ASK FATHER: Doubts about annulment for 1st marriage, guilt about 2nd

From a reader…


After a deeper conversion experience I had a love for my first wife that I did not have before. It seemed that after my conversion the love of Jesus was flowing through me for her. I was “loving her with love with which He loved me”. She did not like my changes and left me with two children. I was young. I divorced (felt tremendous guilt), and in good faith (at the time) filed papers on annulment. Was granted on the psychological grounds piece (I have, for most of the time in my second marriage, thought the annulment was invalid, but it is a fact, and was not appealed to the Rota) and I have been remarried for decades. Adult child. Wife and child are good Catholics. I wake up with guilt feelings every morning for decades about being married to current spouse, particularly after marital relations. […]

The Church does not hold, and has never held, that the pronouncements of a marriage tribunal are invested with infallibility. Tribunals can – and do – make mistakes.

Sometimes faulty information is given to the Tribunal. Sometimes people intentionally lie. Sometimes Judges come to certitude on a marriage with too much haste. Sometimes Judges vacillate for a long period of time and cloud their own minds before rendering a judgment.

It is not an exact science.

Overall, despite complaints from some quarters of too much laxity, and from other quarters of too much legalism, the Church’s Courts do a yeoman’s job of adjudicating cases.

It is impossible here, based on this short email, to do the job that the Church’s Tribunal system, which has developed over many centuries, is entrusted to do and determine the validity of your marriage.

The Church teaches that a marriage celebrated in the external forum is presumed to be a valid marriage unless and until it has been judged otherwise (can. 1060). Your current marriage, which has perdured for 30 years, is presumed by the Church to be a valid marriage, despite your doubts and misgivings.

Was the declaration of the invalidity of your first marriage itself invalid? Perhaps. Are your doubts rooted in lies you may have told to the Tribunal, or some misperceptions you allowed the Tribunal to have? Are your doubts reasonable, or are they a demonstration of scrupulosity, or even a judgmental attitude towards the Tribunal or the Church itself?

You should probably talk with your pastor about your “thoughts” on the invalidity of that declaration of nullity.

At this point in time, however, two main things need to be stated, based on what you have presented.

First, your first marriage was legitimately declared null by the Church’s own juridical system. No appeal against that decision has been filed by you, by your first putative spouse, or by the Defender of the Bond.

Next, your current marriage has been blessed by a longevity that many would rightly envy, and has produced a son. Your wife and son are practicing their Catholic faith. While not definitive, those are good signs of a healthy marriage blessed with graces.

Seek the advice of a good confessor who, if your perception of guilt is rooted in scrupulosity, should be strictly obeyed.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Everything Pater said. To that, I would add, unless you LIED (and your lies were BELEIVED by the Tribunal, and their acceptance was the DISPOSITIVE factor in the case–neither of which point a party can know with certitude) this decision by the Church deserves respect of the faithful.

  2. Great question, great answer (with help from Dr. Edward Peters to boot!). Thank you.

  3. Rachel K says:

    Thank you Fr Z for answering these questions so carefully on your blog. I am sure that many of us are confused about the rules surrounding marriage and nullity, there is a lot of misinformation out there.

  4. Prayers for you; this is a difficult situation, and I will pray that you receive the graces you need to find peace of mind and happiness in God.

  5. pmullane says:

    Prayers, brother.

  6. Imrahil says:

    Good advice by our reverend host, and – quite in brief, and most accurate and helpful – by Dr Peters in the comments. After all, you did file it in good faith.

    I might add still the one thing: if moral duties, and the actual (viz. subjective) moral quality of actions, depend on the circumstances at all, they depend on them as you know them (with moral certainty), not they may be in fact but unknownly.

    The decision of the tribunal is fallible, yes. But it is a decision of the tribunal still. Hence you know with moral certainty that your putative marriage was invalid, and thus you know with moral certainty too that your marriage is valid. You can’t expect more; and even if that should be wrong, it will be as if it were true, as far as you are concerned.

    It’s the Church’s job to get her judgments straight. You can’t do more than accept them as they are.

    As an aside, which has no juridical value I know of (either of you and your putative wife were baptized before your conversion): for practically speaking similar situations, St. Paul introduced the Priviledge which still bears his name.

    God’s blessing.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear Poster,

    I really want to proceed my comments, here, with the most severe recognition of my poor limitations at the moment (take what I say with a grain of salt and all of that), and I have been pondering for most of the afternoon whether or not the persistent urge I feel to make this comment is from a source of good, but I think, in the long run, if I don’t say anything, I might be guilty of the omission of a different and possibly important insight into the matter.

    There are two most probable sources of the inner turmoil that you are currently experiencing about the validity of the first marriage: scruples and intuition. The first is a temptation and the second is a grace. Without knowing any of the particulars of your situation, it is impossible to say for sure which of the two is the source of your unease. In any case, I trust Tribunals to be conscientious, knowing that they are aware that they will answer to God for their decisions. They often to have to make very subtle judgments on difficult matters pertaining to the different aspects of marriage validity. The Church has had great experience in these matters over thousands of years and has built up a wisdom second-to-none about them. I, especially, trust them in matters of the provable, the graspable, and the common sense.

    One, also has to examine how the conversion experience you have had has affected your outlook, judgment, etc. That is something best done by a skilled spiritual advisor.

    I would be remiss, however, if I did not say that I do have doubts, in certain instances (not all), about one criteria of judgment that has become a popular cause of the finding of invalidity that has come about since the new Code of Canon Law was issued in 1983 – the psychological disorder. I am addressing this not so much as a layman, but as a scientist who is at the forefront of the development of some of the understanding of how the human brain works.

