Friday 17 October 2014

Time to Expel the Annulment Myths

One of the most important things I have read in the past week (and what a week!) was the interview with Cardinal Burke when he talked about annulments. I have had an annulment myself, of course. It was granted about fifteen years ago now. (I mention this in this week's issue of the Toronto Catholic Register. Buy Sunday!) And I have often been hurt by the "rubber stamp" remarks of never-married Catholics sighing over the laxity of The Church Today.  It's not that I felt "rejected" or "judged" (for most people back home did not know I had ever been married): it's that I felt a thrill of doubt about the process. Sometimes the only thought that kept me sane was the principle of "Roma locuta, causa finita."

Cardinal Burke, bless him, explained that the process was a lot looser between 1971 and nineteen eighty-three*, and was tightened up thereafter. Now, this is perhaps not so consoling for those who were granted decrees of nullity in the 1970s, but as my papers came through in the 1990s, I am terribly relieved. It confirms what I was told at the time: my case was judged and double-judged. Thank heavens.

If I want to terrify myself into fits, I could  imagine how my case might have been heard prior to 1971,  but I was not even born prior to 1971, and anyway at university I would have had a LOT more clerical backing in my most heartfelt desire to marry a fellow Roman Catholic. (Indeed, I had an embarrassing interview with a priest about the pressure I felt under from unwanted suitors, and he just laughed.) Before 1971 it was acknowledged that a mixed marriage presented extraordinary difficulties; it was not used to show how wonderfully ecumenical and modern we are. And, incidentally, back then the non-Catholic party ALSO had to take an oath to raise any children Catholic.

But I digress.

There are too many Catholics, simple good-hearted Catholics, who do not even bother to apply for decrees of nullity because of all the myths.  The biggest myth is that it is expensive. I was presented with a bill of $600 and was permitted to pay it in installments.  And I could have claimed it on my taxes as a charitable donation.

I had one friend, an atheist ex-Catholic, who kept making jokes about my offering to pay for "the church roof." There are countless antiquated jokes like this. They are jokes, bad jokes. Perhaps they were fine back in the days when all Catholics were growing up in a pro-marriage Catholic mono-culture at a time when divorce laws were stricter and relatively few Catholics divorced. But they are totally inappropriate today. They are a scandal for they lead simple-hearted people to despair.

Myth 1. It's expensive.  No, it isn't. And you don't pay until it's all over anyway, and you can negotiate the when, and perhaps the how much.

Myth 2. The whole point is to enrich the coffers of the Church.  No, it isn't! The fee is to pay everyone who works on the case. My divorce cost more than my annulment, and my divorce lawyer charged me the Legal Aid rate.

After almost 20 years, I think the analogy still stands.
Myth Three*. It's a just "Catholic Divorce", a con-game. No, it isn't. It is a prayerful process in support of marriage and the family ensuring that justice is done. I felt, when I was married the first time, like a fox whose leg was caught in a trap. I gnawed off my leg to get out of the trap, and the Church, through the annulment process and the sacraments, healed my poor wounded leg. Now you can barely see  the scar.

Myth 4. It's unbearably painful. 
Myth 5. It's a doddle. No sweat. Piece of cake. A laugh. My condolences to any Catholic who met people from the Marriage Tribunal who yukked it up. The people I met took it all very seriously although I think they may have been surprised that I took it even more seriously than they did. I suspect many people don't bother to seek one until they find someone else to marry.  For me remarriage was not the principal issue. Dissolving the bond was the issue.

I found the process very painful. But here I am alive to tell the tale. And married to a very nice Roman Catholic my mother rightfully adores.

Myth 6. Any faithful Catholic knows all about annulments and can give solid advice.  So wrong. I'm not even sure I didn't make a mistake by using the expression "dissolving the bond." I'm not a canon lawyer. The more I know about annulments, the more I know I don't know. Any remarried Catholic who wants to regularize her/his situation should go straight to their parish priest. They shouldn't talk to their Aunt Betsy, their friend's friend who "got an annulment", or me. Parish priest.   Even if he doesn't know that much, he knows how to START the process.

Myth 7. It's a compromise with the world's attitude towards marriage.  It isn't.  Personally, I attribute the high number of annulments not to the divorce rate, per se, but to the artificially prolonged immaturity of the Baby Boom and Baby Bust generations.

I believe that very few unhappy couples born after 1945 actually understood/understand what marriage was/is and how difficult it is by its very nature when they married. And I also believe that marriage has become even MORE difficult in societies where marriage is under constant attack by the sexual revolution and consumerism.

And I also--alas--think that many Roman Catholic priests have been remiss in the ways they have prepared or not prepared Roman Catholics for marriage in anti-marriage societies. It is not enough to bellow at us "Marriage is not a contract, it is a COVENANT" without warning us that without a shared commitment to our core values (and for  devout Catholics that includes Christ), we're toast. Again, priests should talk less about how beautiful mixed marriages are (though certainly they often are, on a case-to-case basis, if not as an institution) and more about how they are a difficult exception from the norm.

