Canon Law and Consummating a Marriage

Q:  Could you please explain what ratum sed non consummatum means with respect to marriage?  I always thought that this was an antiquated term that no longer had any relevance, but recently I encountered it [in a current context]…  Why would it matter to the Church whether a marriage has been consummated or not? –Fiona

A: The Latin phrase ratum sed non consummatum is translated literally as “ratified but not consummated,” and it has been used by theologians and canonists in regard to matrimony for many centuries.  These four Latin words actually contain a wealth of information about the way the Church views marriage and its indissolubilityCanonically speaking, the consummation (or not) of a marriage can make a big difference!  Let’s take a look.

As was discussed recently in “Contraception and Marriage Validity,” the Church holds that a marriage actually comes about through the properly manifested consent of the spouses.  As canon 1057.1 notes, this consent cannot be supplied by any human power.  If a person does not want to get married, it’s impossible for anybody else to arrange somehow to have him/her married against his will!  No consent, no marriage—it’s as simple as that.  If a spouse can demonstrate that he/she was pressured into going through the motions of exchanging consent during the wedding ceremony, and really didn’t mean it, the Church will recognize the invalidity of the marriage, and declare it null.

But consummation of the marriage plays a role in the equation too, as it has for centuries!  Before we can sort out what that role is, however, it’s necessary to define some terms.  In canon 1061.1, the code explains the precise meanings of the Latin terms ratum and consummatum, before getting into their legal implications.  For starters, a marriage between two baptized persons, during which they validly exchanged consent, is said by that very fact to be ratum, or ratified.

The next term probably seems pretty obvious!  Catholic or not, we adults can generally figure out what it means to “consummate a marriage.”  Yet the wording of the definition of consummatum in canon 1061.1 is very exact: canonically, a marriage has been consummated if the spouses have, in a human manner, engaged together in a conjugal act in itself apt for the generation of offspring.

There’s more going on here than is often implied by the vague term “having sex.”  First of all, the spouses have to engage in the normal act of heterosexual intercourse, which by its very nature can potentially result in the conception of a child.  This means that an interrupted sex act, anal or oral sex, or any other unnatural sexual activity does not fit the bill.

Secondly, note that the canon specifies that this sexual act must be engaged in “in a human manner.”  This is generally interpreted to mean that the action is voluntary on the part of both spouses, who are each cognizant of what is taking place.  If, therefore, a husband forcibly rapes his wife, without her at any point agreeing to engage in the sex act, this would not constitute consummation of the marriage.  Similarly, if one spouse were unconscious, or so drunk/drugged that he/she had absolutely no idea what was going on and thus could not acquiesce in any sexual activity that might be taking place under these conditions, the marriage would not be considered consummated by this act.

By this point, readers might have joined Fiona in asking themselves, “What difference does it make?”  Well, if the marriage falls apart and one or both spouses want out, canonically it matters a great deal!  Canon 1141 explains the Church’s theological understanding of the significance of the consummation of a valid marriage: a marriage which has been ratified and consummated (ratum et consummatum) cannot be dissolved by any human power, or by any cause other than death.  If a couple have been validly married, and have consummated their marriage, the Church holds that their marriage is indissoluble.  Period.

But if the couple were validly married, yet had never consummated their marriage—a marriage ratum sed non consummatum, in other words—the situation is theologically quite different!  Such a marriage can be dissolved by the Roman Pontiff for a just reason, at the request of one or both parties to the marriage (c. 1142).  A ratum sed non consummatum marriage is not indissoluble, because the indissolubility of a valid marriage comes about through its consummation.  As the Catechism notes, “this [matrimonial] consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fulfillment in the two ‘becoming one flesh’” (CCC 1627).  And the Catechism is certainly saying nothing new: medieval Catholic scholars wrestled with the issue of indissolubility for many years, finally reaching in the 12th century the position which the Church continues to hold today.

It might be objected that this is an uncommon scenario.  While it’s true that petitions requesting the dissolution of a ratum sed non consummatum marriage might not be submitted every day, this situation nevertheless  arises more often than most people probably realize.  It sometimes happens, for example, that one spouse altogether refuses to engage in sexual activity with the other.  The rejected party might naturally and reasonably wish to dissolve such a marriage—a marriage that fails to constitute a partnership of their whole lives, ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children (c. 1055.1).

Several decades ago, there was actually something of a mini-wave of ratum sed non consummatum marriage cases being sent to the Pope for dissolution, from a country within the former Soviet bloc.  Because of the dire shortage of housing in some areas there, young couples planning to marry were being put on long waiting-lists for an apartment of their own.  In the meantime, it was not uncommon for them to celebrate the wedding—in the parish church, in full accord with church law—but then each spouse would simply return to his/her parent’s home, where they lived separately until eventually obtaining their own apartment.

While waiting for their new home to become available, a couple in this scenario never spent the night together, and so they didn’t have the opportunity to consummate their marriage.  And sometimes, while they were still waiting and living separately, things changed and they no longer wanted to live together as man and wife after all!  These were clear-cut ratum sed non consummatum marriages, and so the spouses were able to obtain their dissolution—after which each party was free to marry again in the Church.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is not the same as obtaining an annulment.   In “Marriage and Annulment,” we saw that a decree of nullity of a marriage is a statement that no marriage ever actually existed.  One or both spouses might have given defective consent, or (in the case of a marriage involving at least one Catholic) the wedding was not celebrated in accord with the required canonical form, or there may have been some other factor impeding one or both spouses from entering a valid marriage.  An annulment is a declaration that the two parties to what appeared to be a marriage, weren’t really married after all.

Dissolving a ratum sed non consummatum marriage is altogether different.  In this case, nobody is claiming that the marriage is invalid—that’s why it’s said to be ratum, or ratified.  Instead, the Church holds that the couple is really and truly married, but that their marriage isn’t indissoluble.  Thus the Supreme Pontiff is able to dissolve it, if the couple are able to prove that their marriage has never been consummated.

A petition requesting the dissolution of such a marriage is submitted first to the diocesan bishop (c. 1699.1); after an investigation, the documention is forwarded to Rome, together with the bishop’s own opinion (c. 1705.1).  Unfortunately, not all ratum sed non consummatum cases are as easily verifiable as the east-European ones mentioned previously!  If the wife’s virginity can be medically proven, it would be rather hard for the Church to refute the couple’s claim to non-consummation; otherwise, consummation of the marriage is assumed if the spouses have lived together after the marriage (c. 1061.2), so the husband and/or wife would have to submit some sort of credible evidence to the contrary.  Mere assertions by one or both spouses would not constitute adequate proof that their marriage was never consummated.

By this point, we can see that while the phrase ratum sed non consummatum has been used with regard to marriage by theologians and canon lawyers for many hundreds of years, it still has legal significance even today.  As we have seen so often in this space, canon law follows theology—and in this situation, canon law is merely following Catholic theology regarding the indissolubility of marriage.

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