By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD
For this Month of Mental Health, we will discuss whether a person with schizophrenia can validly contract marriage. Apparently, the combination of marriage and schizophrenia in a mathematical equation may equal marital failure and sacramental invalidity. This conventional expectation, however, is challenged when we would base our calculation on the life of Prof. John Forbes Nash Jr., the American mathematician who received the Nobel Prize in Economics of 1994.
His life is featured in a biography entitled “A Beautiful Mind,” written by Sylvia Nasar. This award-winning biography eventually made its way into a movie released twenty years ago. The psychiatrist who treated Prof. Nash is played in the film by Christopher Plummer, who died very recently.
For our study’s purposes, we have several cautions and limitations: 1. The marriage considered is not Catholic and therefore outside the realms of Canon Law, and 2. the facts we have are only those given in the movie.
Our interesting love story started when Prof. John Nash met Alicia Larde, one of his students. They fell in love. The professor, although brilliant, had to require tremendous effort polishing his social skills. Believing in love, they entered marriage. No data is given about the wedding itself but only a celebratory scene in front of the church, where they supposedly exchanged vows. In such a scene, right after the wedding, the professor continued to have delusions of being a codebreaker hired by the Pentagon. He hallucinated being under surveillance and being chased all the time by the Russians. Then, he was diagnosed with laboring under paranoid schizophrenia and was confined to a psychiatric facility. The wife knew of her husband losing his grip on reality when she discovered his bizarre office and activities.
The Code of Canon Law provides that “those who, because of causes of a psychological nature, are unable to assume the essential obligations of marriage” (canon 1095, 3) are incapable of contracting marriage. While it is true that schizophrenia would fall under this category, it is not an outright invalidating psychic cause. As described in the biography, “someone with schizophrenia is not permanently disoriented or confused the way an individual with a brain injury or Alzheimer’s might be. He may have, indeed does have, a firm grip on certain aspects of present reality. While he was ill, Nash traveled all over Europe and America, got legal help, and learned to write sophisticated computer programs” (A Beautiful Mind, p. 18).
The psychic illness was treatable by medication, although its effects were a two-edged sword. The pills would control his delusions but impede his ability to be professionally productive and perform conjugal acts. If he would stop taking medication, he would regain his capacities, but his delusion would be out of control.
The professor eventually recognized his hallucinations were unreal when the girl of his delusions did not grow old. Alicia helped him to know what is real by having both feel their respective hearts. The greatest factor for this love story’s success is Alicia’s conviction encapsulated in these words: “I need to believe that something extraordinary is possible.”
The movie wraps up with a fictional heartwarming discourse of the Nobel laureate beautifully describing the variable validity of schizophrenia and marriage. Referring to his wife, Prof. Nash declared: “I’ve always believed in numbers, in equations and logic that lead to reason. But after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask, ‘What truly is logic? Who decides reason?’ My questions have taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional, and back. And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reason can be found. I’m only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons. Thank you!”
In summary, there is a possibility that marriage and schizophrenia can go together validly. However, each case must be assessed and determined by an expert, given the complexity of the situation. In its application in Canon Law, whatever may be psychiatric or psychological assessment, it must always be examined in the light of the concepts of Christian anthropology which underlie canonical science.
Msgr. Achacoso is the author of ‘Due Process in Church Administration’ (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican City), and Administrator of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, NY.