind of control in the first place.

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All religions adapt to social and environmental conditions, given sufficient time, otherwise the fade into obscurity.

If your society is faced with a serious decline in male fertility -- may be a virus that inhibits motility of sperm or a contaminant in drinking water -- and if it has gone on long enough for people to figure it the effects -- but not necessarily the cause -- when faced with a severely declining population, the church might find reasons to doctrinally encourage polygamy.

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Aristocrats could and did have both wives and mistresses. In that sense, you already have one man simultaneously involved with multiple women; the problem is sorting out the legal questions, such as inheritance. What if Henry pushed Catherine into adopting and therefore legitimizing his son by another woman (either Henry FitzRoy or a fictional child), and both the Church and the rest of the nobility supported the move in the interests of political stability? (You see adoption occasionally in the Middle Ages and Renaissance using Roman legal models.)

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