What’s Up With All Those Annulments?

In my last post, I addressed the argument that the sacrament of Penance is a waste of time because it’s open to abuse by people who just lie to their confessors.  In this post, I wanted to take up a similar issue:  the assertion that the Church’s annulment process, which allows a previously-married person whose spouse is still living to licitly marry another person, is a joke (and, thus, obviously not necessary) because anyone and their brother can get an annulment lickety-split.  Protestants who make this argument, yet again, are missing the point for the process and are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

First things first:  we should all be able to agree that getting an annulment from the Church isn’t exactly a badge of honor.  No one in their right mind would start a conversation with, “Hi, my name’s Bob, and I really want to tell you about my five annulments.”  So I have to imagine (having never, thanks to God and to Nikki, been through the process myself) that getting an annulment is fraught with pain and sadness and is recognized as such by the people who go through it.

Let’s also recognize right up front that most of our information about annulments is entirely anecdotal and/or based on media reports written by people who very rarely have any idea what they’re talking about.  Often, our information involves someone with the last name of Kennedy (although the Kennedys have been getting a run for their money recently from Newt Gingrich).  Now, maybe some of our readers know these folks personally and can shed some light on the particulars of their circumstances.  I, myself, do not and so am in no position to comment on whether the annulments various members of the Kennedy clan or Mr. Gingrich have gotten should or shouldn’t have been given.  And, quite frankly, it’s none of my business.

One more thing to get out of the way right out of the box:  regardless of how the rules may or may not be applied in practice, the Church clearly teaches that a valid sacramental marriage (i.e., a marriage between two baptized Christians) cannot be annulled for any reason.  This, of course, sets the Catholic Church apart from pretty much every Protestant sect.  Even the most “conservative” of such sects would say that adultery constitutes valid grounds for dissolving a marriage, including a marriage between two Christians.  The Catholic Church, however, teaches that, when two baptized Christians are validly joined in marriage, that marriage is for keeps, and only death would allow the surviving partner to licitly marry again.  I’ll come back to this teaching in a moment.

With all of that as background, let’s assume, for the sake of argument here, that there’s at least a kernel of truth in the Protestant accusation that the Church hands out annulments too easily.[1]  Implicit in this accusation, of course, is the idea that the Church really doesn’t take marriage all that seriously—which would be a problem, because Jesus obviously took marriage quite seriously.  As a consequence, this assertion would have some weight in demonstrating that Protestantism is “truer” than Catholicism if Protestants could point to what it is in the Protestant system that demonstrates Protestants take marriage more seriously than the Church.  But, as I considered this question when I was still a Protestant, I couldn’t come up with anything on this score—not a single thing.

As a Protestant, I bought into the typical Protestant position that any marriage could be dissolved in the event of adultery.  That meant that, at least on the level of theory, the Catholics took a more rigorous view of marriage than I did.  When it came to practice as well, I came up empty in my effort to show that Protestantism actually had the better of Catholicism on this one.  I could point to nothing within the Protestant churches I attended that even purported to authoritatively deal with the issue of when individuals within those various congregations could validly remarry when a spouse from a prior marriage was still living.  I personally witnessed folks struggling with this very issue, and what did we do?  We sat around and pooled opinions on whether we thought it was OK for these people to remarry, ultimately concluding (of course) that they were good people and should just “follow Jesus.”  Wow—that’s helpful to people in agony over whether they’re doing the right thing.

As is perhaps apparent by now, I was eventually struck by the temerity I had in criticizing the Catholic Church for handing out annulments too easily.  At least the Church had an established, authoritative process available to people whereby they could be assured that it’s OK for them to remarry.  And this was true, even if the process was flawed and resulted, at least at times, in an annulment being given that shouldn’t have been.  The responsibility for such an act would rest with the Church officials okaying the annulment—not the innocent persons seeking the annulment.  Those persons could rest assured that, in remarrying, they weren’t doing something that endangered their souls.  Protestant congregations can offer no such assurance, and persons remarrying in such a system are left to wonder for the rest of their lives if it was OK to do so.  How cruel.

