Canon Law and Fraudulent Marriages

Q:  My fiancée and I attended a marriage-prep class in our diocese, and one of the speakers said something we didn’t fully understand.  First he urged us to be open and honest with each other about our past lives, not hiding anything from one another, which made basic sense to us.  But then he mentioned that we need to do this because otherwise our marriage could be null.

We’ve known each other since childhood anyway, so it’s a moot point for us.  Later on, though, we were wondering if telling your future spouse every single little thing about you is really necessary for a valid Catholic marriage?  What happens if you honestly forget to mention something?  –Scott

A:  Even without knowing exactly what was said by the speaker at Scott’s marriage-preparation course, it’s still relatively easy to reconstruct what he was probably talking about.  At issue here is the Church’s teaching (discussed in greater detail in “Marriage and Annulment” ) that it is the consent of the spouses that makes a marriage.  For a valid marriage, both spouses—not just one!—must freely consent to it (c. 1057).

But as we saw in “Contraception and Marriage Validity,” you can’t consent to something if you don’t understand what it is!  That’s why Scott and his fiancée, like other engaged couples in many parts of the Catholic world, were required to attend a course before they could get married in the Catholic Church.  Undoubtedly the speakers discussed the various aspects of Christian marriage as the Church understands it—so that the prospective spouses would be sure to understand it too.

Yet understanding what marriage is really all about forms only one part of the equation.  Another key element is understanding who your future husband/wife really is!  After all, when a bride and groom exchange consent at their wedding ceremony, they aren’t simply consenting to marriage in the abstract; they are each consenting to marry a specific person—the other party to the marriage.  And if you don’t really know who your future spouse is as a person, how can you truly give your consent to marry him/her?

This is, somewhat paradoxically, where human nature can sometimes get in the way.  For when we find ourselves strongly attracted to a person of the opposite sex, we of course want to convince that person to be interested in us too.  We consequently strive to be on our best behavior, “put our best foot forward,” and do whatever it takes to get the other person’s attention and make him/her attracted to us in return.  If we have any bad habits that might be potential “turn-offs,” we try to mask them; and if we have anything in our past lives that we fear the other person might react to negatively… we often try to cover it up.  And it is here that spouses can get into canonical trouble, because under certain circumstances, such a cover-up can constitute fraud.

Canon 1098 states that a marriage is invalid if one party is deceived by the other, who hides something about himself/herself in order to obtain the first party’s consent to the marriage.  The canon specifies that the “something” must be a quality that by its very nature can seriously disrupt the partnership of conjugal life.  The wording of this canon is very exact, and it deserves a closer look.

Note that this canon does not say that prospective spouses must tell each other “every single little thing” about themselves, as Scott puts it.  At issue here are only those matters which are so significant that if they were known to the other person, he/she would not agree to the marriage!  And note also that for a marriage to be found null under this particular canon, the one spouse must have deliberately deceived the other, by consciously hiding/distorting some aspect of his life which, if known, the other spouse would presumably object to.

So, for example, let’s say that John and Sally are dating and along the way, John makes it clear that whenever he decides to get married, it will be to the stereotypic “good Catholic girl” who (like John himself) has preserved her virginity until marriage.  Sally is extremely attracted to John, and would be thrilled to marry him; but she has a colorful past which definitely did not involve preserving her virginity at all—in fact, let’s say that she gave birth out of wedlock to a child whose father she can’t even identify, and subsequently gave the baby up for adoption.

When she realizes that John will never agree to marry her if she tells him what her past behavior was really like, Sally concludes that she won’t tell him about it at all!  Eventually, John asks Sally to marry him, because he wrongly believes that Sally is someone other than she is—and Sally has knowingly been playing along, fully aware that if she reveals the truth, John will break off their engagement altogether.

If this imaginary couple were to marry in the Catholic Church, their marriage would in fact be null, because Sally has committed fraud.  Her activities in her past life constitute a quality that of its very nature can, when it comes to light, seriously disrupt the partnership of conjugal life, as canon 1098 specifies.  Put differently, John would (through no fault of his own) be consenting to marry a Sally who actually doesn’t exist—resulting in defective consent on his part.

Note that our fictitious Sally has deceived John, specifically in order to secure his consent to marriage.  But what if John was determined to marry a girl who had preserved her virginity until marriage, but never mentioned this to Sally?  What if Sally failed to tell John about her past life and her illegitimate child, simply because she had subsequently changed her life dramatically and no longer behaved as she once did—and she now believes it is no longer relevant, and/or prefers not even to think about it?

Well, given the precise wording of canon 1098, if Sally’s cover-up wasn’t done for the express purpose of getting John to agree to marry her, then she didn’t actually commit fraud in the canonical sense.  Thus if John discovered the full story about his new bride after their marriage, and was horrified that he hadn’t married the sort of woman he thought he’d married, he could not petition the diocesan tribunal for a declaration of nullity under canon 1098.  But there is nevertheless a real possibility that the marriage could be declared null for a different (although somewhat related) reason.

Canon 1097.2 speaks of “error of a quality of the person.”  If a person directly and principally intends to marry someone with a particular quality, and then later discovers that the person actually doesn’t have that quality at all, the marriage may be invalid.  This is an extremely tricky situation with a lot of gray-area, which causes canonists to tread very carefully whenever dealing with an annulment petition that seeks a declaration of nullity on this ground.  That’s because every couple who marries will invariably discover things about each other that they didn’t know before, and maybe they won’t like what they find! (See “Sacraments and Personal Identity” for a different angle on this topic.)  It’s important to keep in mind that an unpleasant discovery about one’s new spouse doesn’t automatically mean the marriage is invalid—far from it.

To illustrate how this canon can work, let’s return to our imaginary John and Sally, and let’s say that Sally never mentioned her rocky past, but wasn’t deliberately trying to hide it either.  John, in turn, may have never mentioned this to Sally, but he actually spent a lot of time carefully looking for a future wife who was a virgin.  In fact, this quality was so important to John that you could say he was more intent on marrying a virgin, than he was on marrying Sally!

This sounds like an unusual situation, and statistically it probably is.  Ordinarily, we find ourselves attracted to another person as a person, and not only because of the qualities we believe they possess.  Consequently, if John were later to seek a declaration of nullity of his marriage to Sally, he would somehow have to prove his original motives in marrying her.  Even if he really did have this intention when he married, proving it to a marriage tribunal could understandably be quite difficult—particularly if he never explicitly mentioned it to anyone.  Since a tribunal naturally has to base its decisions on factual evidence, it’s possible that John would be unable to get an annulment, even if he truly had had this intention from the start.

If our fictitious John and Sally had each been more up-front about their thoughts and actions, of course, these problems would never have arisen!  This is, therefore, the likely reason for the statement of the speaker at Scott’s marriage-preparation course, that spouses who fail to tell each other about their past lives could conceivably find themselves in an invalid marriage.  Marriage counselors—Catholic or not!—invariably stress the importance of communication in maintaining a healthy marriage.  And as we’ve just seen, from the canonical standpoint, that communication should begin well before the wedding ever takes place.

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