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Reverential Fear and Marriage Nullity with Special Reference to The Indian Culture

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Jose Marattil in this article presents “how a particular culturally rooted reverential fear could become a ground of marriage nullity especially in the Indian cultural context”(p. 144). He analyses the issue of CCEO c. 825 (CIC c. 1103), from the doctrinal and jurisprudential points of view. Besides presenting the proofs of reverential fear, the author also examines the factors that generate reverential fear in children, especially in the Indian context.

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Vol. 1, Nos. 1&2, December 2010

Pages: 144-185


Jose Marattil, DCL*


The choice of a state in life can be a juridic act, such as marriage. To be valid, a juridic act must be, besides the habilitas of the subject of the act, a human act, that is, one made with sufficient knowledge of its object and internal freedom to choose it. This is implied in canon 931, §1 of the Eastern Code ( CCEO ) and c. 124, §1 of the Latin Code ( CIC ). Any factor, whether internal or external, which substantially impedes the internal freedom, invalidates the juridic act. Grave fear has been designated by law as one such factor, which can interfere with one’s freedom needed to place a valid juridic act. However, fear per se does not invalidate a juridic act unless the law establishes otherwise ( CCEO , c. 932, §2; CIC , c. 125, §2).

Marriage is a natural state, one that is open to every human being, and it is chosen and sealed by the mutual consent of the spouses ( CCEO , c. 817; CIC , c. 1057). This has been the teaching of the Church and of jurisprudence.

Matrimonial consent is a juridic act. Therefore, it must be a free will act on the part of each spouse. Although, as stated above, fear per se does not constitute a factor that invalidates a juridic act, CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) establishes that a consent elicited by reason of grave fear imposed from without, which the person has no other escape than by choosing marriage, invalidates marriage. The authentic interpretation of 6 August 1987 by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts on the prescript of CIC , c. 1103 has affirmed that the norm of the canon is of natural law, therefore, applicable also to marriages of non-Catholics. Hence, understood within its juridical parameters, fear can invalidate matrimonial consent and it does so by force of natural law itself.

One form of fear implied in CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) is reverential fear. The source of this fear is the filial respect and gratitude children owe to their parents, which in turn can create trepidation of mind in the process of making a choice, particularly the choice of marriage and of the marriage partner. The effect of this factor on the choices one makes is determined largely by the culture of people. Thus, for example, in the Western culture the choice of partner in marriage is made by the parties themselves, but in most Southeast Asian cultures (e.g., India) such a choice is made by the parents or “significant others” of the prospective spouses. In most instances, the parties acquiesce to the choice made by parents or by relatives.

There is no doubt that culture has its impacts on the matrimonial consent of the spouses. A human being is a product of culture, and his or her mind is invariably conditioned by cultural influences. The system of arranged marriages is so deeply rooted in Indian culture that even today majority of marriages celebrated are products of the system. Although most unions thus entered last a long time, there are many that fail within a very short period of time after the wedding. These failed marriages are the ones which appear from time to time at the ecclesiastical tribunals for redress.

On the one hand, the Church rightly upholds the inviolability of personal freedom in the choice of one’s state in life. On the other hand, the Church respects and accepts what is good and valuable in every culture. Although the system of arranged marriages has its own merits within the context of a particular culture, it is not without its negative impact on the freedom of Christian faithful in the act of choosing their life partners. This is particularly evident in cases of reverential fear. In these cases, the reverence and respect one owes to his or her parents or significant others interfere with the natural right of a person to choose freely his or her life partner. This is, indeed, a fact, not an abstract theory.

The purpose of this study is to examine how a particular culturally rooted reverential fear could become a ground of marriage nullity especially in the Indian cultural context.

Both Codes do not speak explicitly of reverential fear as a ground of marriage nullity. Canon 825 of CCEO ( CIC , c. 1103) speaks only of generic “fear.” But this does not detract from the fact that “reverential fear” is a species of fear. Therefore, the law does not exclude reverential fear as a ground of marriage nullity. Since the concept of reverential fear and the related principles are obviously products of doctrine and jurisprudence, first, we will analyse CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) from doctrinal and jurisprudential points of view. Second, we will deal with proofs of reverential fear. Third, we look into the cultural factors which generate reverential fear in children in the Indian society.

1 Reverential Fear as a Ground of Marriage Nullity

Referring to the invalidating force of force or grave fear on the juridic act of matrimonial consent, CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) says, “A marriage is invalid that is celebrated by reason of force or grave fear imposed from without, even if not purposely, from which the person has no other escape than by choosing marriage.” As we have already mentioned, reverential fear ( metus reverentialis ) is such a type of fear and is causative of defect in matrimonial consent. In fact, reverential fear constitutes the greatest percentage of the cases judged under the ground of grave fear in marriage tribunals. Therefore, the ground of reverential fear has gained general acceptance and detailed description in doctrine and jurisprudence.

“Fear” in the Codes of canon law implies common fear and reverential fear. When reverential fear meets the conditions stipulated by law ( CCEO , c. 825; CIC , c. 1103) it will certainly invalidate a marriage. Accordingly, all that is said regarding grave fear in CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) applies equally to reverential fear if it is to invalidate matrimonial consent. Even so, reverential fear requires more detailed consideration because of the peculiar difficulties that arise in connection with its identification and proofs.

1.1 – Common Fear

Force ( vis ) and fear ( metus ) can either totally destroy or substantially diminish the freedom of will and thus gravely affect the imputability of a human act. While force can be either physical or moral coercion brought to bear on another person, fear is the result of this force on the part of the one on whom it is inflicted.

F.M. Cappello defines force ( vis ) as “[…] ‘pressure (exterior) from a greater thing that cannot be resisted’; and it is considered as the efficient cause on the part of the one who inflicts fear through external pressure.” M.Á. Ortiz says, “[…] while force removes freedom, fear modifies the voluntariness […].” Cappello defines fear as a “[…] ‘trepidation of mind caused by an immediate or future danger (that is, evil)’; and it is the effect on the part of the one who is subjected to the force.” J. D’Annibale states, “Fear is the trepidation of mind ( mentis trepidatio ), the cause of an immediate or future danger.” When fear is caused by an external agent to extract an act or a decision from its victim, the mental trepidation resulting from it takes on the character of moral violence.

Fear may be caused from within ( ab intrinseco ), that is, solely by the state of mind of the subject, that is, the result of one’s psychological condition. Fear is said to be from without ( ab extrinseco ) when a free human agent causes it. Fear can be either grave or slight . When fear is so serious in its effects as to deprive the subject of the use of free will, it is said to be grave and it would render the juridic act of matrimonial consent placed under its influence null and void.

