Q: My oh-so-devout Catholic coworker is actively looking for a husband. She provides unsolicited updates on who she’s dating and what he’s like, etc. I began noticing that her descriptions of these men always include, first and foremost, his profession and how much money he earns.
I realized that she’s looking for a rich husband so she doesn’t need to work, she can stay at home with their children. Personally I think it’s great for a Catholic couple to marry and raise a Catholic family, but I don’t get the impression that my coworker is even looking at a man for who he is. She doesn’t care about the individual as much as she cares about his bank account and his career trajectory….
She isn’t the first woman in history who’s looking for a rich husband, but I’m wondering if Catholics who think this way are marrying validly? Aren’t you supposed to be focused on the person you’re marrying, not external factors like wealth? Is it a valid marriage if she marries some man just for his money? –Richard
A: Richard is right that worldwide, people have been marrying for money for centuries, so there’s no new development here. But does choosing a spouse only because he/she is wealthy invalidate a Catholic marriage? The answer to this seemingly simple question is surprisingly complex, since it is an issue of matrimonial consent—a topic about which entire books have been written. In short, it depends! We won’t be able to discuss every aspect of this question exhaustively here, but let’s take a look at the basics.
As we saw in “Marriage and Annulment” (among others), the Church teaches that 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 why nobody can ever be married in a Catholic wedding ceremony against his/her will.
We have seen in many articles in this space that there’s quite a lot which the spouses have to consent to! For one thing, they have to consent to marriage as the Church understands it—which means they must agree to the essential properties of marriage. Canon 1056 tells us that the essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility. So if, for example, a spouse mouthed the proper words during a Catholic wedding ceremony, but privately intended in future to seek a divorce if things didn’t work out, that would constitute defective consent and invalidate the marriage (discussed in greater detail in “Contraception and Marriage Validity”). Now apply this to Richard’s coworker: if she marries a rich man, but he subsequently loses his job or his business fails, will she want to walk away from the marriage? If so, her consent is defective, which means the marriage will be invalid.
Spouses also have to consent to marry this particular person. That’s why, as we saw in “Sacraments and Personal Identity,” you can’t “accidentally” marry the wrong person, through some sort of bait-and-switch stunt. We are perhaps all familiar with Shakespearean-era spoofs in which a desperate father tricks a bridegroom into marrying his unattractive older daughter (rather than the younger, beautiful one whom he actually loves), by keeping the bride’s face veiled during the ceremony; but under current canon law this situation is absolutely impossible. This is why canon 1097.1 states unequivocally that error of person renders a marriage invalid. You cannot consent to form a partnership of your whole life with another person if you don’t even know who that person is!
So how do we human beings normally go about deciding that we want to marry this particular person, rather than someone else?
As a general rule, we are initially attracted to other people because they exhibit traits which we find attractive. They are beautiful/handsome, they are intelligent and/or talented in various ways, their words/actions reveal their interior virtue, they are socially respectable … the list goes on. Sociologists will tell us what most of us probably know already: consciously or unconsciously, we are looking for someone who will be the best possible mother/father of our children—whom we want to be healthy, intelligent, physically attractive, and successful themselves.
It’s quite natural, therefore, for a man to be attracted to a lovely woman, at least partly/subconsciously because she could bear him beautiful children; but it happens all the time that after a meeting or two, he discovers that (for example) she has a boring personality, or isn’t too bright, or is primarily interested in things which he believes are without value. Her beauty prompted his initial interest; but he doesn’t want to marry a woman who is beautiful on the outside, yet (in his opinion) empty on the inside. In short, he’s focused on the whole person, of which physical appearance is only one part.
This is how it’s supposed to work, and often enough it does. We value certain qualities, and seeing them in someone will logically attract us to that person. Over time, we get to know the other person more thoroughly, and sometimes we conclude that this is a person worth spending one’s life with! Initially looking for the qualities we like should eventually lead us to a person whom we like. We start by just being attracted to the qualities (like physical beauty, or a first-rate education), and end by being attracted to the whole person. If this is what Richard’s coworker ends up doing, fine! She might find her head turned by a man with a high income … and after getting to know him better, she may realize she loves him for all that he is—not just his salary. She may conclude that she really does want to marry him “for better or for worse.” In terms of marriage validity, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this at all.
But in contrast, let’s take a different example: imagine that a man finds a woman with a shapely, beautiful body, and doesn’t care at all that (say) she lies all the time, or is insanely jealous of every other woman in the room, or due to laziness she doesn’t even try to do a good job at work. Imagine that he only cares about finding someone sexy to marry. One might make a good argument that he is not interested in establishing with his wife “a partnership of the whole of life,” as canon 1055.1 phrases it! What exactly is his intended purpose in marrying this person? If he’s only entering the marriage for the sex, and truly doesn’t care about anything else, he’s not consenting to marriage as the Catholic Church understands it. The same goes for Richard’s coworker: if she cares about nothing but living comfortably while staying at home with children, and isn’t interested in the full partnership described in canon 1055.1, then her idea of what she’s consenting to, and the Catholic Church’s theological teaching on marriage, are not in sync.
