Reason #645795 for Summorum Pontificum

VOTE FOR WDTPRSThe 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?


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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Seraphic Spouse says:

    Although I am not American, I love the frank point about America having 100% of the men on the moon. Meanwhile, I am very grateful for my own annulment procedure: as emotionally painful and difficult as it was, there was never any question that it would be “too expensive” and although I certainly knew there was no “guarantee” I went through the procedure full of hope and trust.

    Having entered a palpably sacramental marriage many years after that, I’ve noticed that attitudes towards people with annulments have changed from admiration that we took the trouble obediently to go through Church procedures to suspicion that we have cravenly taken advantage of a “rubber stamp.” To that the best reply, I’ve always thought, is “Roma locuta, causa finita.”

  2. Tim Ferguson says:

    In my opinion, as a canonist, this is one of the most important Rotal Allocutions of recent memory. The fact that the Pope turned from looking at the policies and procedures of Tribunals to the policies and procedures of marriage preparation is spectacular. For many years now, canonists have been pointing out that the “problem” is less that “annulments (sic) are easy to get” than the reality that there are too many invalid marriages.
    By pointing out that the natural right of every human person to marry is not merely the right to go through a marriage ceremony, but is a right ordered to a true and valid marriage, Pope Benedict not only provides pastors with the tool for denying a wedding to a couple clearly unprepared or unable to enter into a valid marriage, he is also laying important groundwork for the Church in addressing the coming onslaught of argumentation in favor of so-called gay marriages.

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you for posting this. As a former RCIA director, I had to deal with such problems as irregular marriages for years at two parishes. The most common problem was marriage to a non-Catholic, something which the Church in America has become lax about in recent times. Many divorces and annulments have to do with one of the non-Catholic spouses “changing his or her mind” after marriage regarding the raising of children Catholic, no birth-control, or even sustaining the woman who chose to stay at home and raise children, even after it was agreed upon by the couple. Physical abuse is also a common cause for break-ups. However, today, pornography is the number one break-up of marriages in Christine denominations. The community at large no longer helps people with strained marriages, whereas in older times, the community would help those who were struggling and even intervene.

    Divorce has made break-ups easier, but one should never stand outside a marriage and condemn either party. After working with couples, and seeing the abuse and suffering, mostly of women, who did not want to use contraceptives, or whose husbands sat in front of the computer with pornography, or who actually were not given money by their husbands to raise their own children (more common than one would think), I think the parishes must create groups which support struggling couples. Marriage preparation is woeful as well, and although Rome many years ago stated the guideline that co-habitating couples must separate before marriage, I know this is not done by most the pastors in this area. The divorce rate for co-habitating couples is much higher than the norm, which is already abysmal. Marriage prep must be rigorous and not merely taken for granted, even if the pastor knows both engaged persons. Believe it or not, the best marriage prep I knew of was by a priest at Notre Dame, who asked the couple at the outset, if they were living together. If they were, he would tell them to separate and come back in nine months. His point was that if it was a good relationship, it would flourish under abstinence. If not, there would be one less statistic.

  4. wmeyer says:

    The process under which a declaration of nullity is obtained is, sadly, implemented at the diocesan level. Sadly, because I have seen a great disparity in the practices from one diocese to another. I have seen that while the diocesan paper in my own diocese trumpets the glories of our “repaired” tribunal, and the “average” case time of a year, only one couple I know received the declaration in about a year. My own case took 33 months; my wife’s case has now taken about the same. And all the while, we hear again and again how much better it is than before the reconstruction of the process. I weep for those who suffered under the unreconstructed system, some of whose cases reportedly languished for a decade.

    In my uncle’s diocese, on the other hand, they do not even have a tribunal, but refer cases to a neighboring diocese. Moreover, the questionnaires seem pretty sensible, unlike those in my own diocese, which verge on the prurient.

    I have read Dr. Ed Peters’ book on the annulment process. It helped with some questions, and not so much with others. The one thing I have not seen discussed in any of my readings, however, is that with that declaration of nullity comes a reconciliation. It seems obvious, as there would be little reason to file, unless to be reconciled with the Church. It is the reconciliatory aspect, widely overlooked, which brings to mind the statement that justice delayed is justice denied.

    I was delighted to see the recent statement by Pope Benedict about the right of the people to a speedy adjudication of such cases. I hope that our bishop may heed this statement, even as he seems to have ignored Summorum pontificum.

  5. MarkH says:

    “But it’s probably more related to the fact that fewer Catholics are getting married in the church.”

    But a declaration of nullity can be required for marriages other than those between two Catholics, so it would seem there is not a direct correlation between fewer Catholic marriages and fewer annulments.

    “Many divorces and annulments have to do with one of the non-Catholic spouses “changing his or her mind” after marriage.”

    Good points regarding support for struggling marriages and improved marriage preparation. But declarations of nullity are related only to the conditions obtaining at the time of the marriage. Spouses growing apart after marriage for whatever reason is not a valid cause for a declaration of nullity. And a spouse “changing his/her mind” after marriage can only apply if it shows that there was never a fully formed intent at the time of the marriage to abide by the vows.