When evil is threatened in order to extract matrimonial consent, the victim feels that he or she has no other choice but to accept marriage. Here, fear, experienced by the party, becomes the cause of marriage, that is, consenting to marriage is the only way perceived by the party of avoiding the threatened danger or evil. Therefore, according to CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) a marriage is invalid only if it was celebrated “because of fear” and not “with fear.” In such a situation, there is a certain degree of will to marry although it is forced through moral coercion. In other words, there exists marriage consent, which lacks the sufficient free will to be valid. Therefore, fear, which is a state of trepidation of the mind, creates a substantially defective matrimonial consent in the aspects of its internal freedom and not a total lack of consent. To have invalidating force, fear must be grave and be either actually present or virtually perdure at the moment of exchanging matrimonial consent.

1.2 – Reverential Fear

Canonical doctrine and jurisprudence has always considered the effects of reverential fear on matrimonial consent. B. Pontii defined it as follows: “Reverential fear is a discerning of a future evil as coming to us from those under whose lawful power we are and whom we regard with respect and honour.” St. Alfonsus de Liguori wrote, “Reverential fear is that by which one fears to oppose anybody to whom that person is subjected, namely, the father, mother, father-in-law, husband, king, master, prelate, guardian, and curator.” M. Conte a Coronata explained, “That fear is called reverential which is inflicted on us by those towards whom we are bound by a duty of piety or reverence.” Cappello stated, “Reverential fear is present when one is afraid of offending and displeasing those to whose authority he or she is subject and whom he or she is bound to hold in reverence and honour, such as parents and superiors, that is, ecclesiastical or secular.” As a consequence of this duty of homage and respect, the subject will experience a sense of shame in not obeying the will of the superior. An act of the will elicited as a result of the reverence due to the superior would naturally lack the spontaneity and freedom necessary for a free and deliberate consent.

R. Funghini states, “The Code speaks of one [type of] fear. Canonists, moral theologians, and jurisprudence of Our Forum, however, distinguish common fear from reverential fear, and they attribute to this fear also the force which invalidates marriage when it meets proper criteria.” He further distinguishes between common fear and reverential fear in three ways:

a) by reason of subject, that is, of the persons, because there exists a special bond of blood, or of love, or of subjection between the person who is the victim of fear and the one who inflicts fear;

b) by reason of object, because the evil that is feared is not the loss of temporary goods, disinheritance, and expulsion from the house, but the cessation or serious discontinuance and interruption of the existing affective relationship;

c) by reason of means used to influence [bend] the contrary will of the person marrying, because the person inflicting the fear does not use beatings, cruelty, violence, insults, and indignations, but inappropriate and distressing entreaties.

H. Ragni observes, “Besides the so-called ‘common’ fear, there is also another species of fear, i.e., reverential fear, which is determined solely by the trepidation of mind which the agent, who exercises power or parental authority, inflicts on the victim of fear.” D. Faltin distinguishes reverential fear from common fear by two factors, namely:

a) legality, from which arises a special subjection of the subject to the legitimately constituted authority; and

b) affectivity, by which, as a cause, a bond of reverence is created towards those “under whose authority we are […].”

B. Lanversin distinguishes reverential fear from common fear on the basis of three reasons. He says:

Reverential fear is distinguished from common fear chiefly for three reasons, namely,

– due to a pre-existing relationship of the subordinate towards the superior, which exits between the victim of fear and the one inflicting it;

due particularly to the moral nature of the pressure exerted on the subject by the superior;

due similarly to the moral nature of the evil, that is, of the danger, which the subject fears, namely, the indignation of the superior.

What is really meant by the “moral nature” of the pressure that is exerted on the subject or the “moral nature” of the evil, which the passive subject ( patiens ) fears? Reverential fear is a subjective experience. It exists in the perception of the one contracting marriage. The power of reverential fear is internal. Even if the reality of the dreaded indignation of the authority figure is actually mild, the perception of this indignation by the contractant can be severe and of long duration. While there must be some real connection between the internal emotion and the external situation, the emotional state of the contractant can make it worse than it actually is. In analyzing a matrimonial case on the ground of reverential fear, attention should be paid not only to the gravity of the indignation of the parents or of the superior, but also to the subjective perception of that gravity. The “moral nature” of the pressure and of the danger is internal; it is “psychological,” or “psychic,” in the broad sense of the term.

The specific object of reverential fear is not a particular evil threatened by the parent but the parental indignation itself. I. Parisella says, “Its [of reverential fear] specific object is, what they call, the indignation of the parents or of the superiors, which even if light by itself, can be foreseen as grave and of long duration.” Referring to the sentence of 27 February 1956 by P. Mattioli, Faltin speaks of the cause of reverential fear in the following manner: “Oftentimes, experience teaches us, the cause of reverential fear seems to be ‘the abuse of power’ on the part of those ‘who truly enjoy the power’ and ‘ in the reverence and excessive subjection ’ on the part of those, who, in some way, are subjects […].”

Since the basic motive for reverential fear is the reverence for one’s parents or superior, it may be considered as a fear that influences an inferior to consent to a contract in deference to his or her parents or superior. These characteristics of affection and reverence differentiate between common fear and reverential fear. In a situation in which a boy or a girl can avoid the indignation of the parents only by marrying, the resulting fear can compel him or her to choose an undesirable marriage. Therefore, any person who enters into marriage, which he or she would otherwise, under normal circumstances, not contract, owing to a desire not to displease or anger his or her parents or guardians, is said to be dominated naturally by reverential fear. Hence, in such a marriage a boy or a girl is unable to elicit valid consent because of the fear of offending his or her parents or guardians. Nevertheless, to invalidate marriage, reverential fear should have all the elements mentioned in CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103).

1.2.1 Elements of Fear/Reverential Fear

The Supreme Legislator has not formulated a separate canon on reverential fear. Since it is a species of fear, all the elements of fear are applicable to reverential fear as well. Ragni says, “The ground of force and fear in the new Code of Canon Law is governed by c. 1103, which determines the constitutive elements for the fear that invalidates marriage.” He continues:

For, not any fear impedes the validity of matrimonial consent but only that which is indeed proven to be qualified, namely, when: a) it is at least relatively grave (as from the circumstances, age, sex, and similar factors); b) from outside, that is, from an agent, who himself or herself is not the victim of fear and who is a free person, and moreover; c) this fear is irresistible, i.e., unavoidable without the celebration of the unwanted marriage. Moreover, as is known, under the present Code of Canon Law, any fear inflicted in relation to marriage, that is, ‘even the fear inflicted not intentionally’ (cf. c. 1103), is considered unjust.

From the above description, it is clear that the gravity, the externality, and the unavoidable nature are the specific elements of any fear invalidating matrimonial consent. We should, furthermore, bear in mind that these elements are never to be taken in isolation; that is, fear that includes the presence of one element without the others will still be considered insufficient for the invalidating matrimonial consent. All elements must necessarily coexist.

