From a reader…
My in laws divorced one year ago. My father in law is remarrying one month from now. He filed the annulment paperwork late last year and was told by the deacon handling it that it would “come through” last month. Nothing yet. My husband and I are disturbed by the fact that his parish (not in our diocese) allowed him to set the wedding date and complete marriage preparation courses even though he is already married in the eyes of the church. Now we’re concerned about what may occur if the annulment is not granted in time. We are considering writing to the bishop of that diocese to express our concern about this situation. It really doesn’t make sense in light of the church’s teaching on marriage and annulment. Do you agree that a letter to the bishop is warranted? Or are we being too nitpicky since no sacraments have been given falsely?
First, allow me to nitpick. Some people, even informed people working in the Church who ought to know better, use phrases like “granting an annulment” (or not “granting one”, as the case may be). This is imprecise terminology which leads to confusion. The Church does not “grant” an annulment as though an annulment were some sort of a prize, or honor, or distinction… or a divorce. Rather, the Church, through Her tribunal system of educated professionals, examines the facts presented in an orderly way and then makes a declaration based on those facts. It’s similar to a doctor making a diagnosis. We don’t say, “Doctor Bombay granted me a diagnosis of rickets.”
If we stop using unhelpful terminology, we might stem the tide of looking at a declaration of nullity as some sort of reward that the Church either kindly bestows or stingily withholds, or indulgently squanders or righteously refuses to grant. Rather, if we use more precise terminology, such as “The Tribunal determined the marriage was null,” or even better “The Tribunal was able to find sufficient proof of nullity,” or “The Tribunal was not convinced the marriage was null”, then we demonstrate a better grasp of reality.
Anyway, it is a Really Bad Idea™ for a parish (priest or staff) to set a date for a marriage until it is certain that both parties are free to marry.
In this case, no date should have been set until and unless the Tribunal issued a declaration of freedom to marry, stating not only that the previous marriage had been declared null, but also that no restrictions were placed on the party. In some cases, even if the marriage is proven null, the Tribunal has the ability to place a restriction on one or both parties, stating certain conditions which need to be met (e.g., psychological counseling) before a subsequent marriage can take place.
Ideally, Catholics should not consider moving towards a prospective marriage until their freedom to marry has been established. That said, we do not live in an ideal world. “Kind” pastors who ignore these norms in order to give people what they think they want end up creating more problems than they solve.
The question you ask is whether a letter to the bishop is warranted in this case.
Perhaps, but there are a lot of variables that come into play.
On the one hand, the bishop should know what is going on in his parishes. Was this, for example, a one time stupid mistake? Or is this part of a larger pattern of imprudence or disobedience? Some bishops might act swiftly and mete out the appropriate discipline. Some bishops, themselves of the mistakenly “pastoral” school of thought, might react by putting a fire under the tribunal to grind out a decision more quickly, thinking that will eliminate the scandal. Yet other bishops might just shrug and ignore the matter.
I think a more helpful course of action would, first, to have a conversation with your father-in-law. Ask what his plans are should the declaration of nullity either not be issued, or be issued after the date of the proposed wedding, or be issued with a restriction. Perhaps a phone call to the pastor asking why a date was set without the freedom of both parties to marry being established is warranted. The response you receive from your father-in-law and from the pastor in question might help answer your question of whether a letter to the bishop is appropriate.
Whatever course of action you take, do it prayerfully, with patience, and without acrimony or an accusatory tone.