What actually makes a marriage invalid?

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A newly married couple hold rosaries in their hands as they leave Pope Francis' general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 24. Pope Francis' postsynodal apostolic exhortation on the family, "Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love)," was released April 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
A newly married couple hold rosaries in their hands as they leave Pope Francis’ general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Feb. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

By Matt Hadro
Catholic News Agency

WASHINGTON (CNA/EWTN News) — A virtual brouhaha erupted Thursday after Pope Francis said in unscripted remarks that “the great majority” of marriages today are null, due to a “provisional” culture in which people do not understand permanent commitment.

Although his comment was later revised to say that “a portion” of marriages are null, the question remains: What exactly makes a marriage invalid?

“It’s certainly in my experience that the kind of provisional culture, the conditional and temporary way in which we view real permanent institutions, has an impact on marriage, on the way that we live our marriages, on the way that we relate to our spouses, and those kinds of things,” J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer in Nebraska, told CNA.

Pope Francis, during a Thursday question-and-answer session at the Diocese of Rome’s pastoral congress, decried today’s “culture of the provisional” where people are unwilling to commit to a lifelong vocation.

“It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null,” he continued. “Because they [couples] say ‘yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”

The Vatican on Friday revised the remarks in the official transcript, with Pope Francis’ approval. The text was changed to say that “a portion” of marriages today are null, not a “great majority.”

Many couples “don’t know what the sacrament is,” the pope said on Thursday. “They don’t know that it’s indissoluble, they don’t know that it’s for your entire life. It’s hard.” Pope Francis faulted, in part, lack of good marriage preparation in teaching engaged couples about the truth of marriage.

In his impromptu comments, the Holy Father was not declaring any particular marriages to be invalid, as Church tribunals do when they establish that a marriage never actually existed, Flynn said. He added that “it’s important for people to remember that the Church always presumes the validity of a marriage unless it’s proven otherwise.”

Whether the number of invalid marriages is “a portion” or “the great majority,” such cases do exist, and the Church has very specific processes in place to evaluate them.

Just because a couple encounters difficulties does not mean their marriage is invalid. “Marriage is, by its very nature, a difficult thing,” Flynn said, “and the Church instructs us to presume that God has given us the grace of marriage, and to rely on that grace, and to ask God to strengthen that grace.”

When a tribunal does examine the validity of a particular marriage, it looks at two primary factors from “the time [the couple] attempted consent,” or the time that they made their wedding vows, Flynn explained.

First is the “object of their consent,” he said. “Did they intend against what marriage really is, or did they intend to marry as the Church understands marriage?”

The second factor is the person’s “capacity for consent,” he added. “Did they have the ability to make a full and free human act of consent?”

There are some key ways that a “provisional culture” can affect people’s marriages, he said. For example, grounds for annulment can include when “a person might directly and principally intend against a permanent marriage.”

“That is to say,” he continued, “‘I marry you but I intend to end this perpetual union when I see fit.’” This can’t just be an admitting that divorce “happens,” he noted, but rather “an intention against the permanence of the marriage” at the time of the wedding vows.

Another nullifying factor is “ignorance” of the nature of marriage as “a permanent union between a man and a woman, that in some way is ordered to the procreation of children through sexual cooperation,” he said.

“We presume that everyone who has achieved puberty is not ignorant of marriage. The law of the Church says we’re supposed to presume that,” he said.

So for ignorance to nullify a marriage, “you have to prove in a definitive way that they really had no knowledge of the concept of marriage as a permanent union.” And this would be ignorance of a “basic human understanding” of marriage, Flynn clarified, not an ignorance of graduate-level theology of marriage.

Also, a person’s “grave” psychological defects or a “grave defect in their will or in their cognition” can be factors mitigating a person’s “ability to choose” to marry someone, he said. And this has a higher risk of happening in today’s culture.

He acknowledged that “it is true that in a breakdown of the family, in a ‘provisional culture,’ in the ‘culture of death’ as John Paul II said, it’s more likely that people’s ability to choose the act of marriage will be mitigated.”

There are other factors that can nullify a marriage as well. One question is if someone is “free to enter into the human relationship of marriage,” Flynn said.

“In other words, are they capable of having a human relationship at all with other people, or do they suffer psychologically in a way that they wouldn’t be able to?”

Another question is, “Does a person reserve to themselves the right to create children in an intentional way?” Flynn asked.

Although the Church teaches that contraception is gravely wrong, using it does not make one’s marriage invalid, he clarified. For that to be the case, someone “has to intend, directly and principally and definitively, not to grant the other person the right to the good of children. Not to be open, in any way, at any point in the marriage, in a definitive sense, to children.”

Furthermore, if a person takes their wedding vows with the definitive intention not to be faithful, the marriage would not be valid. This is different than a case of someone vowing to be faithful and then cheating on their spouse later, he clarified.

The Church’s annulment process is thorough, he said, and for good reason.

“It’s very difficult to kind of mete out what a person had intended on their wedding day, which is why the Church’s process for a declaration of nullity is so exhaustive,” he said, “and why it’s often the case that it’s difficult to come to a conclusion.”

“Because you have to go back to an earlier time and get real testimony about what a person’s capacity was or what their intentions were,” he added.

Other present-day marital problems Pope Francis mentioned are couples who are living together in a sexual union before marriage, and couples who are expecting a child before marriage, and who are rushed into marrying in a “shotgun wedding” rather than “accompanied” by the Church in order to spiritually “mature.”

Mary Rose Verret, who with her husband Ryan runs the “Witness to Love: A Catholic marriage prep renewal ministry,” emphasized the importance of the Church teaching these couples about Christian marriage, and ensuring they are living in accord with Catholic teaching and are ready to receive the sacrament before they make their vows.

Couples who want to enter the marriage prep program, but who are cohabiting or expecting a child, should not be rushed into marriage at the expense of formation, she insisted. “Don’t push them to get married. Accompany them, wait with them, be a witness to them, but don’t just push them to get married.”

Even married couples who are accompanying engaged couples in their ministry need catechesis, Verret added. These “mentor couples” are picked by the engaged couple to help them prepare for marriage and go through the marriage prep process with them.

“They do the ‘virtue development’ workbook, they’re coached in accompaniment, and they even go to the marriage prep retreat with the engaged couples. They do all of it with the engaged couple,” Verret said.

“And what we hear from them is ‘this is the marriage prep I never received,’” she said.

“The big thing that we’re trying to do is give marriage preparation to an entire generation that did not receive it.”

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