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Question 34: Should parents consent to their underage daughter’s marriage?

Our daughter, Grace, is finishing her junior year of high school. For about six months, she has been going with a young man, Larry. She is not yet seventeen; he is twenty. My wife and I approved of Grace’s going with Larry, since he is a Catholic and, in general, seems decent enough, and we already knew and liked his sister, who has been Grace’s close friend since they met last September. Larry graduated from high school almost two years ago and is in his second year of apprenticeship as an electrician. It is a good trade, and he seems to be doing well with the work. He already makes enough to support himself living on his own.

Two months ago, Grace and Larry began talking about marriage and went to see Father Kane, our pastor. After several sessions with the young couple, he had my wife and me in and asked us to give our consent. We think Grace and Larry are too young to marry. Until she is eighteen, she cannot get married without our consent, and we think they should wait until then. Grace will be out of high school, and Larry will be over twenty-one and almost finished with his apprenticeship, so they will have a bit of a financial head start. Even more important, they will have had time to grow up a little more, get to know each other really well, and think about the responsibilities of marriage. But they do not want to wait, and Father Kane is urging us to let them get married in June, less than two months from now.

Father Kane said that in his judgment Grace and Larry are at least as mature and ready to marry as most young couples these days. He argued that everyone has a natural right to marry, and that making young people wait many years beyond the time when they become physically mature frustrates nature. He also said that, although the law authorizes us as Grace’s parents to refuse to let her marry until she is eighteen, we have no moral right to refuse, since a person’s decisions about her or his vocation are not subject to parental authority, and marriage is as much a vocation as being a priest or a nun.

While Father Kane spoke to my wife and me apart from the young couple, he apparently also conveyed his point about a natural right to marry to Grace. This afternoon she and Larry told my wife they think they have the right to get married. If we do not consent to their marrying now, more than a year is too long to wait. Grace will move in with Larry this June, and they will start their family at once. When I got home and heard the news, I asked Grace why she wished to take on the responsibilities of parenthood so soon, and she said that she loves Larry so much that she cannot wait to have a baby by him. I then told her again why I think they should wait, and, of course, said that living together before marriage would be wrong. My wife pointed out that having a baby without being married is likely to be hard on the child and is no way to begin being a loving mother. But we got nowhere.

I called Father Kane, told him about the new development, and asked him to try to talk them out of living together before marriage. He refused, insisting they have the right to get married, and went on to say that, if Grace gets pregnant, our grandchild will be illegitimate because we said no to the marriage. That, he said, would violate a right of the child clearly affirmed by Catholic teaching, which he called back a few minutes later and quoted: “The child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage.”120

My wife and I are not sure what to do. We still don’t think the young couple are ready for marriage and remain convinced they should wait. But if what Father Kane says is true, we have no right to refuse, and so I suppose we must give our consent. Even apart from that, Grace is forcing us to choose between consenting to her marrying Larry and standing by while she moves in with him. I almost wish we had nothing to say about the matter. Still, the law does require our consent. What are we to do?


The question is whether the parents ought to consent to the marriage of their daughter, who is not yet seventeen. It is reasonable for law to assign parents the responsibility of judging the appropriateness of marriage for persons below a certain age. The pastor’s arguments that the couple have a right to marry are unsound. So, he is mistaken in claiming that the parents have no right to refuse their consent. The parents’ judgment that their daughter is not yet mature enough to marry seems reasonable. Given that judgment, they should persist in trying to delay the marriage and in discouraging the young couple from beginning to live together. In my judgment, they should not consent to the marriage even to prevent the young couple from fornicating or to forestall an illegitimate birth.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Perhaps Father Kane will conduct Grace’s and Larry’s marriage ceremony despite the law’s requirement and your refusal to consent. If he does that, though the marriage will not be recognized by civil law, you should presume it valid and sacramental. Your concern about whether to consent would be irrelevant, and your duty would be to do what you could to support the marriage.

Thus far, Father Kane’s handling of this matter may be at odds with Church policy in your diocese. Faced with very high rates of marital separation and divorce, most bishops have been trying to strengthen marriages by requiring more extensive preparation, often leading to waiting periods of several months. Also, almost certainly diocesan policy implements relevant provisions of the Church’s law: “Except in case of necessity, no one is to assist at the following marriages without the permission of the local ordinary: . . . 2° a marriage which cannot be recognized or celebrated in accord with the norm of civil law; . . . 6° a marriage of a minor child when the parents are unaware of it or are reasonably opposed to it” (CIC, c. 1071); and: “Pastors of souls are to take care to prevent youths from celebrating marriage before the age at which marriage is usually contracted in accord with the accepted practice of the region” (CIC, c. 1072). The Church’s law classes young people under eighteen as minors (see CIC, c. 97, §1), and the civil law requirement of parental consent for your daughter to marry under eighteen makes it clear that her marriage without your consent would not be in accord with the accepted practice where you live. Thus, it seems Father Kane should respect your reasonable opposition to Grace’s marrying now, and he should have discouraged, rather than supported, her and Larry in their desire to marry two months from now.

