Valid & Invalid Consent in Marriage
Stuart James at eChurch blog (@eChurchBlog on Twitter) has asked a question: "does Canon Law forbid the mentally ill to marry?"
The answer is no, but this post is an attempt to address that question in a little more detail, however in order to understand the answer, we need to layer a bit of information first; we need to understand what the Church considers marriage and what it deems valid and invalid consent to marriage, as well as a little about what canon law is for.
Marriage is a natural right and it includes the right to contract marriage and the right to choose a partner freely. As marriage is a state of life sanctified by a special sacrament it is obviously of great importance (cf. LG 35). By choosing to marry according to the teaching and precepts of the Catholic Church, and holding to the rights and responsibilities such a covenantal relationship conveys the married couple are free to adhere fully to Jesus. For example, Joseph Ratzinger, in his book Daughter of Zion (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983), speaks of marriage as the form of the mutual relationship between husband and wife that results from the covenant, the fundamental human relationship upon which all human history is based. (p. 23). When these principles form the foundations which constitute a marriage, the resultant example and witness such a Christian family demonstrates to society, accuses the world of sin by its ontological reality, it’s profound beauty also enlightens and informs those who are seeking truth. (cf. LG 35).
Canon Law has long considered the moment in a marriage when the two parties become husband and wife. When considering the body of knowledge incorporated into the Church’s understanding of canonical marriage, it is worth considering the deep and extensive understanding it benefits from through centuries of careful development, which have lent the process great juridical coherence.
“rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one.” —GS 48
…a person contracts invalidly who enters marriage deceived by malice (deceptus dolo), perpetrated to obtain consent, concerning some quality of the other party, which by its very nature can gravely disturb the partnership of conjugal life. (Canon 1098)
Additionally, discretion of judgement is important as it concerns the emotional and psychological immaturity of a person. Being of canonical age, has this person grasped the full extent of the degree of the commitment they are about to make? One might advise you are a long time married, thus it is essential that one understands “the essential matrimonial rights and duties mutually to be handed over and accepted” (Canon 1095 §2 and 1055). Another scenario might include persons who, unlike the last category mentioned above, would not take their marriage vows lightly, have been thoroughly and carefully prepared to receive the sacrament and indeed could be perfectly aware of the seriousness of marriage obligations, and yet, because of some deep rooted psychological flaw, consistently fail to fulfil their essential marriage duties. Whilst this canon deals with the obvious examples of homosexuality, alcoholism or nymphomania, it also takes into account psychic anomalies or personality disorders such as O.C.D. (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). This was clarified by Pope John Paul II in 1987, who stated that this must mean incapacity and not just difficulty with regard to manifesting consent. (cf. John Paul II, aloc, Feb 5th, 1987 AAS 79 (1987), 1457 as cited in Beal, J. P., et al, op. Cit., p. 1303).
Incapacity for Marriage through lack of sufficient Reason (Canon 1095 § 1).
This canon refers to those who lack sufficient reason for marriage. It concerns those whose mental disability is so severe that they are incapable of performing a human act (in theological speak). As consent is an act of the will (cf. canon 1057 § 2), it has to be a human act, knowingly and willingly performed, and not just an act of man. There has to be a minimum of knowledge and freedom; otherwise it would not be a deliberate or a voluntary act, it would not be an act of the will. Someone so mentally disabled as not to know where he or she is or what they are doing or to know it only in a seriously distorted manner, could not marry validly. § 2 of this canon deals with grave lack of due discretion for marriage and is still dealing with those 'incapable of contracting marriage', as is all canon 1095. It notes that it is not intellectual ability as such which is at issue, although, canonically both intellect and will are required for consent (an act of the will—canon 1057 § 2), but the assessment, evaluation and choice which are implied in consent. people who suffer from a lower than basic intellect can and do know what they are doing, they can will to get married and indeed, do so. This is the normal state of things. On the other hand, it can be that a great intellectual does not grasp in anything like an adequate manner what is implied in marriage. No generalisations are to be made on the basis of intellectual ability or lack of it. Nor is it the case that an exhaustive knowledge of the theology of canon law of marriage is needed; people should not be ignorant of the fact that marriage implies sexual relationships (canon 1096), but extensive theoretical knowledge is not required for people to be able to marry validly.
What is at stake her is more of an evaluative or critical knowledge, an awareness of the importance of what is being undertaken, an appreciation of the significance of what is being done in getting married, at least to a minimal extent. When even that minimum is lacking, judgement or discretion is seriously defective, matrimonial consent is not exchanged. People are not expected to be able to foretell the future or to plan it in rigorous detail; it is marriage as such which is at stake.