Is marriage a trap? Our preoccupation with nullity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 22, 2016

It would be very difficult to assess all the conditions which impact a couple’s readiness for marriage. It is equally difficult to determine how unfavorable cultural factors may influence this readiness. We can discern adverse cultural trends, but there are many subcultures, and there are many different personal reactions to cultural pressure. In response to pressures against their Catholic faith, for example, some people grow spiritually stronger.

Still, given the crisis of marriage and family life in the West today, it would be foolish to ignore factors that might become actual impediments to the validity of the sacrament. If we examine the grounds for nullity systematically and clearly, as Fr. Paolo Bianchi has done in When Is Marriage Null? (see my 2015 review), we can begin to grasp the scope of the problem. Briefly, the grounds for nullity fall into the following general categories: deficiency of form, ineligibility for marriage, incapacity to understand or assume the obligations of marriage, refusal to accept the nature of marriage or to undertake its obligations, intentional deception on the part of those involved, or lack of free consent (consent under duress).

To render a marriage invalid, these problems must be present from the first, at the time of the wedding. For example, entering upon matrimony with no intention of having children or without a recognition and acceptance of its indissolubility renders the marriage null. But deciding a few years later that one does not want children or that one does want a divorce has no impact on validity. Similarly, if a person is psychologically incapable of grasping and/or pursuing the permanent unitive nature of marriage, and this deficiency exists at the time of the ceremony, the marriage is null. This could be true for the mentally handicapped, for example, or for the emotionally scarred. But it will not be true if a husband or wife later suffers an accident or disease that produces a similar psychological incapacity.

There is an enormous difference between an invalid marriage and a valid marriage that proves to be difficult.

The problem of psychological grounds

Manifestly it is the modern recognition of mental or psychological grounds for nullity which renders the judgment of nullity so difficult. A few hundred years ago, it would have been relatively easy to discern whether one party to the marriage was “simple” or “crazy”. Now, for better or worse (and surely often for better), we recognize a wide variety of deficiencies in what we might call psychological normality or affective maturity. In most cases, the question of severity plays a critical role: Is a person’s psyche so severely distorted by some psychological deficiency or illness that he or she is incapable of understanding or fulfilling the obligations of marriage? Certainly at least some cases are severe enough from the first to render a marriage null.

Moreover, modern culture exercises a powerfully deformative influence on psychological and/or affective maturity. The nearly universal misuse of sexuality injures many young people as they are growing up. The largely celebrated breakdown in stable family life injures them still more. At what point, if ever, do the disadvantages of being formed in such a culture render people incapable of understanding and committing to marriage? It is a fair question.

But in the abstract, it is also an unanswerable question. Each person’s experiences and responses are different. This question will also usually be impossible to answer for a particular couple at the time of the marriage, even with the closest of examinations, psychological or otherwise—for the simple reason that most of the “indicators” are not definitive. They can be overcome. For this and other reasons, the case for nullity cannot be made based on cultural trends. Nullity must be adjudicated case by particular case.

One important factor here is that we all respond differently to good and bad situations, particularly in the deliberate exercise of our human freedom. It is simply not possible to look at a messy marital situation and presume the marriage has failed because it was impossible. In the worst annulment mills (more in the United States than anywhere else), there is an unfortunate predisposition to accept the ultimate psychological argument, which is rooted in determinism: Failure proves the impossibility of success. Unhappiness in marriage becomes in itself a proof of invalidity. This and anything like it is unacceptable even in purely human terms. It represents the ultimate triumph of a general prejudice over the couple’s unique appropriation of the marital state.

Natural and Supernatural

I grant that we can discern general factors which militate against the human ability to contract a valid marriage. But have we not lost our balance? Have we not lost sight of other general factors which militate even more strongly in favor of the human ability to contract a valid marriage? I believe that the characteristically modern focus on disorders and disabilities (and excuses) has dramatically weakened our confidence in both human freedom and Divine grace. If so, the attitudes toward failure and nullity I have just described are inevitable.

The first thing for the Catholic to recognize is that marriage is a sacramental elevation of a natural state. Marriage is the pre-eminent form of male-female complementarity, commitment, exclusivity and permanence for which human nature is expressly designed. Long before marriage was elevated to the status of a sacrament by Jesus Christ, marriages were being undertaken based on natural commitments alone. In this context, it has been universally understood that a “normal” human person has the ability to undertake such a commitment, and make good on it.

