Mental reservations in marriage consent


What is the theoretical basis for giving significance to mental reservations in marriage consent? Mental reservation is a kind of doubletalk where a party says one thing but actually means something else. For example, a spouse does not intend to be bound exclusively to the other spouse and instead is going to have a so-called open relationship. However, this condition is not pronounced during the wedding and externally the party promises exclusivity. How can a thought entertained solely in the mind render a promise invalid?

Usually promises are binding according to the external declaration, not according to some internal thought that is not manifested during the declaration. The Law of Obligations: Roman Foundations of the Civilian Tradition (Reinhard Zimmermann, 1996) states that mental reservation (reservatio mentalis) was a theoretical challenge for the lawyers in order to forumulate a consistent model for contracts but the practical conclusion was never in dispute: reservatio mentalis must be irrelevant. Otherwise, secret thoughts could undermine the trustworthiness of social interaction.

That book talks disparagingly about the canon law of the Catholic Church, in that it allows mental reservation as a ground for annulment. A quotation is cited inquiring whether anything could be more absurd than that. The defining case was, according to the book, a decision by Pope Innocent III, who allowed a marriage to be dissolved because a man had consented to marriage in order to seduce a woman, without intention of living in marriage.

I agree that the errors of the public rite are unproblematic as a ground for annulment, compared to mental reservations. For example, if the spouses were not present at the same time during the wedding, or the proper questions were not asked by a competent minister, it is easy to admit that the marriage can be declared invalid. I think it would be theoretically satisfying if mental reservations did not affect the validity of the marriage. Subsequent acting according to the mental reservations would then be living in violation of the vow, which would in itself stay valid.
I think would be mostly the same solution that is adopted with regards to the baptism, for example. Not everyone has consented to the baptism with right motives. They may have intended to continue living in sin regardless of the baptism. Nevertheless, the validity of baptism is rarely if ever challenged on these grounds. Living in sin is a violation of the baptismal vow, but the baptism itself is valid.

When I have talked about this issue in the past, the answers had mostly dealth with the consequences of the decision: it would be unfair to the other spouses, if they could not remarry after a deceitful promise. Thus it is reasonable to grant annulments because of mental reservations. I have not seen any actual statistics, but I think mental reservations are one of the most common grounds for annulments. If annulments were granted only because of the errors of the public rite, the numbers would plummet significantly. But I don’t think this is the real justification for the current rule.

What should Catholics answer if someone presents them the view of Zimmermann’s book and asks for the explanation of this practice?


I’m certainly no expert, but here is my first thought:

Because while sacramental marriage involves a promise between husband and wife, it is more than that, and it is not the promise that makes it indissoluble. The phrase is “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” not “what man has said he will do, let no man point out that he’s not doing, really, and didn’t ever intend to do.” Note that a purely natural or un-consummated marriage actually can be dissolved, despite typically involving same sort of agreements/vows, so we already know it’s not that marriage becomes indissoluble based purely on what the spouses agree to do.

Rather, the indissoluble marriage is indissoluble because it is a sacrament. And sacraments happen under the power of God, who sees interior things. A baptism of an adult who does not consent is invalid, a confession is invalid if there is not even imperfect contrition, etc. It would make little sense to say that God makes an exception and ignores interior dispositions and looks at externals only in the case of the sacrament of marriage.


The key here is that marriage is a sacrament AND a covenant (different than a contract) with God as the 3rd participating party. It’s very important that both spouses understand this and are on the same page when they take their vows. If both aren’t, this may be grounds for annulment. Here are a couple of examples that make it easy to grasp. If a couple marries in the church and the groom has been cheating on his fiance and his only intention is that he thinks he’s smart enough to never let her catch him–that’s a problem. If a couple marries and then the wife immediately goes on birth control pills due to her career, that’s a problem. If one of the parties is a drug or alcohol addict at the time of the marriage, they may not be capable of making a vow that they can keep. These are just a few examples, but I think they accentuate my point!


Have you done research into the so-called “green card fraud marriage”? Do you agree or disagree with the US government that it is fraudulent and null?


Civil annulment granted based on fraud (mental reservation):


It is a good question.

Civil contract law is very different from sacramental canon law however. In civil law, as you point out, we are concerned mostly with the form and matter of the contract. Did the parties carry out what was promised, and how exactly was the contract worded?

Sacraments require three things in order to be valid–Form, Matter, and INTENT. Intent isn’t so much a requirement of civil law (but that being said, it often ends up that intent is very important if there is a question of fraud–which isn’t all that different from the case we are talking about. Mental reservation is a form of deception–hence in the case of marriage, it is a form of fraud when entering into the promise.

As SerraSemper points out, there are cases in which even civil marriages are deemed fraudulent–not for any defect in the form or matter of the marriage, but in the intent of the participants.


I don’t intend to derail this thread, but I would like my example to only be used as to question statements like the one I quote above.

If Sacraments require intent to be valid…why is it held that the confirmation of a person that takes place against their intent to be valid? Or if a person receives communion with no belief in the Real Presence (including their first communion and they are of the age of reason) the Sacrament is considered valid?

Is there anullment available for Holy Orders? If it is found the man’s intent was not full?