It also eventually struck me that, even though as a Protestant I loudly proclaimed how much I believed marriage was a “sacred institution” ordained by God and not the state, I was entirely willing to take the state’s word for it on the question of when a marriage was considered “ended”:  “The state says you’re divorced?  OK, then you’re divorced!”  Such a position is completely antithetical to the belief that the state didn’t create marriage in the first place.  If the state didn’t create marriage as an institution, it does not have the final word on deciding when a given marriage is over—especially not for Christians who recognize that the state is not the author of marriage.

At this point, I can only say that the annulment process—like all other processes the Church takes the trouble to maintain—is, at heart, designed to help individual Christians live out lives of faith.  Is the Church at times too lax with her children?  Sure it is—just like all mothers are sometimes.


[1]               And the fact that this accusation is quite common is good reason for those in the Church with responsibility for the annulment process to be very careful that, in the interest of “being nice” to people seeking annulments, they’re not giving the “OK” to annulments that don’t meet the Church’s criteria.

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15 Responses to What’s Up With All Those Annulments?

  1. Rich Hunter says:

    Reminded me of a couple observations shared by priests:
    I heard Fr. Groeshel, at a talk at Christendom U, say this about annulments: the reason there are too many annulments is that there are too many annulable marriages. He explained that a priest does not have a right to deny a couple the rite of marriage, so long as they meet the Church’s requirements. He said there have been occasions when he was so doubtful of a couple that came to him for marriage prep that he added a letter to their file saying that he did not believe they were entering into a true marriage. Imagine people who grew up in households where there was no marriage for them to witness, who may have seen the worst possible examples, who do not have strong faith themselves, who may have developed habits that are incompatible with marriage, who are not really taking to heart what marriage means, but who nonetheless present themselves for marriage.
    A priest I know personally talked about serving on the panel that examines annulment requests. He provided no details, of course, but it sounded like quite a harrowing experience, like they really look into what happenned or didn’t happen (and that the participants are made to do so, too). Not a light, walk-through-the-park, fill-in-the-checkboxes kind of process. The insights our priests have into the man-woman relationship isn’t based solely on their observations of true, happy, loving marriages.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for posting this, Rich. I’m sure what Fr. Groeshel and other priests say is true. And it just goes to drive home the point that only the people who actually participate in the annulment process, either as folks seeking annulments or as priests serving on the panels, would have any idea as to whether the rules are being improperly bent. The only person I know of who’s actually said anything about this process from the inside is Marcus Grodi, founder of the Coming Home Network. He and his wife had to go through it on their way in to the Church, and he said it was “difficult.”

  2. Brydon says:

    I found the following interesting:

    “The responsibility for such an act would rest with the Church officials okaying the annulment—not the innocent persons seeking the annulment. Those persons could rest assured that, in remarrying, they weren’t doing something that endangered their souls.”

    Members of the RCC are not held responsible for their actions to the extent that they are following the teaching and decisions of the RCC? The RCC is capable of making mistakes regarding a sacrament (in this case, marriage)? One can blindly follow false teaching and be okay as long as the false teaching is provided by the RCC?

    • Jason says:

      An annulment is not a sacrament, nor is it a Church teaching. It is a declaration by the Church that certain specific persons may licitly “re-marry” because a prior marriage has been found to have been invalid for some reason. Calling an annulment a “teaching” is like calling the finding that Joe owes John $100 in some specific tort case the “law of tort.”

      Can the Church get an individual annulment wrong? Yes, it can. But so long as the individuals seeking the annulment haven’t done anything to pervert the process, they can bank on the Church’s decision. Why do you think there’s something wrong with that? If folks have done their best, subjected themselves to the agony of the annulment process, and been told by the Church Christ Himself founded that they can licitly remarry, how is it wrong/sinful for them to rely on the Church’s declaration? [I do recognize my last sentence rests on the conclusion that the Catholic Church really is what it says it is. As you've said before, ultimately, everything does come down to authority.]

