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. 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.
 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.