One of the issues which is being suggested for discussion at the Synod on Marriage and Family next October is that of annulments - I have already reflected on that in a previous post. But one topic which has hit the news in the last couple of days concerns pre-nuptial agreements and their effect on the validity of a Catholic marriage.
A pre-nuptial agreement is a legal agreement made between an engaged couple which seeks to protect the assets of one or both of them should the marriage break down. While not accepted by courts in every jurisdiction, they are becoming more common and some legal systems are starting to accept them as legally binding. In Ireland pre-nuptial agreements are being entered into by people in the farming community as a means of protecting family farms. With the rise in marriage breakdown, separations and divorces, farming families are afraid a farm may well be divided as the spouses negotiate a financial settlement.
But do such agreements affect the validity of Catholic marriages? After all, when a couple is being prepared for marriage they are (or should be) informed that validity can be undermined if one or both of them does not consider marriage to be a life long and indissoluble commitment. In making a pre-nuptial agreement a couple is laying down provisions for an end to the marriage, for divorce, and so does that signal an attitude which may well reveal an impediment? This is a question for canon lawyers, and speaking with one he told me that pre-nuptials may not necessarily invalidate a marriage, they are problematic.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury believes that such agreements undermine marriage - they are a preparation for divorce he says. He is responding to the possible enshrining of pre-nuptial agreements in law in England and Wales. He says:
“Pre-nuptial agreements may soon become enshrined in civil law on the recommendation of the Law Commission. Our society would be proposing to couples seeking marriage that they prepare their own divorce settlement before making the life-long promises of marriage. It is a legal provision which would surely empty the words of the marriage promise for ‘better for worse … to love and to cherish till death do we part’ of all meaning.
“Pre-nuptial agreements would render these promises provisional by the legal preparations which anticipate divorce. We must ask ourselves today, what message does this send to couples considering marriage? What message does this send to the young at a moment when the institution of marriage stands at such a historically, low ebb? Should we not be putting our efforts into guarding and building-up the institution of marriage rather than steadily undermining it?”
This is a difficult issue, but an important one, one which may well need to be explored at the synod and certainly by Bishops not only in the UK but here in Ireland as pre-nuptials are becoming more common in farming circles. Certainly guidance for priests on this issue is vital.