  6. TNCath says:

    It all comes down to very poor catechesis the past 50 years. Most Catholics under the age of 50 have a very poor understanding of the Faith they claim to profess, much less an understanding of the seriousness and gravity of the vows they take in marriage.

  7. Tim Ferguson says:

    I think the correlation between fewer marriages in the Catholic Church and fewer annulments is based on the fact that, as Catholics opt to follow the culture of relativism and “marry” outside of the Church, there is then no perceived need for their intended non-Catholic spouse to have his prior marriage examined for validity. Similarly, a good number of Catholics chose to enter into a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) marriage outside the Church rather than following the Church’s law, either because it has never been explained clearly to them what the Church’s law is (how many have ever heard a homily on the Church’s teaching and practice on marriage?) or because they see no reason for following the Church’s law.

  8. Supertradmum says:


    The withholding of marital relations, because a partner refuses not to use birth control, or if the Catholic practicing partner does not have relations with the other who insists on birth control, may very well be grounds for annulment and annulments have been granted on that point.

    Physical abuse does not make the marriage invalid, but others circumstances, which may have been hidden before the marriage, such as violent background or mental problems not shared with the spouse before marriage, resulting in abuse, can be grounds for annulment. It is the role of the Tribunal to decide on the state of the Marriage at the time of the Sacrament, indeed, but previous information withheld by one of the persons is grounds for annulment in most cases. As to the raising of children in the Catholic Church, again, if the Tribunal can prove that the person never had any intention of doing so and basically lied, which seems like a changing of the mind, then there are grounds for annulment. I apologize for not being as specific as I should have been.

  9. everett says:

    I absolutely agree that a large part of the problem is lack of proper Catechesis. So many Catholics have little to no idea what marriage actually is, as such they are not able to give the complete consent required. If they enter into marriage with the idea that contraception is fine, children are optional, etc, then what the couple is committing to isn’t actual Catholic marriage, but some sort of domestic partnership. No wonder their marriage was never valid to begin with.

  10. Geoffrey says:

    I don’t think that “Summorum Pontificum” solves all ills. I know many happily married orthodox couples brought up only with the new Mass, and they are doing just fine. Growing families and all. [You exaggerate and then dismiss your own exaggeration. I don’t think anyone is claiming that the Motu Proprio is a panacea.]

  11. PostCatholic says:

    Speaking personally, my wife and I were married in a Catholic cathedral at a nuptial mass, after a several meetings with the rector and a weekend-long workshop on relationship skills and a multi-week NFP course. Though our Catholic marriage has outlived our Catholicism (neither of us is Catholic any more) I think much of that stuff was useful.

    One thing I do admire about American Catholicism is how well it does prepare couples for marriage. I think it does better at it than any other mainstream faith tradition I can think of in the US. hh

  12. xgenerationcatholic says:

    My sister married a man (older than she) who had had two annulments. (how on earth???) Guess whether or not they are still together.

  13. Rob in Maine says:

    I once told my wife that I wouldn’t divorce her because I’m “so Catholic” (we’ve been happily married for 12 years). At the time she bristled at my off color comment saying that it sounded like I only was with her because “the Pope says so”.

    I went on to explain: everything I believe in – in living what the Church teaches – makes divorce something outside my thinking and reality. I said my love for her and our marriage is an extension of my Catholicism, not because of it. It’s rather a holistic view of the Christian life.

  14. albinus1 says:

    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.

    If I recall correctly, one of the things that made this whole incident particularly striking is that Mrs. Kennedy is herself not Catholic. But she was the one willing to challenge the Kennedy family’s attempt to use the policies of the Catholic Church to further their own ends.

  15. albinus1 says:

    One thing I do admire about American Catholicism is how well it does prepare couples for marriage.

    I’m glad your preparation was good. The pre-Cana session my fiancee and I took last fall was dreadful — neither specifically Catholic, nor very practical. (By “practical” I mean that if they had at least talked in a useful way about how to talk about money, how to handle arguments, etc., it would at least have had some practical value. But it didn’t have even that.) There was one positive result: my fiancee and I discovered that we really did feel the same way about many things, including (especially?) how awful the pre-Cana session was. We told our priest about it, and he said he might say something to the bishop.

    As an example, one of the facilitators mentioned that if any of the couples present were already having sex, they might want to consider refraining until after their wedding day, because — and this is the kicker — “that way your wedding day will be special.” No mention of sin, or the teaching of the Church; just making your wedding day “special”.

  16. Anonymous Seminarian says:

    I note that John Allen is no longer described as “fair-minded,” and my only joy comes from the satisfaction of justice. [Don’t get worked up. Don’t read too much into that.] As it is his ilk at NCR who have been in the forefront undermining Catholic identity, what does it say that he seems to add insult to injury?

