Q: Please help me with a matter weighing on my conscience. My husband and I married in our parish church 16 years ago, but I agreed to get married there only because that’s what my parents wanted. Unlike my husband, I wasn’t really practicing my faith, I just went through the motions… gradually I had a reawakening of faith, and now am fully committed to the Catholic Church. But I’m afraid our marriage isn’t valid because I didn’t embrace concepts like indissolubility at the time of our wedding, nor did I want children, although I later changed my mind…. What do we need to do, to make our marriage right? I asked our parish priest, and he told me not to worry about it, but I am worried! –Marilena
A: As we’ve seen before in previous columns, the Church’s teaching on what exactly makes a marriage valid developed over the centuries, until theologians agreed that it is the consent of the spouses that makes a marriage (c. 1057). (See “Marriage and Annulment” and “Contraception and Marriage Validity” for more in-depth discussions of what matrimonial consent entails.) For a valid marriage in the Church, both husband and wife need to consent; if one of them merely “goes through the motions,” as Marilena puts it, the marriage is invalid because of defective consent on the part of one of the spouses.
Marilena is quite convinced that the consent she gave at her wedding was flawed. If we assume that she’s right, that would mean her marriage is indeed invalid. But Marilena also indicates that she now has a correct understanding of what Catholic marriage is all about, and she clearly wishes to remain with her husband. So what, if anything, needs to be done to remedy this situation?
As we saw in “What Does it Mean To Have Your Marriage Blessed?” Part I and Part II, the Church has established a couple of different ways to validate an invalid marriage, when the spouses wish to remain together as husband and wife in the eyes of the Church. If the marriage is invalid because the spouses did not properly follow canonical form, the marriage can be sanated, as was seen in Part I. If the marriage is invalid because of an impediment which was not dispensed, the marriage can either be sanated or convalidated, depending on the circumstances, as seen in Part II.
But Marilena’s situation is different, because it involves neither a lack of canonical form (since she and her husband were married in a Catholic ceremony), nor (to our knowledge, at least) an impediment. Rather, the invalidity of her marriage would stem from her failure to exchange consent with her husband at the time of their wedding. Matrimonial consent is defined in canon 1057.2, as an act of the will by which a man and a woman by an irrevocable covenant mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage. (What this actually means in practice was discussed in the other marriage columns already mentioned above.) How does the Code of Canon Law provide that defective matrimonial consent can be corrected?
The answer can be found in canon 1159. If a marriage is invalid because of a defect of consent, it becomes valid when the party who originally did not consent, now gives his/her consent. This assumes that the consent of the other spouse, which presumably was given correctly at the wedding, still perdures.
So do Marilena and her husband have to go through another wedding ceremony, to get it right? Not necessarily. If her defective consent cannot be proven—i.e., there exists no tangible, public evidence of it, that would constitute proof in the eyes of the community that Marilena’s marriage is invalid—all she needs to do is to give her consent now, privately and in secret (c. 1159.2). But if Marilena’s failure to consent to her marriage at the time of her wedding has somehow become a matter of public knowledge, it is necessary for her and her husband to exchange consent now in a new ceremony, following canonical form (c. 1159.3). This second ceremony may take place quietly and privately, but a record of it has to exist.
As was seen in Part II, the need for a second celebration if the invalidity of the marriage is publicly known is only logical. If and when society has somehow become aware that a marriage is not valid in the eyes of the Church, the correction of that invalidity must be done in such a way as to be able to show the world (if necessary) that the marriage is now valid. Otherwise, Marilena and her husband could conceivably be faced with public allegations that they were not truly husband and wife!
So if Marilena’s defective consent is between her and God, then she simply needs to make an act of the will consenting to marry her husband as the Church understands the term—and the marriage is made valid. There is no need to tell a soul, including her husband!
Marilena mentions that she spoke to her parish priest about the problem, and he hasn’t indicated the need for a second ceremony. Judging from what she says here, the priest has presumably already assessed her situation more fully than we can, and may have determined that Marilena has in fact already made a proper act of consent to her marriage—thus validating it. Her statements that she is “committed to the Catholic Church” and wants “to make our marriage right” would be consistent with this view.
It would seem, in other words, that Marilena’s marriage has already been made valid, even if it wasn’t valid at the time of her wedding. The words of her priest seem particularly apt, in this case: despite perhaps failing in the past, Marilena doesn’t need to worry about the validity of her marriage now.