Of course, the laity is probably also greatly to blame for the unpreparedness of themselves to marry at a reasonable age in ways too many to enumerate here. I, for example, was shockingly immature when I was 25, despite everyone telling me from childhood how mature I was. But I was never mature; I was just terrified of authority.  Life hurt so much, I took refuge in daydreams, make-believe and story-telling, never more so than when I went to university and found, not Arcadia, but Sodom and Gomorrah.

*When the number three begins to appear all the time, you will know that I have a new laptop.


  1. Does the non-Catholic party not have to take an oath to raise the children Catholic anymore? But they still have to agree to baptize and raise the children as Catholics, though?

    1. No. Only the Catholic has to agree. It's a bit messed up. And therefore it's a good idea, if really determined to marry a non-Catholic, to make him understand that this is a NON-NEGOTIABLE and that you will not marry him unless he promises (or swears an oath) that he will not prevent YOU from having the children baptized or interfere with your work to raise the children as Catholics. I very much hope other people who have experienced Belfast in their mixed marriages tell priests how difficult it is to raise children Catholic without the co-operation (even passive co-operation) of the non-Catholic spouse.

  2. Myth 6 - lordy lordy, if only people would take this to heart across the board. In my senior year religion class we spent at least a month on using the catechism to look up teachings, and talking about what makes a teaching "official", the authority of different persons, etc. The Catholic school I went to was questionable in all sorts of ways but that was such a valuable lesson. (1) the church has official teachings (2) it is possible for any educated person to find them out, or at least find out the basic principles for a tricky question (3) the word of Aunt Jane is not necessarily final, not even if she sits in the front pew at daily mass and is a member of the altar guild.

  3. Leah, alas. All they have to say is that the recognize that the CATHOLIC party has taken that oath, e.g. "Yes, I understand that he/she promised to have the children baptized and raised as Catholics."

    "But I," said someone whose name I will not mention, "can thwart you all the way!"

  4. Oh, that's such a shame that they changed that! Mixed marriages are hard enough.

  5. *hard enough as it is.

  6. I believe it had something to do with not outraging non-Catholic consciences.... But I agree with you entirely.

  7. Aunty, at the risk of being controversial. I do think annulment is a Catholic-acceptable divorce. I think it is a way out of a marriage a person no longer wants to be part of, and many annulments take place years after the original event... which I see as not really holding up the non-validity argument,


    1. Controversial is good, anonymous is not. Look how I put myself out here, eh? But certainly the annulment process frees someone from bonds that bind them, and generally only those unhappy with those bonds seek to have them loosed. The fact that annulments take place years after the original event may have some bearing on the Marriage Tribunal's deliberations, but again they may not. As far as I understand it (remember: not a canon lawyer), what matters is what the couple was like the moment they took the vows, and whether they took them completely freely, and whether they were capable of upholding them then, and if there was any trickery or pressure, etc.

      Naturally we are shocked when a couple with many children, for example, divorce and then seem to get the Church's blessing on their divorce by being granted an annulment. (And in such a case, I would hope that the Marriage Tribunal talked long and hard to them about their mutual responsibilities to their children.) Indeed, I wonder if some people do not do this until their children are grown up, to minimize their hurt. However, my advice is not to think about other people's annulments or attempt amateur canon law. It is easy to be cynical in this vale of tears, but most definitely, when it comes to a decree of nullity in any concrete situation, the buck stops with the Marriage Tribunal. Roma locuta, causa finita. I think anyone who worked for the MT would have to be a VERY prayerful person, that's for sure.

    2. Actually...isn't the whole point of the annulment that it declares that the marriage was not valid from the beginning and thus never took place? So it's not dissolving bonds, it's investigating if there are any bonds there in the first place? That's my understanding, but then I haven't even been a Catholic a year, and I'm certainly not pretending to know more about the process than someone who has gone through it. But from a purely "theological" perspective, that seems to be my understanding. (Or maybe, more accurately, that's how they're explaining it to us nerdy ex-Protestants who like to read a lot...)

    3. Well, it's really confusing, and I guess we'd have to read a canon lawyer to figure out the exact terminology and explanations. Here's one article by an American canon lawyer and blogger named Ed Peters.

  8. Great post.

    "Indeed, I had an embarrassing interview with a priest about the pressure I felt under from unwanted suitors, and he just laughed."

    What a foolish thing for a priest to do. Or anyone. But seriously, a priest needs to know better.

    1. It was one of those awful moments when you are trying to explain something awkward and you realize that the smirking person across from you thinks that you are boasting. Yes, a priest needs to know better. Pressure from unwanted suitors is a problem university-age girls are going to have. Hmm. Maybe I should write about this again!

  9. I genuinely appreciate your willingness to talk about this so openly. I was trained to prepare marriage packets (of which I did 10) and to help people petition for annulment (which I never did), so I know more than the average Catholic, but I try not to talk about it. I try to stick to mythbusting and encouraging my friends to get it right the first time (so to speak).


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