Can You Marry Validly While Intoxicated?

Q: In a case where either bride or groom was inebriated at the time they exchanged vows, would the validity of the marriage take effect when the offending party regained sobriety?  Let’s say they continued to live as husband and wife for the following ten years. Curious. –Kevin

A: This question has never been asked before, but it’s actually been answered already in this space.  At issue here is the issue of consent, which, as we’ve seen many times in the past (in “Marriage and Annulment,” “Contraception and Marriage Validity, and “Canon Law and Fraudulent Marriages,” among others), is crucial for a valid Catholic marriage.  That’s because the sacrament of matrimony isn’t conferred on the couple by the cleric who celebrates the wedding; rather, the sacrament is administered by the spouses themselves, who confer it on each other.  As canon 1108.2 tells us, the cleric assists at the wedding by asking the spouses to manifest their consent, and receiving it in the name of the Church.  Technically, therefore, he’s not celebrating a sacrament!

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.  At issue in Kevin’s question is the very first part of this definition, so let’s look at that part more closely.

Consent is an act of the will.  This is why the Church holds that persons who are unable to think rationally—like those who have serious mental disabilities or illnesses—are incapable of marrying (c. 1095), because among other things, they can’t make this necessary act of the will.  To be fair, this is a tremendous oversimplification of the full issue, as there are innumerable gradations of the “mental disabilities or illnesses” just mentioned, as well as emotional issues (sometimes stemming from traumatic experiences in childhood), which may render a person incapable of consenting to marriage as the Church understands it.  Incidentally, this is why marriage tribunals around the world routinely spend many hours on certain cases, trying to sort out whether a spouse’s consent was defective or not.  It is quite common for judges to seek input from medical doctors and psychologists, who can submit a professional assessment of a spouse’s mental state, in order to aid the judges in reaching their decision.

Being intoxicated, or high on drugs, is not in itself a “mental problem,” of course; but certainly it can potentially affect a person’s ability to consent—and as we’ve just seen, if a person is not capable of consenting to marriage at the time of the wedding, the marriage is not valid. Consequently, if one spouse is so drunk at the moment of the exchange of vows during the wedding ceremony that he/she genuinely doesn’t know what he/she is doing or saying, this obviously will vitiate his/her consent.  And if one spouse doesn’t properly consent to marriage while exchanging vows, this in turn affects the validity of the marriage—even if the other spouse gets it perfectly right.

This is why showing up drunk to your own wedding is no laughing matter.  It definitely does happen sometimes that one or both spouses spend the night before the wedding partying with friends, and arrive at the church the next morning still reeling from that experience.  Family members and friends might roll their eyes at the bride’s and/or groom’s foolish immaturity, but there’s a lot more at stake here than bad wedding-photos showing their bloodshot eyes!

For the sake of example, let’s say that a couple gets married, but during the ceremony the groom is far from sober.  He may look like he has complete control of his words and actions; but let’s say that in reality, he’s simply repeating whatever words he is told to say, and doing whatever other persons indicate that he should do.  The next morning, the new husband genuinely has no recollection whatsoever of the wedding ceremony.

Well, strictly speaking, if he abruptly decided that he wanted out of the marriage, and if he could somehow prove to the diocesan Marriage Tribunal that he was in fact incapable of giving consent because he was totally drunk, our imaginary groom could indeed have his marriage annulled.  (And yes, unlikely things like this have really happened.)  But let’s say that this man really loves his bride and wants to be married to her.  Let’s say that overall, his intentions were fundamentally good and in accord with Catholic teaching; it’s just that on the day of the wedding he really messed up.  What can/should he do?

The answer to this question can be found in “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? (Part III).”  In that case, the situation was alcohol-free, but it was nonetheless canonically identical to this one: one of the parties appeared to consent at the time of the wedding ceremony, but in reality did not.  That spouse wanted to remain married, but knew that her consent had been defective.  The solution in her case applies also to the one that Kevin raises here.

Canon 1159.1 tells us that a marriage which is invalid because one spouse’s consent was defective is convalidated—i.e., made valid—when that spouse now consents, assuming of course that the consent of the other spouse still perdures.  If the defect of consent cannot be publicly proven, then all that is necessary is for the spouse to make this new act of consent privately and in secret (c. 1159.2).  But if the defective consent has become a matter of public knowledge, the couple must exchange consent in a new ceremony, following canonical form (c. 1159.3).  That’s because if it has become known that the marriage was invalid due to defective consent, 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.

Returning now to the scenario Kevin describes, if it was obvious to everybody that the bride or groom was so inebriated as not to know what he/she was doing, then a new ceremony is required.  A private one is fine, but it has to be noted in the marriage register of the parish.  That way, if anyone ever wants to impugn the validity of the marriage in the future—perhaps rightly claiming that “she was staggering down the aisle, staring blankly at everyone with glassy eyes, and had to be prompted three times to say her vows properly!”—then it would be a simple matter to show concretely that any problem with the validity of this marriage had later been rectified in the eyes of the Church.

But if nobody had any idea that the spouse was too drunk to understand what was really happening, and externally the wedding appeared to go off without a hitch, then a simple, private act of consent when sober is enough.  In this case, the other spouse doesn’t even need to know what happened.

Kevin’s suggestion that “the validity of the marriage [might] take effect when the offending party regained sobriety” is not correct.  The mere fact that the spouse is no longer drunk is not, in and of itself, sufficient to make the marriage valid; it is necessary for that spouse actually to make an act of consent when he/she is sober.  Whether the couple stays together for ten years or not isn’t relevant—a proper act of consent is.

What a tragedy, that many people in our society today think so lightly of receiving the sacrament of matrimony that they would attempt to celebrate it while under the influence of alcohol!  Weddings can be lots of fun, but the sacrament of matrimony is not a game.  Bride and groom have to be prepared and able to give their consent during the ceremony.  The validity of their marriage depends on it.

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