      You seem to suggest that it’s in an individual’s power to decide when he or she can or can’t remarry, regardless of what any religious institution may have to say about it. I’ve seen that play out in practice, though, and it only results in misery to the individuals involved. I’m also guessing (correct me if I’m wrong, though) that you don’t have a problem with the State playing a role in deciding when a given marriage is “over.” So I think you’d acknowledge it’s not simply up to the individual to decide when they can remarry: if the State says they can’t, they can’t, right? Is that “blindly following” the “teaching” of the State?

      • Denise says:

        Though I believe in the authority of the Church, I do not believe that individual accountability before God is somehow lessened by deference to Church leadership. I think that some put their faith in man, not considering that you can follow a false teacher into deception and ultimately into hell.

        In Acts, the Bereans were noted for searching the Scriptures to verify that what Paul was saying was true. More Catholics (and Protestants!) need to do the same, and should really search themselves before God before they accept the decree of a tribunal that might be totally contrary to the Lord’s will.

  3. Brydon says:

    Marriage is a sacrament. An annulment ends a marriage and allows individuals to remarry. An error regarding an annulment, therefore, is an error regarding a sacrament.

    And, yes, everything boils down to authority and whether the RCC is exceeding its authority. If you gave a client bad legal advice, it wouldn’t protect your client from the government. The client couldn’t avoid legal consequences by saying he or she went through the propert channels and merely followed the advice of a person identified by the state bar as qualified to give legal advice.

    If it is sinful for a person to remarry, it is sinful regardless of whether an institution (the state, the RCC) has given its blessing to the remarriage.

    • Jason says:

      I have several thoughts, which I’ll try to put out there in at least somewhat coherent order.

      First, not every marriage is a sacramental marriage. A sacramental marriage is a valid marraige between two baptized persons. An annulment is not saying that a valid sacramental marriage has “ended.” It’s saying a valid sacramental marriage was never formed in the first place. I thought the article here was helpful on this point.

      Second, if you’re saying that the Catholic Church can’t be what it claims to be because the annulment process is not perfect, please explain the basis for your contention. The Church itself doesn’t teach that its annulment decisions are infallible or that it is incapable of making an error in the application of the sacraments (as opposed to their definition). Because of this, where do you get the idea that the authority of the Church is undermined by the fact it can mess up in the annulment process? It also can mess up in making decisions on who can become a priest by receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders or by giving Holy Communion to someone who shouldn’t receive it. The Church only teaches that its infallibly-defined doctrines are protected from error in their articulation–not that its application of any of those doctrines is always correct. Thus, its teaching that a valid marriage between two baptized persons is a sacramental marriage that can never be dissolved is an infallible teaching, as is the teaching that the sacrament of Holy Orders confers grace upon a man to serve as a priest of Christ’s Church. Whether or not a given couple or a given priest should have received the sacraments in question does nothing whatsoever to show that the Church’s infallible teaching is in any way in error.

      The Catholic Church does not teach that it is perfect in every single way or that it’s full of perfect people who always make the right decisions in every aspect of their lives. Rather, it only teaches that the Church is protected from error in the definition of its infallible teachings. As a consequence, you’re holding the Church to a standard it does not itself even claim to meet. So please identify for me the authority for the standard you propose, which I understand to be as follows: that in order to be the “true Church,” the Catholic Church must be incapable of error when applying any of its teachings to the particulars of individual circumstances. I see no indication in the New Testament that such a standard is to be applied in determining what is or is not the “true Church.” And, if that is your standard, how do you apply it to Protestant churches? Or is there some reason you think the standard you’re suggesting should only apply to the Catholic Church?