The basic element of reverential fear is that the inflicting party is the party’s parent, superior, or a “significant other.” Because of being subordinate, the party owes obedience and reverence to the parent, superior, or the significant other. In that context, the gravity, externality, and unavoidability of fear are to be specifically evaluated taking into consideration various factors such as education, maturity of the passive subject, level of affection existing between the person inflicting ( incutiens ) fear and its victim, and other related cultural situations. – Gravity of Fear/Reverential Fear

We read in CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) that the mere presence of fear does not invalidate matrimonial consent, but the fear should be grave enough to justify the invalidity of the action. According to T. Sànchez, there are five conditions for fear to be grave. However, P. Gasparri reduces them to two: “[…] namely, that the impending or future evil is grave for the particular person who is afraid, and that this person is convinced that this evil is in fact threatening him or her; otherwise the fear is slight.”

Certainly, the gravity of fear required could be rather difficult to measure. What could be the cause of great trepidation in one person may not be sufficient to cause grave fear in another. Canonists used to distinguish between two levels of fear: the absolutely grave fear and the relatively grave fear. J.W. Dohney points out that fear is considered absolutely grave “if the evil threatened or feared is of such a nature that it is considered by all men as an absolutely serious harm such as death, serious mutilation, slavery, exile, long imprisonment, serious infamy, disinheritance, and the like.” Whereas, fear is relatively grave “if it is caused by an evil not ordinarily viewed as objectively grave, but which viewed in relation to an individual is subjectively grave because of some peculiar disposition of mind, temperament, or training.” Therefore, the gravity is to be measured and appraised not absolutely, but relatively to the person affected by fear. However, in both cases, the subject must have been so weakened by the threat or evil that he or she was not in a position to resist easily because of timidity and absence of help. Thus, if it is proved that a certain exterior action by another person has unduly interfered with the freedom of choice of an individual to choose and consent, the marriage thus contracted would be invalid.

Reverential fear is a relatively grave fear. Regarding the gravity of reverential fear, Gasparri states:

‘[…] it is called, therefore, reverential fear when someone fears the indignation of the father, the master, etc., which is grave evil although […], beatings and threats are absent. And, if this fear is grave and of long duration in the future, it is, therefore, grave evil, and it will be regarded not without reason as grave fear […]’. Thus, indeed, such an indignation by itself is not presumed in the external forum as a grave evil not even with respect to a girl unless circumstances suggest otherwise, or something else has occurred, e.g., quarrels, threats, unreasonable and very pressing requests, etc.

Cappello comments on the relatively grave nature of reverential fear as follows:

Authors dispute whether reverential fear is slight or grave. It is per se slight, for the confusion and annoyance, which the subordinate suffers solely on account of the offence and indignation of the Superior, does not constitute de se a grave evil. On the other hand, if the offence and indignation of this kind is grave either in itself or from the circumstances, for example, if there are arguments, fights, unreasonable requests (namely, pressing and of long duration), complaints, etc., the fear is considered grave. If there is fear of some notable harm, for example, disinheritance, expulsion, or beatings or threats, then there is simply grave fear […]. In the external forum, reverential fear is presumed to be light; nevertheless, especially in girls , it easily becomes grave from the circumstances.

In his sentence of 14 March 1989, Masala states:

According to common doctrine and the constant jurisprudence of ecclesiastical courts, this kind of fear is slight of its nature. But it is considered grave if it is qualified, that is, accompanied by circumstances, which in the case suggests that the superior’s indignation is a grave evil. This occurs whenever the son or daughter, because of pressures from parents through repeated and fastidious pleadings or continuous arguments, which leave practically no room for freedom, and this is very hard to tolerate, fears that the parents’ indignation would last a long time.

Stankiewicz explains the gravity of reverential fear as follows:

Furthermore, one is not to ignore that in reverential fear, it is not a question of an absolute gravity of an imminent evil, but only of a relative one, which depends both on time-factors affecting the situation of the family life, where paternal indignation is effective, as well as on the psychic nature of the person inflicting fear and of the person experiencing it […], and finally on the degree of familial, economic and social subjection, and dependence of the person experiencing the fear on the one inflicting it.

In order to understand the gravity of reverential fear, therefore, one ought to examine carefully the previously mentioned circumstances. The gravity of reverential fear sufficient to invalidate consent must be proven in a marriage nullity case. However, the proof of the gravity of reverential fear is not an easy task because, as Stankiewicz observes, “It is, therefore, evident to everyone that the proof of reverential fear, which might be qualified, that is, invalidating marriage, is more difficult than that of common fear.” We will have a closer look at the gravity of reverential fear when we discuss its invalidating force. – Externality of Fear/Reverential Fear

The invalidating force of grave fear must come from a source outside the affected person (see CCEO , c. 825; CIC , c. 1103). The source of fear must not be a natural or a supernatural cause. The fear cannot result from scrupulosity, a sense of moral or social obligation, or some other internal psychological process. The source of fear must be a human agent and not some impersonal cause. Funghini says, “It is required that fear is inflicted from outside, i.e., by a free cause, that is, by a human agent. Only fear, which is inflicted under the pressure of another person’s will, invalidates marriage. Fear from within, in which the evil to be feared is spontaneously perceived by the subject himself or herself, is excluded.” The free human agent may be the parents, the relatives, or anyone in authority.

With respect to the external cause of reverential fear, it is necessary for the one who inflicts fear to hold a position of superiority that involves effective influence, authority or real power over the victim of fear. Moreover, there should be a real relationship between the superior and the subject that is not merely transient but sufficiently habitual, stable, and inescapable in order to wield effective influence on the subordinate during the formation of consent. T.G. Doran says:

For the very existence of reverential fear, however, the following are required: 1) the aforesaid actual relationship of subjection or of subordination (e.g., between a father and a child, a teacher and a student, a guardian and a ward, a commander and a soldier); 2) a well founded fear that one would incur both grave and lasting indignation of the superior on account of the refusal to marry; 3) the actual coercion inflicted on the subordinate by the superior by using all those means which are able to give rise to a state of disturbance in the subordinate’s mind.

All this implies that a superior-subordinate relationship forms an environmental context or situation that may affect a person’s life. – Grave Fear/Reverential Fear Unintentionally Inflicted

Canon 825 of CCEO says, “A marriage is invalid that is celebrated by reason of force or grave fear imposed from without, even if nor purposely […].” This norm implies that whatever the force from which a grave fear arises, even if it is not directed purposely at marriage, can render a marriage invalid if it is the immediate cause of marriage. This is known as indirect fear. It is sufficient that fear be grave, be from some external and free agent and that marriage is the only way to liberate oneself from the impending evil. The one exerting the force that leads to grave fear need not be aware of the consequences of his or her actions. What is critical is that, even unintentionally, the person’s actions result in grave fear on the part of the victim.