At the same time … there’s no denying that people are complicated beings, so matrimonial consent can often prove to be complicated too. Let’s return now to our fictional scenario of the man marrying a gorgeous woman solely for her body—and let’s imagine that the lovely wife later has a horrible car accident, severely disfiguring her for life. Let’s say that the man responds by loyally caring for her, and faithfully standing by her and giving her the support she needs—perhaps surprising many of their relatives and friends with his selfless reaction. If you think this sort of thing never happens, think again! It can and does happen that one or both spouses enter a marriage with immature, superficial intentions, but then grow up along the way.
We looked at a canonically comparable, real-life situation in “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? Part III.” Canon 1159.1 applied in that case, just as it applies to our imaginary couple above: 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. So if the shallow husband in our imaginary situation didn’t give proper consent at his wedding, by the grace of God he may have matured and ended up consenting to marriage correctly later on! It’s easy to apply this now to Richard’s coworker: even if she is trite enough simply to marry any man with a lot of money, not caring about the whole person at all, or about anything besides being able to live well on his income … she might subsequently grow up, and remedy her defective consent over time.
But there are other reasons why marriage consent can be so complex. Let’s now imagine that Richard’s coworker encounters a man who is anxious to marry her—but he knows that she wants a husband with enough money to support her and their future children in comfort. His current job doesn’t pay too well, and he has no particular reason to believe that this will change in future … and he knows that she won’t be interested in him if she finds out. So in order to get and keep her attention, he exaggerates his financial success, deliberately leading her to think that he’s got a lot more money than he really does. As we saw in “Canon Law and Fraudulent Marriages,” this constitutes fraud as per canon 1098—and it invalidates a marriage.
Let’s say Richard’s coworker marries this man, with the understanding that he’ll be able to provide financially for her and their future children. Let’s imagine that she married this man after concluding that she loves him for many reasons, one of which is her (erroneous) belief that he is professionally successful and will be a reliable bread-winner for their family. How will she react when she eventually discovers, to her amazement, that he can’t take care of his family at all—and that in order to marry her, he deliberately, completely misrepresented to her what he really is? (And yes, in case you’re wondering, matrimonial jurisprudence contains some truly spectacular, real-life cases where this sort of thing actually happened.)
In this scenario, Richard’s coworker finds that the man whom she married is a fundamentally different person from what she had thought! It’s one thing to be successful and prosperous, and honest with one’s bride-to-be; it’s quite another to be unable to care for one’s family, and to have willfully deceived one’s future wife about this. While a marriage tribunal could find this sort of marriage invalid due to fraud, it might also reach the same conclusion based on canon 1097.2. This canon declares that “error concerning a quality of the person” doesn’t invalidate a marriage, unless it’s a quality that is “directly and principally intended.” This concept is extremely nuanced, so let’s look at it closely.
When a man and a woman marry and begin living together, they invariably discover things about each other which they didn’t know before. Such discoveries do not automatically invalidate a marriage on the grounds of error concerning a quality of the person; if they did, nearly all marriages would be invalid, right? What canon 1097.2 is talking about is qualities which are substantial enough to make a person fundamentally different from what his/her spouse thought—and the spouse wouldn’t have married this person if this quality had been known in advance. If, for example, you thought your husband was a virgin like you, and that’s exactly the kind of guy you wanted to marry … but you later discover that he had previously worked as a male prostitute, that’s a pretty significant error which can totally change your understanding of who he really is—and constitute an error of the quality of the person, invalidating the marriage. On the other hand, if for some reason you thought your future husband would be a whiz at home repairs, and then found out that in reality, he’s utterly incapable of fixing a leaking faucet … that may certainly disappoint you, but it most likely doesn’t affect his overall identity as a person.
Returning to Richard’s coworker: if a big part of what she found desirable about her new husband was that he could financially support her and their children with his salary, and if this was a specific, determining factor in her decision to marry him, then canon 1097.2 could apply if she finds that she was wrong about this. That’s because in her mind, the ability to support a family was an important quality in a man, and she wouldn’t have married him if she thought he couldn’t do this.
Canon 1097.2 wasn’t invented out of the blue. It is a specific example of a general norm found earlier in the Code of Canon Law: canon 126 declares that any act done “out of ignorance or out of error concerning something which constitutes its substance or which amounts to a condition sine qua non is invalid.” It sounds like in the mind of Richard’s coworker, the financial capability to care for his family is a sine qua non condition, and so an error regarding this quality could invalidate the marriage.
Any canonist could probably write a lot more on this subject, but these are the basics. We don’t know any more about Richard’s coworker than he has told us, and who knows, her actual mindset might be quite different from what Richard has concluded about her! But if he’s accurately summed up her mentality about marriage, there’s no reason to assume automatically that the marriage she hopes to celebrate one day will be invalid. Let’s pray for Catholics looking forward to marriage, that they may prayerfully choose the right spouse, for the right reasons.
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