Tough rules to stop illegal immigrants using sham marriages to get in to the country were declared unlawful by the Appeal Court yesterday.Needless to say, in the readers' comments section of the paper, there's an amount of outrage, but despite having no tolerance for 'sham marriages' myself, I think that in this case justice has been done. The right of an adult to marry and start a family is one of the most fundamental in the Catholic understanding of the dignity of the human person.
Judges said regulations brought in two years ago to block thousands of alleged ''marriages of convenience'' breached human rights laws.
Hundreds of couples who say they have been prevented from marrying may now try to claim compensation.
Under the regime, introduced by David Blunkett when he was home secretary, non-European Union citizens effectively needed Government permission to marry. They had to attend designated register offices and pay £135 for a certificate of approval.
The Appeal Court - upholding an earlier High Court ruling - said this was a "disproportionate interference'' in the human right to marry.
Lord Justice Buxton said the scheme could only be lawful if it prevented sham marriages intended to improve the immigration status of one of the parties.
"To be proportionate, a scheme must either properly investigate individual cases or at least show that it has come close to isolating cases that very likely fall into the target category,'' said Lord Buxton.
This principle of the 'right' to marry has canonical and pastoral implications as well. There is a lot of justifiable dissatisfaction about non-practising Catholics getting married in church, and it is frequently asked whether priests shouldn't simply ask such couples to get married elsewhere. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, as a general principle, no matter how 'bad' a Catholic one might be, the general rule is that the only way a Catholic can get validly married is according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Therefore, a Catholic priest who would ask a Catholic to get married outside the Church is essentially suggesting that that the person in question enter into a state of concubinage.
Secondly, as I mentioned above, Catholic anthropology lays great emphasis on the natural right to marital and family life. Therefore, whilst the time of pre-marital should be an opportunity for catechesis and re-evangelization, as long as the couple are free to marry, have a basic understanding of what marriage involves and a basic level of maturity, then there is very little scope, either in Canon Law or in terms of natural justice, for a priest to refuse the Catholic rites of marriage.
It is no surprise, therefore, that many priests are quite disillusioned by weddings these days and it is not infrequent to hear a priest lament that he enjoys performing funerals rather than marriage ceremonies. It is not at all uncommon to deal with couples who have little appreciation for the religious and sacramental dimension of marriage and the marriage ceremony, yet who nonetheless have sufficient maturity and profess a sufficient understanding of the nature of marriage to preclude any denial or deferment of the religious rites.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs which, in the long term, needs to be tackled in terms of better preaching and catechesis concerning marriage and family life. Does anyone have any thoughts on what can be done in the shorter term that respects the right to family life and helps preserve the dignity of Christian marriage?