    What I can say is that I, once, faced a similar situation, on the other side of the aisle, so to speak. I was thinking about asking a person to marry me who had an annulment by reason of a psychological cause, but the more I prayed about things, the more uneasy I became. My situation was probably different than yours in that one of my areas of expertise is in the mathematical modeling of certain psychological processes (or at least how the brain processes the stimuli), so I had access to experts and resources that the common person, including practicing psychologists, might not have had. The more I researched the particular grounds for the annulment of this person, the more it seemed that there had been a shift in the science over the years. Whereas in the 1980’s most clinical psychologists thought that people with this condition were incapable of the deep emotional attachments necessary for marriage, by the late 1990’s and especially in the early 2000’s, it became clear that the condition was heavily influenced by environmental factors, including the particular in-group the person lived and worked with. It had become clear that whether or not people with this condition could form strong emotional attachments and give themselves to others depended on factors outside of just the personality of the individual. For instance, some glues will set just fine at room temperature in a dry or moderately moist climate, but might not be able to set at all in very hot or unusually damp climates.

    Thus, even if a moral certainty had been reached by the Tribunal in the 1980’s as to the psychological unfitness of the individual on the day of their marriage to even be able to contract a marriage, that certainty was based on, how shall I say this politely, unsettled science. In my case, my intuition kicked in and I began to do due diligence to research the current state-of-the-science. I, also, met an expert (one of only a few) in this area at a professional conference who was trying to recruit people with this condition for some of her studies (she was a new Ph.D, so she was current on modern research). She complained to me about how hard it was to find people who, genuinely, had the condition and just how many of the patients referred to her by clinical psychologists had been misdiagnosed.

    That was it, for me. I know, because I have talked extensively with the person I was going to ask to marry me, that the finding of this psychological condition was a very strong determinative factor in establishing for the Tribunal the null condition on the day of their marriage. It now seems, in the light of better scientific understanding and the tendency to misdiagnose the condition, that the moral certainty of the Tribunal was based on, perhaps, their not understanding the limitations of the psychological sciences.

    Believe me, I am colleagues with many psychologists who are struggling to do the fundamental research in personality theory, clinical practice, and experimental psychology to understand even some of the simpler aspects of how the mind works. Peer review is good, but reproducibility, the hallmark of science, is almost never attempted and when it is, 60 – 70% of studies are found to be non-reproducible. Correlation coefficients are often at .3 with a p < .05 (for the psychologists in the crowd), where modern research in medical statistics indicates that both the correlations coefficients and the p values should be much tighter. My primary field is in the hard sciences and numbers like these would rarely be accepted for publication.

    Mine was a case of intuition, but unless one is either well-read or extremely graced, one should not assume that an uneasy feeling about an annulment is something deep and profound. I only mention this because it is possible to present an untruth to a Tribunal without anyone lying or being at fault in matters where we are only beginning to understand the issues involved (people can only proceed with the lights currently available). I mean, specifically by this, the field of psychology and, actually, come to think of it, I can blame some psychologists for over-selling their discipline. This has been going on since at least the 1950's and it has, I am afraid, influenced, or worse, colored, some of the understanding of the human person in modern times, even within the Church.

    Since you may not have a background in scientific research, there is no way to know if your unease is merely a refusal to accept the correct findings of a relatively simple case, which would be a form of scruples, or the intuition that what you see before you doesn’t match up with the diagnosis you have received or even to know if or how your conversion experience has changed your perceptions. Believe me, I would not be making any of these comments if psychological issues were not involved and the judgment had not happened 30 years ago in a rapidly changing science, prone to political influences. I have to raise at least some caution when dealing with psychological matters because the science just isn’t there in some cases (but, perhaps it is in your case. I have no knowledge of this. Your case might be simple. I cannot say).

    Obviously, this is bothering you, so I would do as Fr. Z suggests and seek the counsel of a dispassionate, stable, and wise individual with whom you can confide. If you choose to seek the counsel of a priest, make sure it is one who will not pooh-pooh your anxiety as being just the product of the imagination of an incompetent. I have had it happen to me when the priest did not know who I was or my background. On the other hand, scruples can develop in emotionally trying circumstances where there is the tiniest entry for doubt and it is very difficult for people to be objective about their own judgments. In any case, since you don't know where the truth lies, I don't think there can be much of a case made for sin on your part.

    I have not written a comment on this blog in two months, where, before, I was among the most frequent of commenters (long, difficult story). As I say, for some reason I felt the urge to write this comment, but this could just be because the misapplication of psychology is a pet-peeve of mine. Still, someone has to raise the issue, since psychological assessments play an important part in your anxiety and in the evidence presented in some annulment cases. My comments are not meant to influence your actions. Please, God, that is not my intent, but it is important not to be a babe-in-the-woods in dealing with people who throw around big, technical, scientifically-sounding word. Too many people are willing to accept, as Issac Asimov puts it, “The answer that satisfied,” rather than, “The answer that was true.”

    Imhrahil is right, however:

    "I might add still the one thing: if moral duties, and the actual (viz. subjective) moral quality of actions, depend on the circumstances at all, they depend on them as you know them (with moral certainty), not they may be in fact but unknownly."

    If the truth can not be known for certain, however (and in dealing with human psychology, often it can't be) then seek good advice, pray, do what you feel is your best judgment, and leave the rest to God. You are only human and God only expects you to do your best, not His best.

    Know that I will be offering my prayers for you and my sufferings.

    The Chicken

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