Because time is short, I suggest you at once write to the diocesan pastoral office, presenting the facts of the situation as you have in your letter to me, and asking for guidance and help. I would send Father Kane a copy of the letter. Do not suggest in it that he may be acting contrary to the Church’s law or diocesan policy—those are matters for the bishop or his delegate to consider. Perhaps the letter will bring action that will resolve your problem or, at least, significantly change it. If the problem or important elements of it remain as they now stand, however, I offer the following reflections, which I hope will clarify matters for you and perhaps be of some help.

I understand why you would rather not have the responsibility, assigned you by the law, of giving or refusing consent to Grace’s marrying. However, this provision of the law protects children from rashly assuming responsibilities they do not fully understand and serves an important public interest in encouraging enduring marriages and stable families. The wider society needs them both to constitute it and to help prevent, insofar as possible, the many bad social consequences of dysfunctional families, not least the burden of public aid to the children of parents not united in stable marriages.

It is obvious that almost all adolescents below a certain age (fourteen or sixteen, say) are too young to marry, and that young people who have attained a certain age (eighteen, say) must be regarded as adults and considered old enough. Therefore, legislators entirely exclude marriage until the minimum age is reached and permit marriage without any special age-based condition once a certain age has been attained. Between the two ages, however, different young people are more or less ready to marry, depending both on their personal characteristics and on various circumstances. Therefore, to be fair, legislators permit the marriage of individuals in this age group who seem likely to form a stable union. But someone must make a judgment whether that is the case. Legislators could assign this role to a public official, such as a judge or the clerk who issues marriage licenses, but no public official is likely to know enough about an individual and his or her circumstances, except perhaps after a prolonged and costly investigation. Parents generally have their children’s interests at heart and know them and their circumstances better than anyone else does. Moreover, the stability of younger couples’ marriages partly depends on how supportive parents are. So, lack of parental consent is likely to indicate that such a marriage will not enjoy the support it needs to last. Consequently, legislators have assigned the necessary judgment to parents, who in giving or refusing consent are not precisely exercising their own parental authority but acting as public officials.

Father Kane is correct in saying that marriage is a natural right.121 But I think he manifests a misunderstanding of that right in saying that making young people wait beyond the time when they are physically mature frustrates nature. It may frustrate erotic inclination, but that inclination must be frustrated at times in every state of life, including marriage, if people are to fulfill their vocations. The right to marry, in any case, is not grounded only in the value of sexual fulfillment but in the good of marriage as a whole, of which sexual fulfillment is only a part. To participate effectively in the good of marriage demands more than physical maturity; the spouses also need enough psychological and moral maturity to fulfill all the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. The canonical jurisprudence that has developed in recent years using psychological and moral immaturity as a ground for discovering and declaring nullity also manifests the Church’s judgment that physical maturity alone is not an adequate index of readiness for marriage.

Moreover, the exercise of the right to marry is appropriately limited in various ways. Both Church and political society not only recognize some natural limits—for example, certain family members may not marry each other—but establish some limits by law: the observance of certain formalities, a waiting period, and so on. Thus, the right to marry is conditional and may be exercised only if there is no impediment. Though the Church’s law does not exclude the marriage of a young woman of Grace’s age (see CIC, c. 1083, §1), it does forbid the pastor to assist at a marriage without the bishop’s approval when civil law establishes an impediment. Civil law makes the absence of parental consent an impediment for a woman of Grace’s age, and this impediment is reasonable. Maturity is necessary for marriage, and underage people who want to marry are hardly likely to be good judges of their own maturity, so that, as already explained, the public authorities depute parents to make the necessary judgment. Therefore, the exercise of Grace’s right to marry is limited reasonably by the legal requirement of your consent.

Father Kane also is right both in pointing out that marriage is as much a vocation as the priesthood or religious life and in saying parents cannot make vocational decisions for their children. Such decisions require discernment, and, while parents and/or others can help in various ways, one ultimately must discern for oneself. Still, parents do have a responsibility to limit or even prevent a child from doing some things the child believes appropriate to carry out what seems to be God’s call. For example, if a fourteen-year-old girl thinks she is called to become a postulant in a religious community that takes candidates at that age, her parents could reasonably judge her insufficiently mature to live apart from them and rightly require her to delay entering the community. On the same basis, deputed by public authority to judge whether Grace is mature enough to marry, you can rightly refuse consent if you judge that she is not sufficiently mature.

