HC Deb 02 September 1831 vol 6 cc1028-30
Lord Killeen

presented a Petition from a parish in the county of Meath, complaining of the state of the law regarding Marriages between Catholics and Protestants. He said, that the hon. member for Kerry had introduced a bill last year relative to this subject, which he understood was deferred, that it might not interfere with the progress of the Reform Bill. Many cases of great hardship occurred in consequence of the illegality of a marriage celebrated by a Catholic Priest between a Protestant and Catholic. He knew an instance of a woman professing the Protestant religion, who had been married to a Catholic, who afterwards deserted her, and left her and her family in a state of destitution. Such instances of cruelty ought to induce the House to render such marriages legal.

Mr. Henry Grattan

said, the law in this regard was unjust and absurd, and attended with the most serious inconveniences. Morality did not require that these marriages should be performed exclusively by Protestants. He felt it his duty to support the prayer of the petition.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that he brought in a bill last year to amend the law of marriage, not only with regard to Catholics, but also to Dissenters. The law pressed severely upon Quakers. It had an effect upon the right to receive relief from the Poor-laws, the children of these marriages being illegitimate by law. The late Ministry gave him (Mr. O'Connell) leave to bring in the bill, but at the same time expressed their determination to oppose it; under those circumstances he thought it useless to persevere in his intention. He thought it a great injustice, that the Priest should be liable to a penalty of 400l. unless he knew he was infringing the law and in many cases it was impossible for him to know the religious opinions of the parties who presented themselves to be married.

Sir John Newport

said, it was quite impossible the law should remain as at present. He should be ready to give all the assistance in his power to any measure calculated to improve it.

Mr. Wilks

said, it was impossible to suppose but that the present state of the law must before long, undergo the serious consideration of the House. The bill which Mr. O'Connell had introduced attracted considerable attention in Northamptonshire, and various resolutions had been come to in different places in that county, deprecating the injustice of the law, which referred not only to the Catholics, but to the great body of the Dissenters. The power which this law had to bastardize the children of such marriages, was most unjust and inconvenient. He thought that marriage should be considered as a civil contract, as it was in France, and in other parts of the Continent.

Sir John Bourke

assured the House, that the penalty to which Catholic clergymen were liable for celebrating those marriages was equivalent to perpetual banishment, as it was well known there was scarcely one of them able to pay so large a fine.

Mr. Ruthven

was convinced that the state of the law had a most injurious effect on persons who by their industry might have raised themselves from an humble station to affluence. Such marriages, which the law called illegal, were frequent in Ireland, and the effect on the persons interested was most serious and inconvenient; the children being illegitimate, were incapable of inheriting their property should they die intestate. The best remedy for this inconvenience would be, to make marriages celebrated by Catholic clergymen valid.

Dr. Lushington

said, it was impossible the clergyman could know the religious opinions of all the persons who might come to him to get married. Such a law could not exist eight-and-forty hours in England. He would not undertake to say what remedy should be adopted to cure the evil. He however hoped the Government would take the subject into its serious consideration, and afford a speedy and effectual remedy.

Lord Killeen

, on moving that the petition be printed, said, that the ordination of a Catholic clergyman was considered valid in the Protestant Church, and he thought it a great anomaly that when his ordination was good, he should not be considered competent to celebrate a marriage.

Colonel Perceval

said, great evils resulted from the operation of the law as it now stood. Marriages between Catholics and Protestants by a Catholic Priest, being illegal, were easily set aside. He had known instances of Catholic Priests having married, divorced, and re-married the same persons within the space of three or four years.

Mr. O'Connell

said, the hon. Gentleman had passed a severe censure on himself, for he must know, that the moment a Catholic Priest married a Protestant to a Catholic, he violated the law, and as a Magistrate the hon. Member was bound to notice it. With respect to what he had been pleased to remark with regard to divorces, no Catholic Priest had authority by law to divorce parties, and if such had been the case, and they had again married, they were guilty of bigamy, and liable to transportation. The Catholic clergy were exemplary in the discharge of their duties, and he was inclined to think the hon. Member had made an exaggerated statement.

Colonel Perceval

said, because he pointed out a particular instance of misconduct, which had come under his own notice, he had no intention to speak disrespectfully of the whole body of the Catholic Clergy.

Petition to be printed.