The nearly ubiquitous John L. Allen Jr., columnist for the ultra-liberal National Catholic Reporter has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.
My emphases and comments.
The Vatican’s Marriage Quandary
Fewer Americans get annulments. Is it because fewer are getting married in the church at all?
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Every year, Pope Benedict XVI gives a speech to the judges of the Roman Rota, a Vatican court that mainly handles marriage cases. He usually includes a warning about handing out annulments too easily, and Americans invariably assume that he’s talking about them. On this matter they may have a point: Vatican statistics say that more than 60% of annulments come from the United States.
Official Catholic teaching holds that marriage is for life, and hence divorce is not tolerated. [Ehem. That is exactly what divorce is: tolerated. There are cases in which it is tolerated that spouses are divorced. Divorce is, of course, a civil juridical term.] Yet church law provides for an “annulment,” meaning a formal declaration that a marriage never existed, [Mr. Allen gets the idea right, but using the wrong term. While “annulment” may be popular, it is wrong. An “annulment” implies that the Church is making something null. What the Church gives is a “declaration of nullity”, as Allen mentions, a determination that there never was a sacramental marriage in the first place.] usually on the grounds that at least one of the parties lacked the capacity to give true consent. To secure an annulment, [declaration of nullity] Catholics have to turn to church courts, which can be time-consuming and expensive. [I believe that every tribunal has provisions for people who cannot afford the fees involved. And, by the way, it is just to charge fees. Dignus est operarius mercede sua. People work in those tribunal offices.]
Annulment has drawn a variety of criticisms over the years. Secularists tend to sniff at the whole idea, deriding it as “Catholic divorce,” a way for the church to have its cake and eat it too—claiming to uphold marriage, but providing a way out for people willing to jump through some ecclesiastical hoops.
Theologians and canon lawyers bristle at those arguments, claiming that the church believes in the sanctity of marriage so strongly that it insists that all conditions have to be in place for a real marriage to exist.
Critics have long asserted that annulments favor the rich and powerful. In the Middle Ages, it was notoriously easier for kings and princes to secure annulments than for common folk. (What made the case of England’s Henry VIII remarkable is precisely that a pope actually said “no.”)
That charge surfaced prominently in the U.S. in 1997, when Sheila Rauch Kennedy wrote that her ex-husband, then-Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, had their marriage of 12 years annulled without even informing her. Ms. Rauch charged that the Kennedy clan’s influence explained the outcome, which she opposed: An annulment meant her marriage had been a sham, she argued, but that was a lie. As it turns out, she had the last laugh. Her appeal to the Vatican was upheld in 2005, meaning that in the eyes of the Catholic Church, she and Mr. Kennedy remain married. [In other words, in this non-funny matter, the Church’s process worked. It took a while, but it worked. A determination was made by a lower tribunal. A higher tribunal reviewed it and made a different determination.]
The charge of bias for the rich is now hard to sustain, at least in the U.S. According to the Canon Law Society of America, in 2009 annulment procedures cost $31 million, but only $4.9 million of that came in fees collected from the parties. [16%?] The balance, some $26.1 million, was kicked in by the dioceses themselves, precisely to ensure that people struggling to make ends meet can still use the system.
These days, the most common criticism comes from conservative circles within the church, and it’s usually directed at the U.S.: America, they charge, is an annulment factory that undercuts church teaching on marriage. That’s probably the background to Benedict’s recent speech, in which he asserted that no one has a “right” to marriage. [In one sense they do: God made man male and female. He obviously intended them to get together and that that bond should be permanent and helpful and exclusive and directed to the getting and rearing of children. On the other hand, people cannot simply demand that the Church witness their marriages. There should be standards.] He called for pastors to do a better job preparing people to marry, so there would be less demand for annulments. [Requests for determinations about the status of the marriage. Keep in mind that the presumption is always made in favor of the bond. It must be proven with moral certainty that the bond didn’t exist. A tribunal has a “defender of the bond”.] In light of these papal warnings, church courts have become a bit more rigorous, and parishes are more careful about remarrying people who have had annulments—not wanting them to make a habit of it. [glib]
Yet America’s annulment practice has its defenders. More annulments are granted here, they argue, because church courts make sure the process is open to everyone, that it functions smoothly, and that people know their rights. [This is similar to the argument about whether or not there have been too many beatifications or whether or not they are too rapid. If the interested parties know the process well, have expert advice, can pay the fees and experts needed, can get the work done expeditiously, then the process doesn’t take so long.] Don’t blame us, they say, because we’re good at what we do. As one American canon lawyer testily wrote a decade ago: “Americans make up six percent of the world’s population, but they account for 100 percent of the men on the moon. So what? America functions. Much of the rest of the world does not.” [He has a point.]
In truth, things are already trending the way Benedict seems to want, though not necessarily for reasons likely to give him cheer. Since 2006, according to the Canon Law Society of America, both the number of cases filed and the number of annulments granted have been gradually declining. That may be partly because courts have become tougher. [Here’s the big point:] But it’s probably more related to the fact that fewer Catholics are getting married in the church, and fewer of those who are bother to seek an annulment if their marriage breaks down.
For Benedict XVI, in other words, this may be a classic case of “Be careful what you wish for.” [This fell apart at the end, didn’t it?]
Mr. Allen is the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
Fewer people use the sacrament of penance.
Fewer people are getting married in the Church.
Fewer people are receiving Holy Communion in worthy manner.
This has to do with our Catholic identity.
Yes, there are cultural forces at work to erode Catholic identity.
But there are forces within as well.
Summorum Pontificum is a tool which all should welcome. The influence exerted by communities who seek the traditional expression of our faith should not be underestimated. If their numbers are not growing swiftly, they are nonetheless growing. They are growing even as the identity of the majority seems to be eroding fairly quickly.