Since reverential fear does not require any particular element or elements that is/are different from those indicated in CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103), the regular requirement of fear to invalidate consent favours reverential fear as well. Such grave reverential fear has the invalidating force when the parents do not raise even threats with the direct purpose of forcing matrimonial consent from a son or a daughter. – Unavoidability of the Choice of Marriage

The grave fear that invalidates marriage is one by which “a person is compelled to choose marriage in order to be free from it” (see CCEO , c. 825; CIC , c. 1103). Thus, to invalidate the marital consent, it is required that the impending evil cannot be resisted or avoided, either in reality or in the mind of the victim, through any other way than marriage. Marriage is entered into as a means of escaping the threat or the indignation of the parents or of the superior. Grave fear becomes not merely an occasion but the cause of the consent to marriage. It is not necessary that the person be compelled by fear to marry a particular person; it is sufficient that he or she be compelled by fear to contract an unwanted marriage, even if he or she is free in the choice of a partner. This principle is supported by H.A. Ayrinhac, who says, “Nor is it required […] that a person be forced to marry a certain party, but simply that he should be reduced to choose marriage in order to free himself from fear.”

The principle of unavoidability of marriage is applied to reverential fear as well. In a situation of reverence and obedience, the subordinate person feels obliged to choose marriage as the only means of avoiding the parental indignation. If the subject were not in a position of subordination, the same evil, that is, indignation could not have caused reverential fear or the consequent unavoidable choice of marriage to escape intimidation.

1.2.2 Invalidating Force of Reverential Fear in Matrimonial Consent

We have already noted that reverential fear is slight by nature and, therefore, it does not per se invalidate matrimonial consent. However, if a boy or a girl, because of a relationship of reverence, subjection, and dependence, is so pressured into complying with the paternal expectation, advice or command to contract marriage or to marry a specific person, then one is consenting to such a marriage unwillingly. In other words, such a marriage is invalid.

Canonical doctrine and jurisprudence distinguishes two types of reverential fear, namely, mere (pure) reverential fear and qualified reverential fear. This distinction is based on the degree of the invalidating force or influence of reverential fear on matrimonial consent. – Mere Reverential Fear

Pure or mere reverential fear derives its influence solely from the deference and reverence which a young man or woman has for the parents or for a superior. Since the sense of respect in a child is a perfectly normal factor, it can rarely happen that grave fear would be involved in it. Such a fear is simply a condition of mind, purely consequent upon the normal relationship of a child to one’s own parents or of an inferior to one’s own superior.

In the case of children, when time comes for them to select their partners in marriage, parents and guardians consider it their responsibility to guide their children with advice, persuasions, and even moderate rebukes against contracting an imprudent marriage, especially when they are still very young and immature. The suggestions of the parents can lead their children to make a better choice. If the children accede, it is considered normal, insofar as obedience is due to the parent’s guidance, and this is customary in itself. Here, marriage is to be understood of a child who, acknowledging the guidance of the parents, accedes to their wish immediately or with only some brief hesitation. There is no grave reverential fear involved in it. The Second Vatican Council states, “It is the duty of the parents and the guardians to guide young people with prudent advice in the establishment of a family; their interest should make young people listen to them eagerly; but they should beware of exercising any undue influence, directly or indirectly, to force them into marriage or compel them in their choice of partners.”

Mere reverential fear may have its own degrees. The lowest degree is that which involves only the sense of embarrassment or shame resulting from the refusal to obey the parents or the superiors. The shame or embarrassment experienced in offending or grieving superiors or parents, although an evil affecting the person, causes but a minor or slight degree of reverential fear. The higher degree is the fear of causing sadness, sorrow, displeasure, or offence to the parents or to one’s superior. Strictly speaking, a real fear can hardly be said to be present here. The highest degree is the fear of the indignation or anger of one’s parents or superiors at the refusal to obey their wishes. As noted earlier, reverential fear per se is slight. For, the harm suffered by a son or a daughter because of paternal offence, sorrow, indignation or anger, quickly vanishes like vapour in the family circle. Therefore, in general, the three types of mere reverential fear connote the presence of only a slight fear and, as a result, it does not invalidate matrimonial consent. However, once the indignation becomes prolonged and serious, so that it exists as a real threat to the peace of mind of the child or the subordinate, then fear becomes grave, and it will no longer be mere reverential fear. – Qualified Reverential Fear

As much as reverential fear is natural and normal, it can easily give rise to another higher degree of fear, considered grave and capable of overwhelming the will of a child or a subordinate, and thereby invalidating matrimonial consent. Thus, when a mere reverential fear is aggravated by other factors, there is qualified reverential fear. Hence, qualified reverential fear can be explained as mere reverential fear that is intensified by threats, beatings, repeated pleadings, or vexations. This can then change the mere fear into grave fear, whether absolute or relative.

Beatings, threats, whether implicit or explicit, and ill treatment can qualify reverential fear, and make it grave, even though they all may not be absolutely serious in themselves. However, if threats are grave in themselves, the resulting fear is both reverential and common, and, in this case, the gravity of fear can be more easily established. In this situation, therefore, there are two evils, namely, the indignation and the threats from the parents.

Even in the absence of threats, simple but prolonged indignation, accompanied by annoying demands, constant pleas, and repeated requests from the parents or from a superior can make a child uncomfortable, fearful, and this can arouse grave fear and trepidation in the child. This can force a person’s will to choose marriage, which under normal circumstances that person would not do. This is supported by Stankiewicz, who states:

Wherefore, canonical doctrine and jurisprudence unanimously teach that reverential fear, arising from the indignation of parents or superiors, can also be qualified as grave even if there are no beatings or threats, that is to say, if the indignation ‘were to be grave and of long duration’, because then it both constitutes a serious harm and ‘will be considered not without reason as grave fear’ […]. And this is so, because in qualified reverential fear an imminent and serious harm, which is different from parental indignation, itself is not necessarily required; ‘for this can be serious and very grievous harm’ […].

It is about such a situation that Sànchez asks, “Which firm or prudent person would not consider as a grave evil always to face a hostile father or man, or some other person, on whom he depends and with whom he has to deal constantly?” The pleas, entreaties, etc. involved must be repeated, sufficiently frequent, and unreasonable enough to cause grave fear. An occasional plea or an isolated entreaty would not be sufficient to cause the pressure on the will that would constitute grave fear. However, Stankiewicz adds that the factors which cause qualified reverential fear are not per se grave. Therefore, he says:

Hence, it is necessary that there are absolute commands, precepts, or unreasonable insistence of parents which so harass the child’s mind, that in order to free him or her self from them, he or she is forced to choose marriage, lest, due to his or her manifest reluctance, he or she is overwhelmed by his or her parent’s grave and lasting indignation without any hope of future reconciliation with them.

If a command is imperious and stated with severity, it amounts to a demand which would suggest very strongly that unpleasant consequences will follow its non-compliance. Even when the command is not repeated, the child may fear the resultant anger, which he or she is sure will follow because the child knows that the parents are usually determined to carry out their plans. If the parents or superiors are strong-willed and insist on one obeying their command, such an absolute command will be more effective than repeated requests or unreasonable demands.

