Recently, we’ve had many requests for marriage ceremonies to be celebrated in our church. Some of the requests are very reasonable, and some are not. Likewise, there has been a “run” on requests to seek an annulment. I think it’s important for couples entering into marriage to have a clear understanding of what the Church teaches about the meaning of marriage, so that they may enter into a valid marriage and receive the sacramental graces that flow to the baptized as husband and wife. I think it’s incumbent upon me as pastor, then, to help explain some of the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the real understanding of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
In a press conference aboard the papal plane during his return flight from Armenia to Rome in June, Pope Francis again made headlines with his quick comment that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” After a firestorm of criticism erupted, the Holy Father himself authorized an amended transcript of his official remarks, changing his statement to say, “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null.” While it is only speculative to say, “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null,” it is certainly true to say that a portion of our sacramental marriages are null. Let me try to explain that statement in some detail.
First, the assertion that “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null” may cause some people who were married in the Church to wonder if their marriage is valid. Canon 1060 of the Code of Canon Law reassures people who have such concerns, stating, “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.” Moreover, canon 1101, §1 provides that “the internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words and signs used in celebrating marriage.” This means that marriages are presumed valid unless proven otherwise when a couple exchanges their vows in the required form of their wedding ceremony. In the very next paragraph, however, canon 1101, §2 says that if “either or both of the parties, by a positive act of will, exclude marriage itself, some essential element of marriage, or some essential property of marriage, the party contracts invalidly.” The first provision is rather obvious and direct: If someone says the words of the marriage vows, but is just going through the motions and doesn’t really intend what he or she is saying, the marriage is invalid. That would be unusual, but it does happen. The next two are a bit more complicated, but perhaps more common.
The essential elements of marriage include the right to conjugal life and openness to the procreation of children. Canon 1056 says that the essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility. Unity requires that marriage be a faithful and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman. Withholding consent from one or more of these essential elements or essential properties of marriage is where problems with validity arise.
A report dated Sept. 2, 2015, from the Pew Research Center, shows that while the vast majority of Catholics believe that a “traditional family” is “ideal” (“traditional” meaning a married man and woman raising children), a full 55% of Catholics believe that a man and woman cohabitating is “as acceptable and good as any other way of life.” Moreover, 70% of Catholics believe that a husband and wife choosing not to have children is “as acceptable and good as any other way of life.” However, if a spouse enters marriage intending never to have children, that marriage is invalid.
Spouses must also intend the permanency of their marriage in order for it to be valid marital consent. An underlying attitude of “if things don’t work out, we’ll just get a divorce” invalidates marital consent, since a valid marriage requires that a couple intend to stay married for life. Pope Francis referred to this attitude as a mark of the current “provisional culture” in which we live, namely, a culture that does not understand or embrace permanent commitments, and which opts out of promises as soon as things get difficult.
Along these lines, many Catholics are surprised to learn that adultery is not grounds for obtaining a declaration of nullity. In fact, canon 1152 “earnestly recommends that a spouse, moved by Christian charity and concerned for the good of the family, not refuse forgiveness to an adulterous partner and not disrupt conjugal life.” Recognizing that this may be difficult for some people, the innocent spouse has the right to separate under certain circumstances, doing so under the guidance of “the competent Church authority which, after having investigated all the circumstances, is to consider whether the innocent spouse can be moved to forgive the fault and not to prolong the separation permanently” (canon 1152, §3). Even in such cases of separation of the spouses due to adultery, the bond of marriage remains. However, if a spouse enters marriage thinking that adultery on the part of his or her spouse is a reason to end the marriage, then that spouse has not intended to enter a permanent marriage, and the “marriage” most likely would be considered invalid.
Other grounds for invalidity of marriage are psychological reasons under canon 1095 that impair a person’s use of reason or capacity to understand or give marital consent. Whatever may be grounds for declaring a marriage invalid, the Diocesan Tribunal looks at the factors that invalidate a person’s consent at the time of the wedding. This is essentially what distinguishes a declaration of invalidity, popularly known as an “annulment,” from a divorce, which in civil law simply dissolves a lawful marriage.
I hope this helps us understand why the Church considers the consent/vow-taking in a marriage ceremony to be the most important part of the wedding celebration, not the party that follows.