Apparently Father Kane is ignoring the question of Grace’s maturity, which really is the central issue. His judgment that Grace and Larry are “as mature and ready to marry as most young couples these days” is not reassuring, since the failure rate indicates that most couples attempting marriage at such early ages are not mature enough. No doubt they were in earlier times and simpler cultures, but contemporary culture makes much heavier demands, not only because of the need for more prolonged education and training, but also and especially because of the need for greater virtue. When everything supported a young couple’s faithful fulfillment of their marital and parental responsibilities, and relatively few tempting alternatives to persevering in marriage were available, people could safely marry at earlier ages. Now, as I said at the outset, many dioceses require not only young couples but all those marrying in the Church to wait some months while they prepare for marriage. The trend toward such requirements manifests the sense of the Church that some delay is likely to prevent imprudent marriages and promote marital stability. Father Kane is going against the trend in urging that the young couple be allowed to marry very soon. Perhaps you could get them to talk with another, more prudent priest.

Then, too, if you have not already done so, you might discuss the situation with Larry’s parents. If they share your concerns, perhaps you could work together to encourage Grace and Larry to wait, if not until Grace is eighteen, at least for six months or so. Those months could be crucial for the couple’s more mature reflection, and their preparation for marriage would compel them to face issues they have not yet adequately considered. If they prepare as carefully as they should, you perhaps would have evidence of their maturity so that you could consent in good conscience.

What if Grace and Larry next announce that she already is pregnant or they begin living together and she soon becomes pregnant? I do not think even such a pregnancy would give you a good reason to consent to the marriage. Young couples in this situation generally are better advised to delay marrying until after the baby is born (see LCL, 719–20). The right, affirmed by the Church’s teaching, that every child come to be and be raised within a stable marriage is not violated when parents refuse consent to a young couple’s marriage, but when the couple fornicate; and the child’s right is not vindicated by a marriage with poor prospects.

In times past, of course, many upright people felt that young couples free to marry should do so promptly if fornication resulted in pregnancy. But although until quite recently even marriages entered into in these circumstances had a good chance of success and illegitimacy had seriously detrimental legal and social consequences for children, the Church never taught that marriage was obligatory in this situation. Today, most of illegitimacy’s bad consequences for the child have been eliminated or greatly mitigated, so that, from the child’s point of view, legitimacy’s chief value lies in the prospect of parental solidarity and stability as a dependable basis for his or her own development. But when immaturity is the reason for delaying marriage, a child’s prospects are improved little if at all by the parents’ marrying. Thus, Father Kane’s attempt to support his position by appealing to the Church’s teaching about the child’s right is hardly convincing.

In sum, it is reasonable for you to be concerned that Grace and Larry are not sufficiently mature—that they need “time to grow up a little more, get to know each other really well, and think about the responsibilities of marriage.” In my judgment, you have on that basis not only a moral right but a duty to refuse consent.

Of course, without badgering them, you should continue trying to get Grace and Larry to see why you do not accept Father Kane’s arguments and are refusing to consent, and why they should not begin living together as if they were a married couple. If they see the reasonableness of your position and accept it, the problem will be solved. If they do not, and begin living together, the thought that Grace is committing the sin of fornication probably will cause you and your wife great distress. However, only God would know the degree of her guilt. It might well be mitigated by her psychological immaturity. Even if it is not, her decision to live in sin would manifest a deeper, moral immaturity—that is, lack of virtuous character—that your consenting to an imprudent marriage would not remedy. Thus, if the young couple do begin living together, that in itself will support your judgment that they are not sufficiently mature to marry. That being so, you should not allow the young couple’s threat to influence your judgment.

At the same time, no matter what Grace does, she will remain your daughter. You must not break off your relationship with her, but do your best to continue to help and encourage her to form a sound conscience and act in accord with it. Moreover, you must always stand ready to welcome her visits, to share her sorrows, and to support her morally acceptable efforts—for example, to bear any child she conceives rather than have an abortion.

Finally, pray constantly for Grace and Larry, and entrust them to God’s kindness. If you stand fast and the outcome seems to you good, thank God for it. If it seems disastrous, do not blame yourself, but continue to pray and trust in God.

120. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae, II, A, 1, AAS 80 (1988) 87, OR, 16 Mar. 1987, 4.

121. See CIC, c. 1058: “All persons who are not prohibited by law can contract marriage.”