However, today’s children have a different concept of parental authority. Therefore, paternal indignation does not seem to have much influence on the children’s choices. As J.J. García Faílde says, “In the present-day situations, where the ties of parental authority and filial subjection have been loosened, the presumption of reverence on the part of subordinates seems to have turned into a presumption of dependence on the part of the elders in submission to subordinates.” In such a situation, for reverential fear arising from the indignation of the parents or superiors to be grave enough to invalidate matrimonial consent, it should be qualified by commands, unreasonable demands, quarrels, pleas, threats, entreaties, and the like.

Apart from reverential fear, when one decides to contract marriage in compliance with the wishes of one’s parents or superior, but there is no threat or danger of grave indignation from them, one simply acquiesces to their wishes or advice in order to please them. In acquiescing to their decision, the subject intends to continue enjoying their care, affection, benevolence, and love. Stankiewicz says that complying with a person’s wishes is not the same as doing something most willingly. The reason is that, as Wynen says, “Certain reluctance is implied in the phrase ‘complying with a person’s wishes’.” Stankiewicz, however, adds that one, who complies with parental wishes, deliberately and freely contracts marriage: “For such a person makes his or her own his or her parents’ arguments in favour of marriage and submits self to their advice because of the affection, trust, love, and some other reasonable cause, not to distress them by some grief; thus in a certain sense such a person willingly renouncing his or her own freedom in choosing the partner […].” In such cases, reverential fear may not have the force to invalidate matrimonial consent.

The invalidating reverential fear, therefore, should have all the elements already discussed, such as gravity, externality, and causative nature. Such a fear considered in light of the character, the situation, and the trepidation of mind of the subject, would prevent a true matrimonial consent, and, consequently, would render the marriage invalid. In order to determine the invalidating force of reverential fear, therefore, all aspects related to it, namely, the indignation of the parents or of the superior, the sex, age, education, psychological condition, maturity, degree of affection, and the social and cultural background of the subject must be carefully considered and evaluated.

2 Proof of Invalidating Reverential Fear

A particular problem with regard to reverential fear is the fact that the proofs needed to demonstrate the presence of invalidating fear are difficult to obtain because no one wants to say anything negative about one’s own family. The proofs often impact the family or professional relationships. However, the proof of force or grave fear is derived from two arguments: the indirect argument, that is, by proving the aversion (indirect proof), and the direct argument, that is, by proving the coercion (direct proof). In both arguments, the tribunal should first of all consider the declaration of the victim of fear, because he or she alone can directly reveal both the existence of mental trepidation at the time of marriage and its gravity. However, such a declaration cannot have the value of full proof unless there are other indications and supporting factors, which corroborate it, together with the attestation to the credibility of the victim of fear by credible witnesses (see CCEO , cc. 1217, §2; 1366; CIC , cc. 1536, §2; 1679). In many cases, the coercive action of the source of fear might have been external and notorious. Therefore, the testimony of the source of fear must be given utmost weight if the person admits to be the cause of fear.

2.1 – The Indirect Proof

In the above cited sentence of 25 October 2001, Stankiewicz writes, “The proof of grave, or qualified, reverential fear is deduced in the first place by the argument from aversion either towards the partner’s person or towards marriage with him or her, and which therefore is rightly called the queen of proofs and is rightly the indirect argument of fear itself.” It must be shown that the person compelled to marry by grave reverential fear had an aversion toward the person of the partner or marriage itself to prove indirectly the fear that had forced the marriage. However, a person may actually like his or her partner as a friend but show aversion toward marriage with him or her. L.G. Wrenn says, “The ordinary signs or symptoms of aversion are crying and complaining before marriage, sadness and denial of affection. The absence of such signs after the marriage proves nothing since it is then presumed that one is making the best of a bad situation.” Stankiewicz states that aversion cannot be conceived in the one who had an affectionate relationship for several years with his or her partner with marriage in mind. When there are no signs of aversion towards the person or marriage itself, one cannot speak of coercion. On the contrary, the more severe the aversion was before the marriage, the more effective one can presume that a mind contrary to marriage had only been triumphed over by grave coercion.

If there are “other indications and supporting factors present,” aversion alone may prove the presence of fear. Rodríguez González identifies the following “other indications and supporting factors” indicated in various Rotal decisions: 1) the party being forced into marriage engages in emotional or physical outbursts when the topic of marriage is brought up, or refuses to talk about the upcoming ceremony; 2) the party being forced into marriage suffers from nightmares, keeps on postponing the wedding, insists on having it in an out-of-the-way place, at an inconvenient time, in the presence of as few people as possible, or without any pomp or solemnity; 3) if after the wedding, the party who was forced into the marriage refuses to consummate the marriage or have any further sexual relations with one’s own spouse once the marriage has been consummated; 4) if the party who was forced into marriage remains in the marriage only for a brief period of time, or refuses to have children which might perpetuate the marriage, or procures an abortion so that the marriage will not be prolonged by the presence of children; 5) if the person who was forced into marriage wrote letters to friends that contain expressions of disrespect for the intended spouse, or an aversion to marriage. While each of these factors is not sufficient enough to prove the nullity of marriage in question due to common fear or reverential fear, taken together with other factors, like the cultural factors in cases of reverential fear (e.g., parental authority, filial reverence and submissive mentality, economic dependence of the children on the parents, respect towards the significant others, etc.), they may give rise to a strong presumption that the said marriage was entered into without sufficient internal freedom. These above factors must be weighed and proved within the framework of aversion. Viladrich, however, expresses a different opinion on this matter: “Although aversion has great significance in the presumption of gravity and the inner causality of fear, it is not, however, a requirement imposed by c. 1103 for evaluating invalidating fear. Therefore, if it is lacking or plays only a small role in any given case neither does it prove the impossibility of invalidating fear.”

An important presumptive value, which has similarities to aversion, and which reflects the effects on the personality of the one who was forced to marry, might be attributed to the signs of sadness, bitterness, and depression in general. The mental illnesses that the party is suffering from now, especially from the very beginning of and throughout married life, and when the emotional disturbances are opposing and unintelligible in comparison with the normal personality and the mental state before suffering from fear, are equally important. Therefore, in addition to proof by deposition of the parties and testimony of the witnesses, psychological and medical experts may be able to contribute important support to prove the underlying cause of fear in temperamental and mental changes and subsequent situations of depression, aggression, anguish, or anxiety. If it is proved that the basis for aversion, lack of love, or emotional changes in a person is not external, e.g., coercion from parents or a superior, then it is to be presumed that the person is suffering from some serious mental or psychic disorder, that is, the cause of fear is from inside the person. In such a situation, the particular matrimonial case cannot be processed on the ground ( caput ) of force or grave fear.

2.2 – The Direct Proof

The argument from aversion must be completed by the direct argument derived from the inflicted coercion. For this purpose, there must be proof of the existence of coercion, its gravity, the means used for coercion, and the link of at least indirect causality between coercion, causing fear in the subject, and matrimonial consent. If the testimony of the one who has inflicted fear in the subject is credible, such deposition is a virtual proof of coercion. It must be said that the parent, superior, or any significant other who was the cause of reverential fear in the party does not have to be acting out of malice, or even be the conscious initiator of an unwanted marriage.