If we look back on human history, we will find many marriages that flourish despite remarkably adverse circumstances, and many that fail which would have been thought perfect matches. We will typically discern the growth of many virtues in a healthy marriage, and the growth of many vices in an unhappy one. Only sometimes will the trajectory of a marriage be uncontrollable due to clear and insuperable psychological or affective deficiencies in the husband or the wife, even under the most severe of negative cultural pressures. In fact, it is a clear denial of the common experience of humanity to suggest that differences in how we exercise our moral freedom do not play a significant role, and often the decisive role, in the success or failure of a marriage.

So much for nature, and now for grace: In the Christian dispensation, marriage is a sacrament which unites a couple with Jesus Christ so that they can share His life more richly in this life and be united with Him forever in the next. There is no limit to what grace can accomplish in a married couple, no moral and spiritual difficulties which it does not ordinarily overcome with the active cooperation of the spouses. Miracles of healing are possible, and in some ways even to be expected. This is another reason that a marriage should be declared null only when (apart from deficiencies of form, deceit, force, or a failure of consummation) it really is concretely and specifically true, at the time of the conferral of the sacrament, that something has eliminated (not just weakened, which is true for most of us) the normal ability of either party to enter into the marriage bond and undertake its obligations.

The possibility of growth

One of the psychological grounds for nullity depends on whether a person is capable of truly grasping the nature, obligations and permanence of marriage. In extreme cases, this can certainly be the case, but we are not to inflate the sort of understanding necessary. If we were required to “understand what we are getting into” in the colloquial sense, no marriage ever contracted would be valid. The wisdom to be gained from experience is not required in advance.

In fact, for validity, only a relatively meager understanding is required. The Church insists that we understand the general obligations of marriage and grasp the binding nature of the contract. As far as maturity goes, she expects us to be able to understand and undertake the bald nature of a permanent commitment. As far as psychological health goes, she expects that we are not so damaged that we lack the basic ability to both give and receive love, or that we lack the capacity for ordinary self-control.

A range of psychological conditions (as we ordinarily call them today) can cause us to fail these tests, even without knowing that we are constantly failing them. We must never deny that possibility. But there is a precarious tendency, in today’s discussions of marriage, to put little trust in human freedom and even less in the grace of God. Too often, we refuse to hold people responsible for the outcomes they really could have controlled, had they cared enough to seek God’s help and to put forth a sincere and consistent effort. How quickly we shift from a difficulty to an impossibility! Yet when we begin to assume that huge numbers of men and women are incapable of marriage, we fall into the quintessentially contemporary trap of denying not only grace but human nature itself.

We should not overlook genuine debilitating problems that may be grounds for nullity. But neither should we insult couples everywhere who, through assiduous attention to both nature and grace, find themselves capable of fulfilling God’s will for them as imparted and made possible through the sacrament of matrimony. For it is an insult to the human person to confuse “cannot” with “will not”, or to confuse the impossible with the difficult. Moreover, it a serious sin to despair of the grace of God. In God’s plan, marriage is supposed to be the most common expression of our vocation to holiness. He has blessed it as the most traveled path to perfection. If we begin to view it as little more than a trap for the imperfect, we are lost.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: tcflanagan - Jul. 01, 2016 11:40 AM ET USA

    I don't necessarily think that the sentence ending with "denying not only grace but human nature itself" is correct. After all, as Abp. Sheen used to say, maturity comes from only two things: suffering and responsibility; this is a FACT of human nature. Young people in the contemporary developed world are largely shielded from both. I would not be surprised if our current 26-year-olds are less mature--thus less able to grasp the implications of marriage--than 16-year-olds were in the Middle Ages

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Jun. 25, 2016 2:28 AM ET USA

    Marriage is made in heaven for couples on earth as means to aid each other to gain heaven. We are each other's joy, we are also each other's cross ~ what with the bills, the children, the In -Laws, the Out -Laws, the jobs, the pain of growing old in process ~ to gain wisdom, so to be Wise! Perseverance! Through time and space, we are each other's Peace, we are also each other's fulfillment. Heavenly ward! Imaging the fight Adam and eve had after the FALL? We must be good to our mate,Peace!