From a reader…
I have a quick question so I’ll keep this message short. Knowing several Catholics in my childrens’ Catholic school who have been divorced and remarried after getting an annulment, I wonder how to explain it all to my kids, and I begin to feel as if the annulment process in the US is a rubber stamp, basically. I know of no one who has ever had their annullment request rejected… [… Here’s where is stops being short…]
It’s one thing to have the whole culture against me, but it feels like the majority of the Church is against me too, and that makes me sad, angry, and frustrated. I’m just curious what your experience with marriage tribunals are. Do I have it all wrong? Thanks.
Short answers sometimes require longer responses. In this case I asked a working, experienced tribunal canonist for an opinion.
GUEST CANONIST RESPONSE (slightly edited):
I can only speak for the handful of tribunals I know personally in the US (my own, and the several others where I’ve served).
I do know of some tribunals that seem to be more like the “rubber stamp” variety — perhaps they are the majority. But I also know some tribunals that try to follow the Church’s law.
Tribunals can only accept petitions for matrimonial nullity if it appears that there is some foundation to the allegation that the petitioner is making, namely, that he thinks his marriage is null.
By “foundation” we mean that we look for preliminary indications and/or evidence that something is seriously amiss — that is, that based upon the initial intake of information, one or both of the parties suffered from an incapacity to contract marriage as the Catholic Church understands it, or intended something that the Church does not regard as marriage. The Church’s teachings on marriage apply to all people — non-Catholics as well as Catholics.
So, if a petition indicates that there wasn’t anything really wrong, that the parties just “grew apart,” or that one had an affair and the relationship between the parties was never able to heal after that, then we generally turn people away and do not accept the case. Most people are shocked when a tribunal won’t even accept their case.
That being said, the cases we do accept are those where we already “see” something wrong: that at the time of the wedding one of the parties was an active alcoholic or a drug abuser or addict, or was suffering from untreated serious mental illness, or had grown up in a chaotic environment where the parents jumped from marriage to marriage or live-in partner to live-in partner and gave no example of what commitment and fidelity is, or that one of the parties suffered abuse and/or trauma (physical violence, sexual abuse, etc.). These things can — but do not always — render someone truly incapable of matrimonial consent as the Church understands it.
When it is not a question of incapacity, then we look at intention: did one or both of the parties intend to have something that the Church does not regard as marriage? Did they intend a so-called “open marriage,” or a “child-free” lifestyle, or did they want only a temporary arrangement (e.g., until one gets a green card or until one of the parties inherits money, half of which can then be obtained by divorce)? Or did they use the marriage for some other purpose — a purpose other than marriage itself?
There are other grounds — such as “force and fear” or condition or error of quality of person — but these are rare. Most cases are decided on incapacity or simulation of consent.
Even so, at least at the tribunals I know, it sometimes happens that halfway through the case it appears that there is not going to be enough evidence to prove the marriage null — witnesses who do not corroborate the petitioner’s claims, or a lack of medical or psychiatric or criminal records, etc.
So sometimes we have to ask the petitioner to withdraw the petition, as the evidence is simply not there. Other times we let the case go into abatement for lack of action on the part of the parties. This scenario too usually means a shocked and angry petitioner.
So, no — “annulments” are not there simply for the asking, at least not in my tribunal.
However, once we formally accept a case, the likely outcome is that a declaration of nullity will be granted, because we do not waste the tribunal’s resources on cases where it’s just a failed relationship and there is no reason to believe the presumption of the validity of the marriage can be overturned. In that sense, I can see how some people regard our work as involving a foregone conclusion. But it’s a bit more complex than that.
Fr. Z adds: I am grateful for that good response.
Here is another, just in from another canonist with many years of tribunal experience:
2nd GUEST CANONIST RESPONSE
I am always loathe to speak in generalities about something that is so individualized as a marriage nullity case. Of course, my preferences matter little in the grand scheme, and there are some general conclusions that can be drawn.
