Contraception and Marriage Validity

Q: A friend is going to marry a man whose previous marriage was annulled… he says he was able to get an annulment because his wife was against having children and took contraceptives.  Does that mean every Catholic marriage is invalid if the couple uses contraception?–Marisa

A: No.

It’s impossible to determine the exact grounds for the annulment of the marriage which Marisa describes, based solely on the information provided here.  Nevertheless, we can examine the reasons why contraception might have been a pivotal factor in proving the nullity of this marriage.

As we saw in “Marriage and Annulment,” a marriage is brought about by the lawfully manifested consent of persons who are legally capable of marrying (c. 1057.1).  Over the course of many centuries, Catholic sacramental theology concerning marriage developed until a general consensus was established, that consent is what makes a marriage.  This is the reason why nobody can ever be married in a Catholic wedding ceremony against his/her will.

It should be pretty obvious that if a bride and groom are to properly manifest matrimonial consent, they first have to know what exactly a marriage is, and understand all that it entails.  It’s not logically possible to consent to something, if you don’t actually know what you are consenting to!  If one or both of the spouses fails to understand or accept all the implications of getting married, and doesn’t fully appreciate what marriage really means in the eyes of the Catholic Church, this can affect the validity of the marriage.  That’s because the Catholic sacrament of matrimony isn’t conferred by the priest or deacon who officiates at the ceremony; the sacrament is conferred on each other by the spouses themselves.  Consequently, for a valid marriage, both of them have to get it right!

Canon 1101.1 notes that when the bride and groom exchange their wedding vows during their marriage ceremony, it is presumed that their internal dispositions correspond to the words they are uttering.  When each spouse promises to take the other “in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” the Church assumes that they mean what they say!  But if one or both of the parties, at the moment of exchanging vows during the wedding, really didn’t agree with the words he/she was pronouncing, and thus failed to consent to an essential property or element of matrimony, this affects the validity of the marriage—because it constitutes defective consent (c. 1101.2).

When determining whether a marriage is null because of a defect of consent, canon law relies heavily on sacramental theology in determining just what it is that the spouses must consent to at their wedding.  Canon 1101.2, just mentioned, notes that a marriage is invalid if one or both parties excluded any essential element or property of marriage.  What does this mean?  Well, the essential properties of marriage are clearly spelled out in canon 1056, which states that they are unity and indissolubility.  Declining to consent to either of these invalidates a marriage.  For example, if a couple were to exchange consent in a Catholic ceremony, and one of them merely “went through the motions” of promising to live with the other until death—all the while interiorly thinking that divorce is always an option if it doesn’t work out—the marriage is null.  This sort of scenario occurs particularly when one spouse is not Catholic, or is not a practicing or truly committed Catholic, and thus isn’t really “sold” on the Catholic understanding of marriage.  He/she may correctly recite the proper words, but perhaps while inwardly rolling his/her eyes, well aware that he/she is saying the required words merely to please family members or the other spouse.  Exteriorly, the wedding ceremony may appear to have gone off without a hitch—but the couple actually aren’t married at all, because one of the spouses simulated consent.

So the code explains quite unequivocally what the essential properties of marriage are—but the essential elements of marriage are not clearly spelled out anywhere.  This is where Catholic theology necessarily plays a big role, because it tells us what Catholic marriage is substantively all about.  Canonists can then extrapolate from the Church’s theological teachings, in order to determine what constitutes an essential element of marriage.

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, described the Church’s understanding of marriage:

The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator… and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent… By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown… As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them (GS 48).

Vatican II’s explanation of what marriage entails is theological rather than canonical, of course.  And in defining marriage it also employs some terminology which is relatively new, even though the basic idea of marriage is anything but!  In trying to apply this new wording of abstract theological concepts  to concrete legal situations after the council, canonists soon found themselves in uncharted waters—and to this day, it’s quite possible for good lawyers sometimes to legitimately disagree about the correct way to interpret the law in a given case.  Speaking in broad terms, though, it is generally agreed that the “essential elements of marriage” involve the fact that marriage is ordained both for the good of the spouses, and for the procreation and rearing of children.  (This interpretation is backed by the wording of canon 1055.1, an unquestionably theological canon of the code, which however doesn’t actually identify the “essential elements of marriage” as such.)

This means that if either the bride or groom (or both!) were to recite the correct formulation of words at their wedding, but internally had determined that there was simply no way that they ever wanted to have children, it would vitiate matrimonial consent.  Put differently, the spouse(s) in such a case would be positively willing to exclude the procreation and rearing of children, an essential element of matrimony—thus simulating consent, as described in canon 1101.2 mentioned above.

Logically, a married person who has actively determined that he/she never wants to have children will turn to artificial forms of contraception, and will presumably intend to use them long-term, until childbearing years have passed.  In this specific sort of situation, therefore, contraception can potentially play a role in determining that a marriage is null due to defective consent.

That does not mean, however, that every Catholic marriage is ipso facto null because the spouses use artificial birth control.  It’s entirely possible that a married Catholic may feel that while he/she is open to children in the long run, it’s preferable to wait until after (let’s say) finishing graduate school, or getting to know each other better, or reaching a desired level of financial stability.  In such cases, at the time of their wedding, neither spouse rejected the Church’s notion that marriage is ordained for the procreation of children.  But they have decided, temporarily, to control the timing of the birth of those children by artificial means.

Note that even when this mentality doesn’t affect the validity of a marriage, it is nevertheless directly against church teaching!  The Catholic Church has repeatedly condemned the use of artificial birth control in official pronouncements, such as Pope Paul VI’s famous 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (14), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2370).

In 1981, Pope John Paul II explained the theological reasoning behind the Church’s position, in terms that pertain directly to the definition of Christian marriage as discussed above.  In the process, he indirectly raised the possibility that the decision to contracept can vitiate matrimonial consent in yet another sense:

When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as “arbiters” of the divine plan and they “manipulate” and degrade human sexuality—and with it themselves and their married partner—by altering its value of “total” self-giving.  Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other.  This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality (Familiaris Consortio 32) .

John Paul argues here that not only can the decision to use artificial means to prevent conception constitute a refusal to accept the birth of children; but it can also indicate that one spouse wants to deny to the other the full gift of oneself, which the Church considers an integral part of Christian marriage.  In this sense, the decision to use artificial birth control can in some circumstances vitiate matrimonial consent because the spouse(s) have failed to consent to the other essential element of marriage mentioned above: the good of the spouses.  After all, if one spouse has decided to withhold from the other the possibility of ever having children, how could he/she possibly be wishing the very best for the other party to the marriage?

In judging a marriage nullity case where the use of contraceptives is being alleged as a pivotal issue, canonists have to tread carefully, and be sure that there is sound, concrete evidence proving the actual intentions of the spouses at the time of their exchange of wedding vows.  It may be that the case described by Marisa fits the description here, which in turn means that the use of birth control by the wife really did vitiate her consent, thus resulting in an invalid marriage.

Two different conclusions could be reached from all of this.  Firstly, the Church’s insistence on some sort of pre-marriage preparation for both spouses is well founded, because engaged couples must know exactly what they’re getting into when they marry—the validity of their marriage depends on it!  Secondly, the Church’s teaching about the use of artificial contraception is grounded in far more than “just” the regulation of births.  Having the correct understanding of the impact which artificial birth control can have on the married life of the spouses plays a role in gaining a true appreciation for what Christian marriage is really all about.

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