  17. Geremia says:

    I have heard one can get an annulment for practically free with only one party signing the paperwork and for vague, transient, “psychological” reasons only. It has gotten way out of hand, especially in the United States.

    What God has joined together: The annulment crisis in American Catholicism is an edifying account on U.S. annulment crisis by someone who defended his marriage against annulment claims. (See this.)

  18. cblanch says:

    Hardly anyone knows what it means to “sacrifice” nowadays. How can a child growing up in this country (where daycare is the rule and not the exception) know what love even is and thus be prepared to marry? Do their parents provide good examples of what it means to give up oneself for the good of another? Love is portrayed in the media and is now culturally accepted as a feeling instead of a committed decision. Gosh, the list could go on forever about what is wrong, but it always seems to come back to a lack of sacrifice, or TRUE love. The kind that Jesus has for us and we are reminded of every time we see a crucifix.

    I am praying really hard for the strengthening of Summorum Pontificum. Bring back more “sacrifice” and a little less “spirit of VII celebration”.

  19. Johnsum says:

    Benedict XVI did predict the Catholic Church will be smaller in the future.

    Loosing Catholic identity is very difficult to resist for most people. For example, in my parish very few people genuflect any time while in the church anymore. Not before entering or leaving the pew or crossing in front of the tabernacle which in centrally placed. Genuflection has been replaced with a casual bow of the head, rarely more. Also, our baptismal font is covered with a cloth and on top of it people place various nicknacks, pictures of the most recently deceased members of the parish, flowers, candles and so on. What message is given the younger members of the parish?

    Not unusually, confessions are very rare (mostly the same people week after week) but the communion lines are very long. This is so perhaps because most of us do not know what sin is anymore. Yet, if one were to ask, most of us would readily accuse ourselves of being sinners. So why are we not going to confession in greater numbers? The long communion lines would seem to indicate we do want to be in union with God. But perhaps we no longer think or know that being in a state of grace is a prerequisite to availing ourselves of the Body of Christ. It is possible that we have been given the message that going to communion is a sort of theological inclusiveness program: we are entitled to It regardless of sex, race, or state of grace.

    I do not propose to lay blame on any one specifically because I have no certain idea why we Catholics persist in such behavior. Prior to V-2 the agency of the Devil would have been suspected as the cause of our decline. However, today Evil has no name. For most people, Evil is only a nebulous cultural construct. As long as one recycles and votes a liberal ticket one is supposed to be a fine Christian Catholic.

    Sadly, it is very little a layman can do to affect improvement in the general decline in Catholic identity. Even asking our ecclesiastical leaders to work together with us is difficult. No matter how humbly we might ask, one is looked upon as an agent provocateur or worse a fundamentalist. So, one concludes, the Church belongs to God he will eventually do something about it in His good time. Come to think of it, Jesus did give a homily about it already: at the time of the harvest He will separate the good from the bad seed.

    Never the less, I have this uneasy feeling, I am not doing something that I should to makes things better.

  20. dans0622 says:

    Thanks for the rock-solid canonical commentary, Father. I would also like to point out that Pope Benedict did not say “no one has a ‘right’ to marriage.” Certainly, people do have that right and this has been affirmed time and time again. For example, John Paul II said the “right to marriage” is “inalienable and independent of any human power” (1999 Allocution to the Rota, n. 7). What Pope Benedict said was “no one can claim the right to a nuptial ceremony. Indeed the ‘ius connubii’ refers to the right to celebrate an authentic marriage.” In other words, if someone is obviously incapable of consenting to marriage or makes it manifest that his intentions are not according to the nature of marriage or is somehow impeded, a priest who refuses to witness their exchange of consent would not be denying that person’s “right to marriage”: the person can’t/won’t marry.


  21. Neal says:

    90% of American annulments challenged in the Rota are overturned. I would suggest that any process that fails 90% of the time but is still utilized is not being utilized for the purpose for which it was designed. Rather, the purpose of the annulment process in America is to grant annulments, not to determine the validity of marriages. I would also suggest that Rome, seeing this failure rate and taking no significant steps to remedy it, does not take the problem seriously. The world, which hates the Church, takes note of this contempt for marriage and uses it against her. This should surprise no one.
    Also, how many cardinals were present at Ted Kennedy’s funeral? The larger process is broken. When we come to terms with this, we can hope to change it.

  22. dans0622 says:

    How current is that 90% figure? Also, how many of those 90% have already gotten one negative decision in the USA? How many were given an affirmative and appealed directly to the Rota?
    Thanks for your time.

  23. Neal says:

    dans0622: Google: “Catholic Insight : Divorce : The annulment crisis in the Church”. It should get you to the place I found the data and answer most of your questions. Note that the article was written in 1999. I think the 90% figure pertains to the mid-90s; however, I doubt it shrank miraculously with the election of Benedict XVI. I do not know of a more recent source of data. Lord Kelvin said: “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” I might add: and if you do not measure it, you don’t have to.

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