St. Thomas Aquinas on a bizarre marital situation

Amidst the Amoris Laetitia debates, one thing I have wondered about is how people find themselves in the difficult situations everyone is discussing.  How does it happen that someone (a) enters a second civil marriage and (b) is obliged to keep up sexual relations and (c) requires the Eucharist to keep going?  I don’t have the pastoral experience to rattle off examples.

But while editing a translation of St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I came across one such case—not likely in this day and age, but a possible scenario nonetheless.  St. Thomas holds the position that exterior words expressing consent do not result in marriage if interior consent is lacking, but he raises this objection to his own view (Scriptum IV.27.1.2, quaes. 4):

Obj. 3: If someone is proved to have consented to someone else through words about the present, he is forced to have her as his wife, under pain of excommunication, even if he says that mental consent was lacking; even if he has afterward consented to another with words expressive of his mental consent. But this would not be the case, if mental consent were required for marriage. Therefore, it is not required.

Let’s pause and absorb this amazing scenario.  Billy Bob went through a wedding ceremony in which he did not intend to get married but managed to fool everyone there.  Despite all apperances, Billy Bob’s conscience requires him to admit that he did not marry that woman.  Later, Billy Bob went through a second wedding ceremony in which he did sincerely intend to get married, and his conscience requires him to admit that he is married to that woman.  But in the eyes of the law and of the Church, which can only go by what is perceptible from the outside, Billy Bob is married to the first woman and not to the second, and (at least under medieval law) he could be subject to severe penalties if he refused to live as a married man with that first wife—including physical intimacy.  He has not just a shadowy, self-judged duty to keep up his marital status with her, but an objective, legal, and ecclesially enforced obligation!

Now, surely Billy Bob is under unimaginable pressures.  The direction of today’s debates would suggest that he can arrange with his priest to receive communion while continuing in what his conscience tells him is an adulterous union:  this is the best that he can offer God in the circumstance.  But St. Thomas has a different pastoral suggestion:

Billy Bob could flee the country.  Or, if that’s too harsh, he could just submit to excommunication from the Church:

Reply Obj. 3: In such a case the Church compels him to stay with his first wife, since it judges based on what appears externally. Nor is it deceived in justice, although it may be deceived in fact. But that man should undergo excommunication rather than be intimate with his first wife, or he should flee to some other distant region.

Zowie.  I’m not sure how long the Angelic Doctor would last in today’s climate.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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Fr. Joseph Bolin
“Or he should flee to some other distant region.” By doing this, he continues to follow his conscience, and at the same time, to remain in the good graces of the Church, since his irregular marital situation (as it is considered from the canonical, external point of view) is presumably not known in that distant region, but his true wife will also be presumed by all to be his wife. In substance the solution seems similar to directing persons in an irregular union, who cannot separate without serious problems, to abstain from marital intercourse, yet, due to an apparent irregularity… Read more »