A Declaration of Nullity Based on Force and Fear

Recall from (3) that three factors are to be kept in mind regarding the legal presumption that once a marriage takes place it is a valid sacrament. The law states that marriage is brought about (c. 1057) through:

the consent of the parties (the bride and groom)
legitimately manifested,
by those qualified according to the law (again, the bride and the groom).
The last page addressed the theory of "the diamond of consent." Here we will concretize the theory with an example.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that 'makes the marriage.' If consent is lacking there is no marriage (CCC, 1626)."

Here is what you know ...
Let's suppose you were a friend of the groom's mother. You had attended the wedding of John and Susan in 1970. It was a beautiful ceremony. Both Susan and John looked so happy. The reception was one of the best parties you had ever been present at. Within the first year of marriage they had a son, John Jr.

Unfortunately, the marriage only lasted eight years when John and Susan divorced. However, you just heard that the church declared the marriage null. You can't believe it! You saw Susan walk down the aisle that day. You heard her and John, as the ministers, say, "I do." Susan and John were married and had a child. How can the church declare the marriage null? It's preposterous! Or, is it?

Here is what you didn't know ...
The investigation surrounding the proceedings for a declaration of nullity uncovered the following facts. Remember it was 1970. John and Susan were 18 year old seniors in high school. They had dated for only four months when she discovered she was pregnant. When she told her parents, they responded: "You have to get married. There is no question about it!" Her parents insisted that for the sake of the child she must marry her boyfriend.

Susan thought about her parents' directive for a few days. She went back to them and said: "I don't want to get married. I'm only eighteen. John is only eighteen. I don't love him and I'm certain he doesn't love me. I'll have the baby without question, but there is no way I will go through with a wedding!"

Her parents responded in anger by saying, "Fine! It's your decision. You're an adult and we can't make you get married. However, if you don't get married, we don't ever want to see you again. Good-bye, good luck, you are on your own. That's how strongly we feel as adults regarding the legitimacy of our first grandchild!"

So the circumstances were: Susan was eighteen, pregnant, and going to be thrown out of the house and abandoned with an infant unless she went through with a wedding ceremony. It was under those circumstances that she walked down the aisle that day. As she told it: "I smiled all day and no one knew what I was really feeling."

In fact, only a few people knew what Susan was feeling. Everyone else at the church thought this was a wonderful experience for Susan. As soon as Susan had stood up publicly and said, "I do," those in attendance and the faith community at large presumed a valid sacrament of marriage had been brought about. The church presumed that Susan, as the minister, meant what she said, otherwise, why would she have said it?!

In the proceedings before the tribunal Susan was able to prove that she married only under the directives of her parents due to the fear of being abandoned with a child. Her brother knew of the exchange between her parents, as did her best friend. Through witness corroboration the fear brought to bear on the minister's consent was substantiated. So after the testimonies of the witnesses had been collected and the legal arguments had been put forward, the marriage was declared null by the church on the grounds of force and fear.

Everyone at the church that day had seen this young bride walk down the aisle. Everyone had heard Susan, as the minister, say: "I do." However, after examining this minister's consent, as it had existed on the wedding day, it was clear she was acting against her will.

The sacrament can only be brought about by a free act of the will. Therefore, there could not have been an exchange of the sacrament on the wedding day, as the faith community had presumed.

Respecting the final judgment:

"OK", you say, "that's an easy example, the nullity is quite obvious." Yet it is only obvious because you know the facts. Remember, a few minutes ago, as the friend of the groom's mother, you couldn't believe it! You saw Susan walk down the aisle that day. You heard her and John, as the ministers, say, "I do." They were married and had a child. A few moments ago you thought a declaration of nullity was preposterous!

However, in light of the facts, you now see the declaration has merit. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking, the marriage is invalid (CCC, 1628)."

The Catechism goes on: "For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of the marriage ... (CCC, 1629)."

The proceedings surrounding a declaration of nullity are governed by laws of confidentiality. Though the fact a declaration has been granted in the affirmative is a matter of record in the church, the facts of the case are not. The grounds, the acts and the proceedings themselves are not open to the membership of the church. The confidential nature of tribunal proceedings is intended to protect the good name and reputation of all the parties involved.

In coming to a judgment regarding the nullity of a marriage, tribunal officials examine all of the facts. They assess these facts in view of the church's theology and laws on marriage. There are many checks and balances in the church's procedural laws. The decision of one judge is always scrutinized by other judges. The judgments of one court are always reviewed by an appellate court. The faith community at large is asked to respect these judgments. For remember, it is the courts alone that have all the facts.

Next, was the ministers' consent legitimately manifested?