From a reader…
My experience is that any marriage can be annulled on the grounds of gross immaturity or mental defect. (Didn’t know “porneia” was Greek for these terms….) And when canonists are asked about church laws regarding the responsibility of priest and bishops to help reconcile marriages they says things like that’s old and we don’t do that anymore.
How can a church law be ignored because people stopped doing what they are supposed to be doing?
BTW it seems like many cannon lawyers are divorce lawyers.
GUEST PRIEST RESPONSE: Fr. Tim Ferguson
The two most common complaints about marriage tribunals are that 1) they grant too many annulments and 2) they don’t grant enough annulments.
Often, both complaints come from the same person. During my time as a lay canonist (two n’s, not three, thank you), I once met a priest. When I told him that I worked at the marriage tribunal, he said, “Oh, so you’re one of the folks who are destroying our marriages,” and turned and walked away. Three years later, when a case involving a member of his family received a negative decision, this same priest called me up and read me the riot act on the phone.
The complaints about tribunals granting too many or too few annulments come from looking at the situation in the wrong way. Judges don’t “grant” or “withhold” annulments as if they were some sort of favor. They are a judgment, based on the law and the facts presented before the Court. The facts presented might be flawed (people lie, people misremember), but they are what we have to go on.
A more helpful analogy is, perhaps, a medical diagnosis. A good doctor examines the patient, asks pertinent questions, perhaps does a few tests, then draws on his knowledge of medical conditions to come up with a diagnosis. His diagnosis might be wrong, despite his best efforts. The patient could be concealing some important factors, or there may be medical developments or conditions about which the doctor does not know. That’s why it’s generally good to get a second opinion before making important medical decisions.
If the local doctor examines 50 people and finds that 48 of the fifty patients have cancer, we don’t generally jump to the conclusion, “Dr. Gilligan is handing out cancer diagnoses like candy!” Instead, we start asking ourselves, why do so many people in this town have cancer?
A good tribunal (and most of them are good) examines the parties – interviews are conducted, evidence is examined, witnesses are called, often a psychological review is conducted. Unlike in the medical field, it is very rarely the case that only one canonist examines the case. Ideally, a degreed Defender of the Bond and three degreed Judges are involved in the case. If a majority of the judges find sufficient evidence for nullity, an affirmative decision is given. In the recent past, an automatic appeal to a second court was made. Now that appeal is optional, but a reasonable option for a party who disagrees with the decision.
The seemingly large number of affirmative cases in the United States and much of the Western world doesn’t say as much about the quality of canon lawyers and tribunal staff as it does about the travesty of marriage in our society. A society that treats marriage as disposable (and yes, the Church failed utterly when States first started introducing no-fault divorce), impermanent, and merely some sort of social contract allowing for guilt-free sex between two persons of whatever gender, it is entirely understandable that few young people have a clear understanding of the covenant they are entering into, and so many of them come from backgrounds that are so dysfunctional that their ability to sustain, let alone understand a mature adult relationship is severely damaged.
It is true that the Church urges pastors and those involved in nullity cases to try to assist couples with reconciliation whenever possible. Experience has shown that, by the time someone is considering filing for a declaration of nullity, reconciliation is difficult if not impossible. Pastors – and laity – have a lot of work to do in forming young people to understand what marriage is, how to find a suitable partner, and what the commitment of marriage is truly about. Throwing stones at canonists is much easier.
Anecdotal “evidence” to completely demolish what I’ve said above coming in three…, two…, one…