Moreover, it is not sufficient merely to state the facts, e.g., that the parents of the alleged victim of reverential fear had demanded that he or she marry this particular person because of his or her family’s financial status. It also should be shown why the parents of the victim of fear would have such a control over him or her; what their relationship had been hitherto; how they had handled their differences; whether there had been any occasion when the person ran away from home in order to escape the indignation of his or her parents, etc. In other words, what needs to be demonstrated is not just that someone was causing fear in one of the parties, but why that person could be said to be the cause of fear. With respect to proving coercion in reverential fear cases, the cultural factors must be considered. Furthermore, because fear has been considered above all in a subjective sense, it is important to determine the reason why the person reacted in such a way to a particular person in this particular situation.

With regard to proving mainly the gravity of coercion in reverential fear cases, the particular manner or style by which the parents exercise their intimidating authority over the children is to be evaluated. Even within the same cultural context, it may vary from family to family. For example, there are families in which the father’s intimidating authority is exercised without much verbal force, whereas in other families the intimidating parental authority requires more explicit and forceful commands than simple requests. Before determining the gravity of reverential fear, a judge has to assess very carefully the manner by which the intimidating parental authority is exercised in that particular family. If parental indignation at a son or daughter disobeying their wishes is grave, reverential fear is grave as well.

3- The System of Arranged Marriages in Indian Culture

The arranged marriage system exists and is still practiced in India. According to this system, parents or guardians initiate and negotiate all aspects of their children’s marriage. V.V. Prakasa and V.N. Rao say that an arranged marriage is a type of mate selection in which the individual getting married has little or no choice in selecting a spouse because family members- usually parents-are more influential in the process. J. Maliekal says, “In India, today, children generally leave the choice of their marriage partners to the mature and careful decision of their parents who know them better and have their well-being at heart.” The custom and logic behind an arranged marriage could be deduced from the nature and structure of the family, especially that of the joint family. Even though people, today, have started to live in small families, the traditional aspects of the joint family system are commonly seen in India. In such situations, members of the family share and support one another and the individual’s personal needs. Their traits are seen in relation to the whole family. Consequently, marriage is mostly arranged by the parents, elders, or the significant others. The predominant belief is that mates are already predestined, and it is the duty of the responsible persons of the family to actualize it.

In cases of arranged marriages, consent of the spouses is not ultimately neglected. Rather, it is asked for and received, or it is taken for granted. In some cases the spouses are expected to accept the decision of the family members, who take into account many elements in the arrangement of marriages, such as family background, reputation, economic condition, age, dowry, etc. We will speak about these factors later. If the groom’s parents are satisfied with these characteristics, they, usually through a “marriage broker,” entrust the difficult task of revealing this interest to the woman’s parents. If both parties agree, parents of both the man and the woman begin to communicate directly, and a meeting is set up at the woman’s house for the man’s family to see her. At the time of the visit to the bride’s family, if the parents come to an agreement regarding the marriage of their children and if the man likes the woman, the parents will finalize the date for the engagement. A dowry will also be fixed, and then they will proceed with the marriage.

However, today the exposure of the Indian society to western ideologies and the fast growing modernization and industrialization have created tremendous changes in the field of marriages, from too much rigidity to greater flexibility, and from a purely family-oriented choice of mate to the acceptance of the choice on the couple’s part. Still, a western observer may be amazed to see how established the system of arranged marriages is, in that the great majority of modern male and female Indians and even those Indians living abroad accept it as the normal way.

In evaluating the arranged marriage system, there is no doubt that one will find both positive and negative elements. It is true that the system of arranged marriages has its origin in antiquity; it is derived from ancestral traditions and customs. As far as the way of life of Indian society is concerned, the system of arranged marriages, in itself, is good and practical. However, it has negative consequences as well. Mendonça observes the following:

It can and does have the potential for serious negative consequences as far as matrimonial consent is concerned when a person’s freedom of choice is substantially restricted, when the consent of the parties is overridden by that of the parents, when the essential elements of its object are replaced by non-essential ones, and when the personal/interpersonal nature of the marital partnership is rendered practically impossible under the pretext of family’s survival.

Here, the individual’s values and choices may be sacrificed at the cost of the interests of the family members. The personal and free act of the parties may be replaced by other social and economic factors.

4 Cultural Factors Affecting Reverential Fear

There is a variety of cultural factors that induce reverential fear in children in India. Parental authority , filial reverence , and respect towards significant others are the main factors that underlie reverential fear in children. Other cultural factors having indirect impact on reverential fear are social and financial status , dowry system , and age .

4.1 – Parental Authority

Parental authority has deep roots in the culture of the Indian society. The Christian community in India is not immune from this cultural experience. The patriarchal system of family still prevails in India. According to this system, the father has power over all members of his family. In such a family system, until they are married, children remain subject to their parents. Children remain under the authority of their parents even when they have reached adulthood. Parental authority is so strong that the parents make decisions even for their adult children. This is evident in the system of arranged marriages in India.

In India, marriage is regarded as of vital importance to the family and community and not as a personal matter between a man and a woman. This explains the initiative or the responsibility the parents feel when they arrange the marriages of their children. When parents arrange marriage for their children, as we have already mentioned, they look carefully into the social and economic factors in order to safeguard the status, reputation, and relationship of the family. Therefore, the arrangement is made to meet the requirements of the parents and not necessarily of the parties to the marriage. In this sense, matrimonial consent or marriage itself assumes secondary importance. Hence, when parents arrange marriage for their children, they make the choice, and they expect their children to accept their decision.

In cases of arranged marriages, the decision of the parents is so decisive that they do not expect their children to turn down the arrangement made by them. If the children, influenced by the changes in the modern society, react negatively to their parents’ decision, the parents, in turn, quite often fail to understand the thinking of their children. Any challenge to parental authority in these matters is likely to be considered unbecoming of a child. If a boy or a girl opposes to the wishes of the parents he or she will have to face the indignation of the parents. The parental indignation causes fear in the children that is reverential in nature. In order to avoid parental indignation, out of reverential fear, a boy or a girl may consent unwillingly to the proposed marriage.

In some cases, it seems that in exercising their legitimate authority, parents might force their children, although unintentionally, into contracting marriage. In some families, the father, the mother, or the significant other may be of domineering and obstinate character. Such a character of the parents may intensify the reverential fear of the children towards them. Moreover, when such parents arrange marriages, the children may not have any freedom to express their opinions on the proposed marriages. In such cases, the children are coerced to comply with the wishes of the parents.

Imposing marriage on an unwilling person is unjust because it deprives the person of his or her freedom of choice. Stankiewicz says, “Nor do the parents have the right, therefore, to demand of their children a reparatory marriage, that is, one in view of a pregnancy, because of which the children do not lose the faculty of choosing a partner according to their own will, even if they are to blame for the act.” Therefore, if a boy or a girl is absolutely unwilling to get married or to marry a certain person and yet obeys through reverential fear, he or she acts exclusively through respect and obedience and the matrimonial consent given in such a situation is invalid.

