Papal Clarifications about Marriage

The annual addresses of the Holy Father to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota for the inauguration of the Judicial Year offer Magisterial guidance on the challenges facing ecclesiastical jurisprudence regarding marriage law. This year’s address got headlines because Pope Francis said “there can be no confusion between the family desired by God and any other kind of union” – just as the Italian Parliament was debating legal recognition of same-sex civil unions. But a more significant aspect of the pope’s address was his clarification of the role faith plays in entering into marriage.

Two earlier papal canonical interventions form the background to this. The first is the motu proprio Mitis Iudex, reforming various canons of the Code of Canon Law regarding marriage nullity proceedings. A briefer process for marriage nullity cases was established, and an addendum gives guidance to Church tribunals on implementation.

Article 14 states: “Among the circumstances of things and persons that can allow a case for nullity of marriage to be handled by means of the briefer process according to canons 1683-1687, are included, for example: the defect of faith which can generate simulation of consent or error that determines the will.”

The inclusion of a “defect of faith” is interesting since faith is not required for marriage in the Church (hence a Catholic may obtain a dispensation to marry an unbeliever). Canon law establishes that “for matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.” (1096)

“Simulation of consent” means consciously faking one’s marriage vow. “An error that determines” the will regarding the “unity, indissolubility or sacramental dignity of marriage” vitiates one’s consent due to a profoundly mistaken understanding of what marriage is, such that, presuming good faith, the person so mistaken would not have gotten married in the Church if he correctly understood what marriage is.

In both cases, defective, weak, or ignorant faith is not itself grounds for invalidity; rather, the marriage is invalid when the baptized person either fraudulently in the case of simulation, or mistakenly in the case of an erroneous understanding of marriage, makes what are – in fact – ineffectual vows. The defective quality of one’s faith can be the cause of these problems, but people without faith can also act fraudulently or mistakenly.

Pope Francis with the Rota

The motu proprio followed on the heels Pope Francis’ 2015 Rotal address in which he said: ”[t]here exists in fact a kind of spiritual worldliness ‘which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church’” (Ap. Ex. Evangelii gaudium, n. 93), and which leads to the pursuit of personal well-being instead of the glory of the Lord. One fruit of that attitude is “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.”

Clearly, for anyone who bends under this attitude, the faith will always be deprived of its value as normative. This leaves the door open for compromises with one’s own egoism and the current mentality, which has become dominant through the mass media.

For this reason, the judge, in deliberating the validity of expressed consent, must keep in mind the context of value and faith – or their absence – in which the intention to marry is formed. Indeed, the lack of knowledge of the contents of the faith might lead to what the Code calls determinant error of the will (1099). This circumstance can no longer be considered exceptional, as it was in the past, given the prevalence of worldly thinking imposed on the magisterium of the Church.”

Contrast this with what the pope said in January:

It is worth clearly reiterating that the essential component of marital consent is not the quality of one’s faith, which according to unchanging doctrine can be undermined only on the plane of the natural (cf. CIC c. 1055 §§ 1,2). Indeed, the habitus fidei is infused at the moment of Baptism and continues to have a mysterious influence in the soul, even when faith has not been developed and psychologically speaking seems to be absent. It is not uncommon that couples are led to true marriage by the instinctus naturae and at the moment of its celebration they have a limited awareness of the fullness of God’s plan. Only later in the life of the family do they come to discover all that God, the Creator and Redeemer, has established for them. A lack of formation in the faith and error with respect to the unity, indissolubility, and sacramental dignity of marriage invalidate marital consent only if they influence the person’s will (cf. CIC c. 1099). It is for this reason that errors regarding the sacramentality of marriage must be evaluated very attentively.

Thus Francis clarified that the validity of marital consent does not depend upon the “the quality of one’s faith.” That is impossible to judge, and is only relevant in cases where one’s “lack of knowledge of the contents of the faith,” not one’s faith itself, led to one’s decision to be married in the Catholic Church, or led one to willfully fake one’s consent.

This occurrence is not impossible, but I think it is extremely rare. Clearly, however, the mere fact of being a non-practicing or poorly educated Catholic at the time of marriage does not invalidate it. Only a basic knowledge that marriage is a permanent union of a man and a women, ordered to procreation through sexual union, is required, along with the honest exchange of vows.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.