2001 March/Questions

Q. A widow draws a pension from her late husband’s employers. A widower draws a lesser pension from his previous employers. The couple decide to marry and both being Catholic, get married in the Church, with Nuptial Mass, all valid in the eyes of God. In order to supplement their income they do not register in the eyes of the law, thus allowing the widow to retain the benefit of her pension. The company paying the widow’s pension is not advised of the change in the marital state of the widow and therefore carries on paying the pension as normal. The widower retains his pension until his death. The couple were advised that this practice is acceptable in the Church.

1). What is the ruling of the Traditional Church in this case?

2). Is it fraudulent of the widow not to advise the pension department of her change in status?

A. In only one case is is permitted to take or retain the property of another – if there is extreme necessity. “Necessity is extreme when life is in danger or some comparable evil is imminent, and the person in need cannot extricate himself unaided.”-H. Davis: Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. II p310. In a case of merely grave need, where the person can see to his essential material requirements though with difficulty, such taking of property is not permitted.

And so, to answer the question it is necessary to know just how penurious the state of the couple would be with the pension of the man alone. If it involved nothing worse than a certain – and certainly bearable – drop in the standard of living, then it would be morally unjustifiable for the widow to retain her pension by not declaring her new marriage, and would amount to fraud and theft. To justify such a practice would contribute to the general climate of fraud which is weakening the fabric of society, to the detriment of all. However, from what I know of pensions I think it probable that the penury of such a couple living on the man’s pension alone would drop below the reasonable.

If their basic needs cannot be met with the man’s pension then the widow could retain her pension – but only as much as will pay for those basic needs the balance must be returned if at all possible to the company paying out the pension, since the couple have no right to that surplus. If repayment of the surplus is impossible (ie one cannot do it without risk of detection) it can be given to a charitable cause.

As a corollary, the couple in question must have a sufficiently grave reason for marrying in the first place if it means putting themselves into the position of extreme need, weighing up whether it wouldn’t be better for them to remain unmarried and thus avoid placing themselves into this morally and physically onerous position.