First off, a matter of terminology. We speak of “annulments,” whereas canon law utilizes the term “declaration of nullity.” It may seem a pedantic point, but it is an important one. An “annulment” almost sounds like something positive – something the Church either grants or withholds. Using that term, we become accustomed to sentences like: “The Church hands out too many annulments!” or “You can get an annulment if you pay enough money.” or “I’m a good person and I want to be a good Catholic, why can’t the Church give me an annulment?”
Using the Church’s terminology is more helpful – a declaration of nullity. It is a declaration, based on a canonical investigation and rendered after the judge or judges arrive at firm moral certitude that, in the case presented, the nullity of the bond of marriage has been proven. It is, if you will, a diagnosis.
Let’s take the analogy of a medical diagnosis a step further. Dr. Bombay is a cancer specialist. He sees 15 patients one day, reads their medical charts, conducts an examination, mulls over the evidence and concludes that 13 of the 15 patients he sees have cancer. “Heavens!” The neighbors cry, “Dr. Bombay is simply rubber stamping all these cancer diagnoses! He’s passing out cancer like it’s candy!”
Now, it may be that Dr. Bombay is a bad doctor – and he sees cancer where it truly isn’t, or he issues diagnoses of cancer for immoral purposes, such as lining his pockets with profit.
Or, it could be that there is a wave of cancer sweeping through the town where Dr. Bombay operates.
Or, it could be that the only folks who truly have cancer come to seek Dr. Bombay’s diagnosis. If someone is healthy, why would they go see Dr. Bombay in the first place?
Let’s apply that to the situation on the ground in America. We have had a several-generation long assault on marriage, dating at least as far back as the legalization of contraception, through the promotion of the notion of no-fault divorce, free love, premarital sexual activity and cohabitation, up to the recent redefinition of marriage by the Supreme Court to include same-sex relationships. Almost no one has been immune to this full court press. Is it any wonder that the divorce rate has skyrocketed? Is it any wonder that even good, solidly raised Catholic men and women approach the altar with grave psychological defects, or a warped understanding about the indissolubility and integrity of the matrimonial bond?
The majority of officials working in marriage tribunals are good, sincere, and highly educated individuals. Yes, some of them may be lazy, incompetent, ill-intentioned, like our putative Dr. Bombay may be. The vast majority, in my experience, are solid canonists, swimming through a sea of the matrimonial cancer that so tragically infects our society. They see their work, on a daily basis, impugned by the left and the right (they’re either “too easy and liberal,” or they “put up too many roadblocks to people who just want to live their lives). They read case after case shot through with sin, abuse, immaturity, infidelity, and material sometimes so disgusting that, even if they weren’t bound by oaths of confidentiality they would not want to share in polite company. And they soldier on – not because they’re raking in generous salaries and cushy benefits, not because they’re earning heaps of praise, but because they are committed to Christ the Lord, His teaching on the indissolubility of the matrimonial bond, and the Church He founded which still upholds those teachings.
How do you raise children in a society where, it seems, so many putative marriages end up shipwrecked on the shoals of human intransigence?
#1 Live your commitment to your marriage with fervor, joy, love and lots of communication
#2 Point to relatives and friends in long-term marriages as example – “Philomena, wouldn’t it be awesome to be like Aunt Patty and Uncle Phineas who just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary? I hope you and your future husband have a marriage like that, unless you find out that the Lord has called you to that Carmelite monastery we visited last month when your mom and I took the family on that pilgrimage.”
#3 Pray for healthy marriages – pray for cultural sanity
#4 Don’t make fun of, or otherwise slam failed marriages to your children, but use them as examples for teaching, “Isn’t it so sad that Mr. and Mrs. Heavenrich decided to separate? I don’t know why it happened, and it’s not really our business to pry, but we should remember to pray for them very hard, it must be very sad for them. You should really make a point to be nice to Bobby Heavenrich in your class, it must be a tough time for him and he’ll need good friends.”
Fr. Z adds: Another good perspective, which makes an important, similar point. What do you expect from a tribunal?