      At the end of the day, it does seem to me that you’re saying to folks who are going through the agony of marital breakdown: “Figure it out for yourself whether it’s OK for you to remarry.” You’re not just rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church–you’re rejecting the authority of any church to speak on the question. And I’m saying that, if the Church is really the Body of Christ in the world today, it exists (at least in part) to give individual Christians the answers they need to live out lives of faith here and now on basic questions like “am I validly married right now.” Also, I believe that having an annulment process is much more in keeping with the belief that marriage should be taken seriously than the Protestant position of “well, you’ll know in your heart if it’s OK to remarry.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t always trust my heart. And I still don’t understand how it’s a sin to rely on the Church’s finding here (again, assuming the Church is what it claims to be). If the Catholic Church really is the Church Christ Himself founded and has the authority to issue annulments, there’s no issue, is there? Are you suggesting that it’s impossible for the “true church” to have an annulment process at all? If so, where do you get that idea from?

      You also did not respond to my question about whether a perosn can rely on the State when it says he or she cannot remarry. I understand that’s an unlikely hypothetical, but it’s at least possible. In that circumstance, wouldn’t you say it’s not completely up to the individual to decide whether they can or can’t? But what if the State got it wrong? Or is it your position that, once a person is “married,” they’re always “married,” no matter what? If that’s the case, how did you determine that’s the right position and how do you know whether a person “got married”? Do people have to go through the civil system or not? Is it enough for a couple to consider themselves married without getting a marriage license?

      One last thing, which maybe goes without saying, on the legal analogy you suggest: in terms of counseling individuals, the Church can go wrong, just like I as a lawyer can go wrong. In terms of determining what the “law” (i.e., the infallible teaching) is in the first place, the Church cannot go wrong (unlike me). If that is not true, then we have no certainty that we even know what Christianity is. And the God of the Bible is not that cruel.

  4. Brydon says:

    An error regarding whether a sacramental marriage existed would be an error regarding a sacrament.

    I am not saying than an error in the application of a sacrament refutes the RCC’s claim to be the one true church. We need to revisit the statement in your original post:

    “The responsibility for such an act would rest with the Church officials okaying the annulment—not the innocent persons seeking the annulment. Those persons could rest assured that, in remarrying, they weren’t doing something that endangered their souls.”

    I read this to mean that if the RCC makes an error in the application of its teaching, the individuals affected by the error are off the hook. It’s a matter between God and the Church. Because the individual Catholics followed the proper procedure and received an annulment, they are able to remarry, even though they were in fact engaged in a sacramental marriage. You appeared to be saying the church has the authority to change the facts.

    Of course, I’m thinking like a protestant. If my pastor said that a little shoplifting on occasion is not a sin, I wouldn’t run out and shoplift. I wouldn’t think that because my pastor said its ok, if I shoplift the matter is between God and my pastor. The shoplifting would be a sin regardless of what my pastor said.

    The State gets Christian marriage wrong all the time. There is marriage for purposes of the state and marriage in the eyes of God.

    • Jason says:

      I think I was talking past what you were saying, and I’m sorry for that. You are correct: I am saying that, even if the Church makes an error in granting an annulment, the individuals seeking the annulment (assuming they did nothing to pervert the process) are not morally culpable if they rely on that annulment and remarry. In so doing, I didn’t mean to suggest that the Church can “change the facts,” and I don’t think granting an annulment does so. The annulment is simply a decree that the Church has concluded that the marriage in question was not a valid one. If it was, in fact, a valid one, it remains so. But it would be unjust for innocent people to be responsible for the sin of remarrying when they’d fully complied with the Church’s requirements for annulment.

      • Denise says:

        Perhaps this is repetitive, but I do not see deference to the Church’s teaching authority and deference to application of doctrine to be the same thing. As you mentioned above, the Church is shielded from error in the articulation of doctrine, but not application. Individual believers can certainly submit to Church doctrine, trusting the authority that the Lord instituted and trusting that they are right. On doctrinal matters, the Church receives complete deference because of its understood infallibility and because it is understood that God has provided a way for His truth to be preserved.

