Error and ignorance: Causes of an invalid marriage

By Fr. Israel Nickel Madziakaphwa* JCD

Some months ago, and precisely that is in 2021, there was a story circulating in the media about a young couple that failed to consummate their marriage when they were out for their honeymoon. Reason? It was apparently speculated that one, the bridegroom, did not know that ‘the abnormality’ he saw from the bride was some unique ‘man-made’ nature of some women in the society. So, the bridegroom felt that this was not the ‘kind’ of woman he had believed to marry. Implicitly, it indicates that the couple did not have any premarital sex hence this late knowledge about the physical nature of the bride.

Error of the quality of the person
In canonical terms, we would say that the bridegroom, in the story above, had some error about the person and especially about the quality of that person – the bride. Error about the person is often rare, since it is difficult to error about appearances of a person unless, they are identical twins, but it is easy to error about a certain quality of the person which may be obscure virtually.

While error concerning the person would render a marriage invalid, since one does not marry the intended person (CIC/83, can. 1097, §1), on the contrary, error concerning a quality of a person, unless directly and principally intended, would not make any marriage invalid (CIC/83, can. 1097, §2). Concerning the example of the couple above, the marriage was not consummated hence after a due process it would be declared null based on the fact of a marriage ratum et non consumatum.

Error to ignorance
A quality, being an enduring characteristic of a person, significantly defines what that person is. Resultantly, one can feel uncomfortable to stay with a person whom he/she felt would be natural as per the definition of a man or woman and yet she/he is not. In other words, we can say that such a quality diminishes the likeability of a prolonged relationship in marriage. Such reason would stand as a condition sine qua non for the person who has discovered it to be reason for a failed marriage. Such an error may also come if there is some ignorance in the person. The bridegroom in the story above, is an example of a person ignorant about the physical nature of some women.

Ignorance about what marriage entails
Since it has severally been established that the consent which makes marriage (CIC/83, can. 1057), is an act of the will, it then involves knowingly and deliberately willing something, which in this case is marriage; implies that ignorance about what this marriage is, will defect such a consent. A simple way of understanding this concept of ignorance in relation to marriage is to note that he/she who does not know anything can rightfully undertake it.

Presumption of certain knowledge about marriage
It is presumed that everyone after reaching the age of majority, or the minimal canonical age to able to validly marry (CIC/83, can. 1083), has ipso facto some basic facts about marriage. However, the Church, through her laws, establishes that ignorance about the basic facts of marriage is not presumed after puberty. Puberty is far much an age prior even to the established age of marriage.

Therefore, once someone chooses marriage after puberty it is taken for granted that such a person knows what marriage entails. According to CIC/83, can. 1096, for a matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must at least not be ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.

The three things to note
Can someone be ignorant about these facts? In most cases no! But we would remember that in the days when were young, our parents used to tell us, in some folktales, that children are bought from the hospital, a kind of centre where God distributes to the mothers.

While these may have been tales, we may not rule out that some children, who have grown up to puberty, may think and believe that there was some gospel truth about the origin of children in these folktales. Others are indeed immature even in their puberty. Their ignorance about marriage would be based on issues like (i) a partnership between a man and a woman; (ii) ordered for the procreation; (iii) through some sexual cooperation.

Possibility to ignorance
If ignorance emanates from a person of the age of puberty, such ignorance would be basic enough to entail a fundamental error on their part and that is why, stemming from their ignorance, this constitutes basis for an invalid consent to the marriage. Since ignorance is the absence of knowledge, no one can consent properly to a marriage without at least a minimal knowledge of what one is intending and willing to do. This is dependent on the abstract or speculative knowledge that is required for marriage.

Any person wanting to enter marriage should know what marriage entails. This ignorance invalidates marriage because through consent, which is a juridical act by which marriage is made, essential elements constituting the marriage are affected. Thus, something constituting the substance of marriage is affected, like the sexual cooperation in getting children. To invalidate the marriage based on the lack of knowledge, one must be ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership-a consortium and not as a societas.

Other specific knowledge that should be lacking would be the understanding that marriage is heterosexual in nature whose parties are not ignorant that between these heterosexual persons, marriage is ordered to the procreation of children or that this procreation of children comes from the sexual cooperation between the man and the woman.

Hence invalidity of the marriage would come in because of ignorance if one of the parties thought that marriage entailed no exchange of the right to the body or that this right was substantially different from what it is, for example, if someone thought that the procreation of children came only through hugs and kisses.
An invalid end

Ignorance about all these aspects will invalidate marriage and will only be found in those who are developmentally disabled, who are young and naïve and those whose upbringing has been sheltered. Normally a person, fully grown up physically and psychologically, would not be deprived of the necessary knowledge of what marriage entails but if she or he is ignorant of that, then any marriage that is attempted becomes invalid.

*Father Madziakaphwa is Canonist, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the Catholic University of Malawi and Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Mangochi.