Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

When marriage is not ‘for better’ but ‘for worse’

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 25, 2024

June is traditionally the most popular month for scheduling weddings. There’s something appropriate about the flowering of a romantic relationship at the time of year when the trees and the fields are also blooming—and producing new life.

In recent years, however, more American couples have been choosing to marry in September or October. Is that because the weather is more temperate in the fall months? Or because couples are marrying later in life, and no longer bursting with the same effervescent spirit? Or is it simply a temporary fashion, which will lose its currency, and June will regain its rightful place as the peak of the marriage season?

(Bear in mind that “June” rhymes with “moon” and “croon” and “tune” and “spoon,” whereas “September” and “October” hold little appeal for would-be romantic poets. But I digress.)

January, however, is the undisputed champion for divorce filings. Apparently some unhappy couples agree to stay together through the holiday season, for the sake of the children or for the convenience of setting up separate accounts at the start of the new calendar year. (Here I refer to the “holiday” season, because those who celebrate the “Christmas” season are less likely to divorce.)

So at the beginning of the summer we witness lovers pledging their lifelong fidelity, and then six months later we hear about the couples who say they didn’t really mean it. Ten years ago in this space I wrote about the tragedy of divorce, and the need for pastoral intervention to help couples with trouble relationships before they turn to the divorce lawyers. But a great deal of work should be done before the wedding as well, to ensure that young people understand what they are doing.

In the marriage vows, the lovers pledge their troth “for better or worse.” They thereby acknowledge that they are entering into a relationship whose future cannot be predicted. They may be starry-eyed now, and naturally they expect to be happy together for years. But they know there are risks; things may get “worse.”

What does “worse” mean in a marriage? It may mean living together in illness or poverty. But it may also mean living together in a difficult relationship; the romance itself may become “better or worse.”

Sadly, when a marriage hits a rocky patch, many Catholic couples—even solid, faithful Catholics—think of the divorce before they think of the vows they have made. Sadly, too, many Catholic pastors advise them to think back to their wedding, and ask whether they were really prepared, mentally and emotionally, to give full consent when they made their vows. If they can conjure up a case of defective consent, they have a case for annulment.

Recently I mentioned, in a quite different context, that the Catholic Church has always operated on the strong assumption that when priests administer the sacraments they have the proper intention, so that there is no question about the sacraments’ validity. In the case of marriage, however, there is no need to assume that the couple has the proper intention; the consent is explicit. Prior to the marriage, the priest takes each party aside and asks a series of questions: “Are you undertaking this marital contract freely? Do you fully understand what it entails? Are there any impediments?” Then on the wedding day the two make their vows before witnesses. So it should take truly extraordinary circumstances to overcome the clear evidence of proper consent. The high rate of success in annulment petitions is a sign of something profoundly wrong.

(By the way, it is a disservice to the faithful to say that “Catholics cannot divorce and remarry, unless they have an annulment.” The final phrase of that sentence is unnecessary; it only confuses the matter. An annulment is a finding that a valid marriage never took place. Catholics cannot divorce and remarry—period—unless a spouse has died.)

Certainly it is sad when a marriage turns out “worse” than the partners had expected. But it is also a moral test: an opportunity for personal sanctification and, quite possibly, for rebuilding a beautiful romance. In her inspiring book Impossible Marriages Redeemed, Leila Miller collects the stories of dozens of faithful Catholics who, finding themselves in a marriage that had gone sour, redoubled their commitment to be faithful, fought to hold the relationship together, and in most cases succeeded. Sometimes a successful marriage—or just an ordinary faithful marriage—requires heroism. Every Catholic should know that’s what marriage means, for better or worse.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: PFM5899 - Jul. 15, 2024 1:08 PM ET USA

    This recent case in Spain potentially opens the door to a very large number of annulments. Every couple must disclose to their future spouse if they are participating in or watching porn!