Should I Lie So That My Cousin Can Have a Catholic Wedding?

A few years ago, my cousin became single after an end to a decades-long marriage. Both he and I are Catholic, and the rules on divorce aren’t as clean-cut as they are under the law. Because my cousin and his ex-wife were married in a Catholic wedding, it means that, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, my cousin and his ex are still married in the eyes of God.

In recent years, my cousin has found a new partner. He loves her dearly and recently proposed. His fiancée is also Catholic, has never been married and would like to have a Catholic wedding. This normally could not happen, because my cousin is already married to someone. But through a process called annulment, my cousin can petition the church and ask for his marriage to effectively be erased in the eyes of God.

For this to happen, though, he needs to have a witness to corroborate his claims, and he has come to me to help him. The problem is that he was happily married for many years and has three children who can attest to that. I feel that my cousin is not being truthful to himself or his fiancée about his marriage, and to ask me to lie to a priest to retroactively strike a marriage from the record feels like a step too far. Then again, I also care for my cousin and recognize that a Catholic wedding means a lot to him and his fiancée. If he is willing to go through with the annulment, I want to support him in his pursuit of new happiness.

Should I lie so that my cousin can marry? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

The canon law concerning marriage is complex, but the grounds for declaring a marriage null are grounds that existed on your wedding day; a marriage isn’t null because it went bad — it must never have been valid. If you entered into the marriage without committing to your partner unconditionally and for life? That could count as “partial simulation” with respect to the property of marital indissolubility and permanence. The same goes for someone entering into marriage without internally forswearing infidelity, and some Catholic authorities say, in this context, that viewing pornography is equivalent to infidelity. The point is that your cousin might well be able to find grounds that didn’t radically mischaracterize the nature of the marriage.

What’s more, I’m not hearing you say that you’re the only person your cousin could enlist in order to secure an annulment. Your own sense of integrity matters; if you feel uncomfortable providing the testimony he wants, you should stand by your principles. Explain to your cousin that you support his desire to remarry but that you can’t flat-out lie about what you believe to be the nature of his marriage. I expect he could find someone else if he wanted to stick with this story. You might also encourage him to consult with a canon lawyer. It’s not obvious that his new life has to start with a whole-cloth falsification of his previous one.

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