I have repeatedly read here that intent has nothing to do with it, so why would it effect the validity of a marriage? Does it have to do with the Sacrament of marriage involving two people and God as opposed to other Sacraments involving only one person and God?


It is never know absolutely that a marriage is valid but it may certainly be know that it is invalid, but the validity is presumed when it is approved by the Church, and the consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the external. Historically there were two legal systems that were blended in the matrimonial contract (also called a covenant): contract vs intent. However it must be possible the prove the wrong intent to invalidate.Canon 1055**** §1 The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptised, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
****Canon 1060 ****Marriage enjoys the favour of law. Consequently, in doubt the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.

Canon 1061 §3 An invalid marriage is said to be putative if it has been celebrated in good faith by at least one party. It ceases to be such when both parties become certain of its nullity.

**Canon 1100 **Knowledge of or opinion about the nullity of a marriage does not necessarily exclude matrimonial consent.

**Canon 1101 ******§1 The internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words or the signs used in the celebration of a marriage.**Canon 1101 ******§2 If, however, either or both of the parties should by a positive act of will exclude marriage itself or any essential element of marriage or any essential property, such party contracts invalidly.


This is an interesting point of question. I was a cradle Catholic who attended parochial school and received all the Sacraments in a timely manner. Thus, I was confirmed at age 12. I don’t know what I expected, but I can honestly say that I was disappointed that I felt absolutely NO difference after being confirmed than before. I was a little disappointed because it had been so built up in our minds during instruction. Maybe I did something wrong—


Fraud has some overlap with mental reservation, but generally they are treated as different concepts. Mental reservation does not have to involve fraud or intentional deception, it may just a case of poor communication. Fraud consists of taking advantage of information asymmetry, that is, one party knows something that the other party does not, and that party would not make contract if the truth was known. Civil law can have various stances towards fraud in marriage. Some jurisdictions proclaim that in marriage, those deceive who can. People may hide their unfavorable features from their future spouse, and still contract a valid marriage, whereas similar deception pertaining to regular contracts would have been subject to litigation and claims for damages. The canon law allows some remedies in case the spouse was deceived regarding the quality of the other spouse.

It is yet another thing to consider marriages contracted in order to deceive third parties. This is the case, when a simulated marriage is presented as a ground for a residency permit. It think is conceivable that civil law can demand a stricter standard for validity, when the marriage is the basis for a legal benefit. As long as the couple lives together and demands nothing from third parties, their marriage would be solely their own business. Some jurisdictions could allow the marriage stay valid in the the private sphere, yet refuse to grant a residency permit because the government deems the couple is not actually living in marriage.

The above mentioned book about the law of obligations deals with the concept of simulation after the section of mental reservation. The prominent feature of simulation is that the parties themselves agree that there is no intention to make a contract, yet they execute the form of a contract in order to deceive someone else. The general understanding has been that a simulated contract is null and void. So yes, intention does play a part also in civil law.
However, legal problems can cascade if the simulated contract is presented to third parties and they form expectations as if the contract were valid. As they can presume that the contract is valid, they are entitled to any benefits based on these expectations.

Marriage is different than most legal relationships, in that it is not appropriate to compel performance of the marriage vow by force, and it is not possible in general to compensate the damage of deceitful or neglected marriage by money, though it may be reasonable in some cases. Therefore, the available legal remedy is basically to judge that the marriage is not binding.
The argument that mental reservation must irrelevant is based on the principle of equitable expectations. It would be wrong if a promise was made and a secret thought could undermine it so that the promissee would be deprived of something that was due. In most legal relationships, the promissee can get then the actual benefit, which may some kind of property, either by force or be compensated by money. However, this remedy is not available in the case of marriage. It seems a wrong was committed that has no adequate reparation.

Marriage has important secular consequences, but in the case of sacraments, the benefit that is promised is spiritual. Not only marriage but also other sacraments have to deal with the problem of mental reservation and simulation. What if a priest was ordained, the bishop and the ordained knew the intention was to deceive, but everyone also thought the ordination was valid? This case seems to correlate with the simulated contract, in that the parties themselves know the truth, but third parties are deceived. It seems that the third parties have an equitable expectation that the sacraments conferred through the priest would be valid. These issues are usually scantily addressed in the treatises of sacramental theology, compared to the books about civil law. The treatises of civil law usually deal with the effects of simulation even in introductory textbooks. Usually, theologians do not dare to claim that the sacraments actually are valid in this case, but they may accept that some kind of quasi-sacramental grace can still be conferred. If the deception is found out, the sacraments should be reattempted for those who are still living. Nevertheless, it seems that this issue is not as thought-out in sacramental theology as it is in the law of obligations.


There is canon law to cover the unconsummated valid marriage, both with cohabitation and without, which may be dissolved (it is not an annulment). Consummation is presumed with cohabitation, but may be proved.

With regard to: "It seems that the third parties have an equitable expectation that the sacraments conferred through the priest would be valid. The Church supplies jurisdiction in some situations of common error. It certainly happens that marriages are invalid due to lack of delegation, or for eastern Catholics, when a priest does not bless the celebration. Also it process was not followed, it is possible that a couple, due to undispensed impediments, invalidly attempt to marry, even though there was an expectation. Sometimes for these the retroactive convalidation is later granted.


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