In his sentence of 20 December 1963, Sabattani states, “A marriage arranged by parents for their children is not invalid if the children ratify the engagement entered upon and so contract the marriage. If, however, they do not wish to ratify the engagement and are therefore compelled by fear to wed, the marriage is null.” Burke adds:

In such [marriage] cases when the Church feels bound to make a decision against long established traditions, it in no way calls into question the good faith of the parents, or their sincere love for their daughter or son, or genuine concern for their welfare. However, the subjective good will of the parents does not justify or lessen the objective violation of the son’s or daughter’s right to freedom in the giving of matrimonial consent. This consent, inasmuch as it constitutes a person in the married state, must always remain a most personal choice; as the Church has always taught, it ‘cannot be supplied by any other human power’ (c. 1057, §1).

Therefore, if it is proved that the matrimonial consent was not given with freedom of will and it resulted out of grave reverential fear of the indignation of the parents, then that marriage can be declared invalid.

4.2 Filial Reverence

It is a true picture of the Indian society that corresponding to the parental authority there is an extraordinary filial respect, which is instilled into the children right from childhood by word, example, and circumstances. Parents, who enjoy authority over their children, presuppose a customary obedience on the part of their children. The notion of filial reverence is instilled into the children in such a way that, in some instances, they remain submissive to their parents throughout their lives. In such cases, it is quite possible that children fail to develop a sense of personal autonomy necessary to make important decisions in their lives. These types of persons may leave everything to the discretion of their parents.

As already explained, since marriage is more a family and community affair than a personal contract and an institution creating new alliances, most of the marriages in India are still arranged by the parents or close relatives irrespective of caste or religion. Because of filial reverence and accustomed obedience, children accept and sometimes are even forced to accept their parents’ decisions, even if they are able to decide for themselves. The children know that if they disobey their parents’ wishes they will incur the anger, resentment, and indignation of their parents. This impending indignation on the part of the parents causes fear in the children that is deferential in nature. Therefore, even if the boy or the girl strongly disagrees with the marriage proposal, he or she may not explicitly voice any objection due to reverential fear.

Another aspect of filial respect is a deep sense of gratitude towards the parents. The Indian culture highly values this virtue of indebtedness . As a result, children feel that any decision that is against their parents’ decision is something bad and shameful. Mendonça states that when this kind of cultural demand based on filial reverence goes counter to a person’s freedom to choose, there can be no true choice. This can be one of the important aspects of matrimonial consent that may be seriously violated in case of filial reverence, and this is certainly a frequent happening in arranged marriages.

In the previously cited sentence of 20 January 1994 by Burke, we read the following about the validity of arranged marriages:

Tribunals cannot let themselves be guided by what may have been normal or common in the past, if the evidence in the concrete case shows that natural and ecclesial rights have been violated. The juridical question to be determined is whether a person in the end freely acquiesced in the proposed marriage, out of motives of love, of respect for greater experience, etc., or whether ‘acceptance’ of the marriage was against his or her own will, and motivated simply by fear of consequences of not doing so.

This principle was already stated by Mattioli in his sentence of 29 February 1960, where he said, “Nor is it right to object that the parents had good reasons for their insistence; in other words, they were looking to the good of their children, or wished to attain other very upright ends. This could indeed attenuate or justify their action in the forum of their own conscience, but it takes away nothing from the objective violation of justice which, according to the norm of law, nullifies the consent of the person suffering their pressures.”

Filial reverence or piety is one thing, and freedom of choice of one’s marriage partner for the whole of one’s life is another matter. The latter is a natural right of each human being, and it cannot be sacrificed at the expense of filial respect and devotion towards one’s parents. The filial respect that paves the way for blind obedience, then, may force a person to enter into marriage contrary to his or her personal free will. If a boy or a girl, in filial respect, accepts what was arranged by the parents, it may be a wilful acceptance, but to evaluate its validity, we have to know whether or not it took place out of grave reverential fear.

4.3 Respect Towards “Significant Others”

In the Indian society, in the absence of parents, there are others who stand in the place of parents ( in loco parentis ), who enjoy almost the same authority over the children. These “significant others” may include the superior of a religious institute, director of an orphanage, guardian, or the oldest member in a family. If the father or the mother is deceased, there is usually someone else who will assume the authority to look after the needs of the children in a family. There is always respect and obedience towards such a person or persons on the part of the children.

In the case of marriage, the person in charge of the children arranges a partner of his or her choice in the arranged marriage system. He or she strongly expects that the boy or girl will accept that choice. Failure to submit will cause anger or indignation of the one who stands in the place of parents. Therefore, in order to avoid the indignation of such person, the boy or the girl consents to the marriage proposal out of reverential fear. Before him or her there is no other way to get out of this situation except by consenting to the proposed marriage.

4.4 Social and Financial Status

Parents mainly care for the social and family status in the marriage arrangement of their children. Mendonça observes, “When feelers are sent out through a marriage-broker for a prospective bride or groom, one of the characteristics of the person being carefully investigated is his or her family’s social and economic status.” Parents want to see their child become a member of a good, financially well-off, and morally upright family. This is particularly true on the part of the woman’s parents who wish to acquire a life-partner for their daughter with high personal and familial status. They, therefore, may take this prestigious issue in their own hands, paying little or sometimes no attention to the wishes of their child. The requirement of a family’s social and financial status is the important issue for the parents. The actual status of the family is likely to enter into the parental consent and, consequently, into the consent of the parties as well. Therefore, even if the woman does not like the partner chosen by the parents, she might agree to the marriage proposal out of reverential fear deeply conditioned by the Indian culture, and also to avoid parental indignation and displeasure if she refuses.

4.5 Dowry System

Dowry is considered one of the main factors in the arranged marriage system. It is an age-old practice in the Indian society, referring to property or valuable security given by one party to another as consideration for marriage. S.J. Tambiah says that dowry is the property given to the daughter to take with her into marriage. L.W. Brown writes about the dowry system among the St. Thomas Christians in Malabar in the following way: “Dowry is given to compensate the daughters of the family for the loss they sustain in marrying out of the family; it used to be roughly equivalent to the share of property a son would receive on his father’s death.”

The original intent behind the dowry system seems to have been to provide financial assistance for the newlywed couple. P.D. Devanandan and M.M. Thomas comment on this aspect of dowry: “The girls in the patriarchal society do not have any legal claim over the patrimony. It is most likely that the parents, concerned about the welfare of their daughters, would have started to offer voluntarily the basic necessary things, to have a good beginning of the married life; this custom […] started on a voluntary basis, has become an obligation today.”