        But if the Church is not infallible in application, then the individual believer cannot in the same way simply trust the “process” of the application of that doctrine in the same way they defer to the formulation of doctrine itself. Doctrine is not the prerogative of the individual–but obedience is. No one, no religious authority can either obey God for anyone or disobey God for anyone else.

      • Jason says:

        I agree that the Church can err and declare a marriage annulled that shouldn’t be annulled. But, in such a circumstance, are you saying you believe that someone who relies on the annulment and marries again is committing a sin, even if they’ve been fully open and honest with the Church through the annulment process? If so, that would defeat the entire purpose of the annulment process. Individuals aren’t responsible for determining the validity of their marriages in the eyes of the Church–that’s the Church’s job. And individuals (again, so long as they don’t do anything to abuse the process) can rely on the Church’s judgments in determining whether they can marry even though a prior spouse is still living.

  5. Christine says:

    Jason, I came across your blog via a post by Devin Rose.. I’d like to give a few examples of “valid marriage” as my husband & I went through this long & very enlightening process.

    We were both married twice before we married each other. We were not Catholics then nor were we when we got married civilly (1999) however only when we did join the Church did we realize how important the sacrament of marriage was/is and so we started the process.

    It’s important to understand that annulments are not granted for something that happened after the wedding. It’s all about whether the sacrament at the moment of marriage is valid. In my husbands situation, his 1st marriage was when he was 17 years old and lasted barely 3 years. He didn’t want to get married but his parents wouldn’t allow him to live with his girlfriend. They were both still in high school – needless to say, that marriage didn’t last.

    His 2nd marriage which lasted 22 years was annulled almost instantly – just a document issued by his diocese. Why that quickly? Because technically he was still married to his first wife and couldn’t be married to someone else.

    As for my first marriage, it was to a Catholic man who made it publicly known that he didn’t want children & because our relationship was quite shaky (I thought getting married would solve our problems), we mutually accepted to divorce if things didn’t improve. Right there are grounds for annulment. I was pregnant when we got married & he made it no secret that he hoped I’d agree to an abortion… he had 2 kids from previous relationships with whom he had no contact. Thankfully I never gave in to that.

    My second marriage was not valid either… technically I was still married at that time although I had been divorced 10 years.

    Scott & I were practicing Catholics for a few years before we received our annulments. We had private RCIA meetings with our priest and on May 26th 2007 with a special dispensation from our bishop, we were officially received in the Catholic Church (confirmation), had our 1st Communion & received the sacrament of marriage. It was a very, very special day!

    I can tell you that for 2 years (the duration of the annulment), we attended Mass every Sunday & all days of obligation – and longed to receive the Eucharist. Going through the process & the private meetings with our priest taught us the importance of the sacrament of marriage – we’re both convinced that this journey has made our relationship much, much stronger & we’re always conscious of God’s presence in our life… at this wedding, and only at this wedding was he truly present.

    God Bless!

  6. Brydon says:

    Jason,

    How much of an adjustment was it for you to convert from a church that really has no official authority to the RCC which claims authority and has mechanisms such as the annulment process? For me, it would take some time to get used to the idea that the church can do things that I can’t do.

    • Jason says:

      For me, the adjustment came in working my way through to the point I decided I accepted the Church for what it was. Through that process, it was tough to wrap my mind around the notion that I wouldn’t be “free” any longer to decide doctrinal truth for myself in all respects. I eventually got to the point, though, where I recognized that getting to do that for myself wasn’t freedom–it was a burden Christ didn’t intend for me to carry. So, once we were “in,” all I felt was relief–there was so much I just didn’t have to worry about any more. Because of this, for the first time in my life, I feel like I understand what Christ meant when He said: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” There’s definitely still a yoke, though, and that yoke is my personal, individual responsibility to live out life in accordance with the Church’s teachings. I still have to take up my cross daily and follow Him, and the Church can’t “make” me do that. But it offers the promise of certain grace–indeed, it offers me Christ Himself in the Eucharist–to help me along the way.

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