We recently took an inquiry from a man about prenuptial agreements. He wanted to know if they were okay in the Catholic Church.
With divorce becoming more common, a lot of engaged couples are asking the question: “what if we don’t make it?” The concern is not always related to securing financial assets among those marrying from different states of wealth. Sometimes a spouse entering a second marriage wants to protect the inheritance of their children from the first marriage and a prenuptial agreement may be equally relevant to items of sentimental value as those of monetary worth.
Whatever the reasons, a prenuptial agreement is generally considered to be inconsistent with a Catholic understanding of marriage, though they are not expressly prohibited. Here’s what The Australian Catholic Marriage & Family Council (‘Getting Married in the Catholic Church: FAQs’) says on the issue:
Question 33. WE WANT OUR MARRIAGE TO LAST FOREVER BUT WE ARE SIGNING A LEGAL AGREEMENT CONCERNING OUR PROPERTY JUST IN CASE IT DOESN’T. IS THIS OK?
Marriage is a covenant relationship based on an enduring committed love: a partnership for the whole of life. Whole of life is understood in two ways. Firstly, it is a lifelong partnership, “as long as we both shall live”, as expressed in the wedding ceremony. Secondly, it presupposes a comprehensive sharing of both spiritual and temporal goods.
A pre-nuptial agreement, as commonly understood, is an agreement made prior to marriage on settlement terms for the division of property in the event of a divorce. Such a prenuptial agreement waters down the life-long commitment of covenant love. (ACMFC, Getting Married in the Catholic Church, FAQs: here)
Fr Ken Doyle writes along similar lines in the Catholic Times:
Then, to the matter of the prenuptial agreement: The Catholic Church does not have a blanket prohibition of “prenups.” In certain cases, they can be quite valid and helpful.
When a widow marries a widower, for example, and they both have children from their previous marriages, a prenup is a legitimate way of determining what is common property and what is separate as a basis for determining the inheritance rights of each spouse’s children.
In most cases, though, prenups are a bad idea and may even call into question the validity of the marriage itself. … Clearly, the church’s teaching is that marriage is permanent and requires an unconditional commitment. Accordingly, Canon 1102 of the church’s Code of Canon Law says that “marriage subject to a condition about the future cannot be contracted validly.” For a prospective spouse to say, for example, “I will marry you, if you agree I’ll get half the assets at a divorce,” strikes at the heart of the church’s view of marriage.
The very contemplation of divorce at the outset of a marriage creates an “escape hatch” and could well imply something less than a total commitment. (Full article here)
In other words, prenups may be warranted in very specific circumstances, such as the case cited where there are pre-existing children with inheritance rights from their deceased parent. In such a case, the prenup applies irrespective of whether the couple later divorce as it is often about specifying what rightly belongs to the widowed spouse (and therefore able to be shared with the new spouse) and what belongs to the children but is perhaps held in trust.
For most couples, prenups are considered to contradict the essence of Catholic marriage as a total, permanent and unconditional commitment as they presuppose the dissolution of the marriage. As such, the presence of a prenup calls into question the validity of the marriage.
But are prenups are bad idea only because they contradict the teachings of the Church?
Turns out there is mounting research that prenups are not a good idea for ANY marriage, Catholic or otherwise. Brad Wilcox writes in the New York Times that if a prenup is being discussed, the couple is better off cohabiting. He goes on to cite…
[R]esearch suggests that couples who embrace a generous orientation toward their marriage, as well as those who take a dim view of divorce, are significantly more likely to be happy in their marriages. A National Center for Family and Marriage Research study finds that couples who share joint bank accounts are less likely to get divorced. In fact, married couples who do not pool their income are 145 percent more likely to end up in divorce court, compared to couples who share a bank account.
[Read the whole article "If you want a pre-nup, you don't want a marriage": here]
For most couples preparing for marriage in the Catholic church, the issue of prenups only occasionally comes up. When it does, couples need to be fully informed of the implications for the validity of their marriage in the eyes of the Church, as well as the very real impact that they have on the level of commitment by the spouses.