Force and Fear (Canon Law)

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Canon law adopted definitions of force and fear from Roman law. Force is pressure from a greater thing that cannot be resistedVis autem est maioris rei impetus, qui repelli non potest (Corpus iuris civilis, Digesta 4.2.2). Fear is trepidation of mind, caused by an immediate or future dangerMetus est instantis vel futuri periculi causa mentis trepidatio (Corpus iuris civilis, Digesta 4.2.1). Force results in the mere physical propulsion of the victim, who gives no voluntary response. Such force is called physical, absolute, or passive force. If a force is not overpowering, it may still cause fear in the victim. Fear, as St. Thomas Aquinas observed, may result in a voluntary act that would not have been performed if a harm or evil had not been inflicted or threatened (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 6.6). This is moral, conditioned, conditional, causative, or active force and is more frequently simply called fear.

Types of fear. Fear is slight if it is caused by a harm or evil that is inconsequential. Fear is reverential if it is the trepidation normally found in the child-parent relationship and is, of its nature, slight. Fear is qualified-reverential if the trepidation inherent in the child-parent relationship is augmented by insistencies, harassments, or similar factors; in that case it becomes grave. Fear is grave in an absolute sense if it is serious enough to sway a resolute person; in a true though relative sense, it is grave if it is sufficient to sway a given person because of this person's age, temperament, or other qualities.

Fear is extrinsic if caused by a free agent distinct from the victim; intrinsic, if it arises from the subject's own being (e.g., conscience) or the force of nature. Fear is induced directly if the agent intends a certain act to be performed by the victim or indirectly if such an act is not intended by the agent. Fear is justly induced if (1) the victim deserves the harm or evil inflicted or threatened; (2) the agent has the right to inflict or threaten the harm or evil; and (3) the threats are made or the harm inflicted in a way provided by law. Fear is unjustly induced if (1) the victim does not deserve the harm or evil inflicted or threatened; (2) the agent does not have the right or authority to inflict or threaten the harm or evil; or (3) legal procedures are violated.

Principles and application. All acts that are the result of physical force are invalid (Codex iuris canonici c. 125 §1; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium c. 932 §1). Acts that are the result of fear, though it be grave and unjust, are not invalid unless this is provided in the law, but such acts are subject to nullification by judicial sentence (Codex iuris canonici c. 125 §2; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium c. 932 §2). The canons on fear are designed to protect human freedom, to curtail injury and injustice, and to preclude the unhappy effects that result from coerced actions.

Renunciation of an Office or Benefice. Resignation from an ecclesiastical office is null and void if it is caused by grave, unjustly inflicted fear (Codex iuris canonici c. 188; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium c. 968). The gravity may be absolute or relative, the injustice substantial or in manner.

Holy Orders. No one ever has the right to force a man to receive orders (Codex iuris canonici c. 1026). Physical violence invalidates the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Codex iuris canonici c.125 §1; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium c. 932 §1).

Religious. Entry into the novitiate is invalidated by physical force or grave fear brought to bear either upon a candidate or a superior receiving a candidate (Codex iuris canonici c. 643 §1, 4°; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium cc. 450, 5° and 517 §1). The same canonical provisions obtain for religious profession as for entry into the novitiate (Codex iuris canonici cc. 656, 4° and 658; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium cc. 464, 3°; 527, 3°; and 532).

Marriage. Marriage is invalid if entered into through force or grave fear from without so that the victim, in order to free himself, is forced to choose marriage (Codex iuris canonici c. 1103; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium c. 825).

Vows and Oaths. The law nullifies any vow made as the result of grave, unjust fear (Codex iuris canonici c. 1191 §3; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium c. 889 §3). In the Latin Church, the law also nullifies an oath extorted by force or grave fear (Codex iuris canonici c. 1200 §2).

Crimes. Under Latin discipline, physical force completely eliminates delictual imputability. In laws of purely ecclesiastical origin, grave fear generally eliminates delictual imputability; however, if an act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls, grave fear lessens but does not exclude imputability (Codex iuris canonici cc. 1323, 1324).

Bibliography: t. l. bouscaren and j. i. o'connor, comps., Canon Law Digest (Milwaukee 1934). j. v. brown, The Invalidating Effects of Force, Fear and Fraud upon the Canonical Novitiate (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 311; 1951). j. g. chatham, Force and Fear as Invalidating Marriage: The Element of Injustice (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 310; 1950); "Force and Fear Invalidating Marriage: Rota Decisions, 19401946," Jurist 18 (1958) 3978. d. lazzarato, Iurisprudentia pontifica de metu, cc. 214 et 1087 (Vatican City 1956). l. maffeo, I vizi della volontà nell'ordine sacro (Turin 1960). a. mccoy, Force and Fear in Relation to Delictual Imputability and Penal Resonsibility (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 200; 1944). l. bender, "Metus indirecte incussus et validitas matrimonii," Ephemerides iuris canonici 13 (1957) 918.

[j. g. chatham]