Along with the jewels and the household goods, dowry also means a sum of money paid by the bride’s father to the groom’s family. In spite of the Indian Parliament’s Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 condemning the dowry system as a social evil, the practice has still increased and is prevalent in all communities – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, etc. It now prevails with equal force throughout India under the guise of “gift.”

There is no doubt that the dowry system has its own logic rooted in the mores of the people. Whatever the good intentions of the forefathers in instituting this system, at present it has become an excruciating social evil that directly affects marriageable women and, indirectly, their families. If the bride’s parents cannot meet the dowry requested by the groom’s family, the marriage may have to be delayed, and this destroys the parents’ peace of mind. Naturally, the bride whose father cannot afford the groom’s exorbitant demands will not marry him.

There are certainly some positive aspects of the dowry system as well. It is likely to provide self-respect, psychological security, and financial support for the wife and children in case of the husband’s death. But in many cases, its disadvantages definitely outweigh its apparently positive aspects. Mendonça observes that normally a woman finds it very difficult to go into marriage without a suitable dowry because she knows that it might cause serious friction later within the family. Families sometimes break up; there are cases where wives are tortured and even murdered because of insufficient dowry. T.J. Kirupaharan rightly observes the negative aspect of the dowry system by saying that if a poor family finds a husband for their daughter who is willing to accept a low dowry, there is always the possibility for them to impose the marriage agreement of their choice. Pressure is even greater if there are many daughters in such a family. Therefore, in such a case, because of reverential fear towards her parents, the woman may choose a lifetime partner whom she dislikes. She may also agree with their choice merely to avoid their resentment or anger.

4.6 Age

Another significant element which enters into the choice of marriage partners is age. There may be some conventions in each society regarding the age at which one can marry. When one goes beyond this age limit, suspicion arises, making it difficult for the woman to get married. Mendonça says, “As a general rule, the proposed bride must be younger than the proposed bridegroom. This requirement is universally adhered to in arranged marriages among all communities in India.” The basic principle behind this requirement is that the husband assumes the responsibility for his wife from her father. It presupposes sufficient maturity on the husband’s part.

There is another aspect of age that has a bearing on arranged marriages. It becomes very difficult, particularly for a young woman, to find a suitable match after a certain age. Then, she might be compelled by her parents, or by those who stand in their place, to agree to a marriage with anyone who would be willing to marry her. The woman will have to face the indignation of her parents if she refuses to marry the person they have chosen. So, out of reverential fear towards the parents, she may submit to the will of the parents. Pressure is even stronger if the woman is the oldest of several daughters, because according to many of the local customs it is not proper for the younger sisters to marry before the oldest. Even though the same holds true for the man, the case is not always the same.


The Supreme Legislator has established the invalidity of matrimonial consent given under the influence of force or grave fear because these attack the internal freedom necessary for giving consent, which is a juridic act. Also, the internal freedom can be substantially destroyed or diminished by intrinsic factors. These factors represent serious psychological disorders related mainly to the consensual incapacity mentioned in CCEO , c. 818 ( CIC , c. 1095). Grave fear causes a defect in the consent because the passive subject accepts marriage because of fear induced by the threat of some evil (indignation of the parents or of a superior in the case of reverential fear). While force is physically irresistible, fear is morally so. Grave fear, including reverential fear, invalidates marriage by natural law itself. There are many cultural factors that can exacerbate reverential fear in the children in the Indian cultural milieu.

Grave fear referred to in CCEO , c. 825 ( CIC , c. 1103) can be common or reverential. Common fear exists in the disturbance of the mind caused by an imminent evil. Canon c. 825 speaks about any fear, justly or unjustly inflicted from outside, even if not purposely, which can render marriage null in virtue of the subjective mental trepidation of the person marrying that compels him or her to choose marriage. Reverential fear is a discerning of a future evil as coming to us from those under whose lawful power we are and whom we regard with reverence and honour. Although reverential fear can easily arise in any relationship of dependence or subordination, it usually occurs in the relationship of parents with their children or of a superior with a subordinate. The specific object of reverential fear is not any particular threat by the parent or by a superior, but the parental indignation itself.

In order that reverential fear may invalidate matrimonial consent it does not require particular elements apart from those indicated in the canon on force or grave fear. However, it demands careful evaluation of the following elements, that is, the gravity, the externality, and the unavoidability of fear, considered together with other concrete factors such as education, maturity of the passive subject, level of affection existing between the person who is the source of fear and the victim of fear and other relevant cultural factors.

Reverential fear is relatively grave fear. Generally speaking, reverential fear is per se slight, and it does not have the invalidating effect on matrimonial consent. However, if, because of a relation of reverence and subjection, a person is compelled to abide by the authoritarian advice of parents or of a superior to celebrate marriage or to marry a specific person, then one would be consenting to such a marriage unwillingly, and that marriage is invalid. If threats, beatings, unreasonable demands, vexations, etc., are added to mere reverential fear, then it becomes grave. Even without threats, prolonged indignation, on the part of the parents, can wield undue influence on the child to make a choice of marriage that the child would not make under normal circumstances. The situation may be different when a son or a daughter marries in compliance with the wishes and advice of his or her parents in order to please them but without any threat or danger of grave indignation of parents. In this case, one must be said to marry freely, that is, without any external coercion. In such cases, reverential fear would not have the force to invalidate the matrimonial consent.

The proof of reverential fear is twofold: indirect, that is, through aversion and direct, that is, presence of coercion. In evaluating both proofs, one must weigh carefully the declarations of the parties and the testimonies of witnesses, the circumstantial evidence, and the cultural factors.

The main cultural factors in the Indian family system and which may give rise to reverential fear in the children in association with arranged marriages and which are indentified in this study are parental authority, filial reverence, respect for the significant others, social and financial status , dowry system, and age.

When parents arrange marriage for their son or daughter, they should not take his or her consent for granted for the proposed marriage. If an arranged marriage is obviously not wanted by a son or a daughter, the parents themselves should try to explain to their son or daughter that he or she is free to refuse it because valid matrimonial consent should be a free act of the will. The reasons “all preparations are done” ( omnia parata sunt ), loss of prestige, or shame to the family if the marriage is cancelled at the last minute, can never justify the parents’ forcing a boy or a girl to marry, especially when he or she insistently says that he or she does not want to marry at all or does not want to marry a particular person.

The judge must understand the role that a specific cultural factor/factors play in the system of arranged marriages and how they affect matrimonial consent elicited under their influence. Hence, a proper understanding of the cultural background of a person or of a community is very important to provide a just and equitable interpretation of law, marriage law in particular, and to apply it to a concrete case. When dealing with a marriage nullity case on the ground of reverential fear, the judge must evaluate how much a specific cultural factor has contributed to the gravity of reverential fear in its victim.

Vol. 1.  No. 1,  December 2010.  P.p. 144-185


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Herald of the East: Dharmaram Journal of Chavara Studies

The latest issue of Herald of the East (Vol.12, No.2), on Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara: To the Desert and Back, is out on 15 October 2017.

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