Annulments and Catholic Teaching on Marriage

I issued this a while ago but thought it timely to re-issue it again. A “streamlining” of the process of annulments ought not obscure the solemn doctrine of the Church and the very serious responsibility in conscience that everyone has to be entirely honest in this process. Also, ecclesiastical judges ought to be called to conscience in their decisions. God forbid man should try to deceive God!

The solemn and irreformable teaching of the Church: No authority whatsoever can break the marital union that God establishes between a baptized man and a baptized woman. A valid and consummated sacramental marriage cannot be broken even by the hand of St. Peter. This is the solemn teaching of the Holy Church.

Now, the practice of granting annulments makes some think that the Church is breaking that bond, sanctioning divorce. The appearance is deceptive. An annulment is simply a “declaration of nullity.” It is an appointed authority’s declaration that in fact no bond ever took place. Therefore, annulment is not Catholic divorce. It is simply a declaration of fact that there was no bond, not a breaking of a bond. If there was no bond, then the person whose non-marriage was declared to be just that, a non-marriage is free to marry. However, not all are approaching the matter in this way. Many approach annulments as though they were “Catholic divorce.” This is an egregious error. Let us look at some very important points for moral and pastoral concern that should go into a Catholic approaching such a matter.

All sacramental marriages are unbreakable. They last until the death of one of the spouses. They cannot be broken. Therefore, each spouse must be faithful until the death of one dissolves the marriage. Faithful means, negatively, not having intercourse with any other person than the spouse. Faithful means, positively, tenderly loving the spouse, etc.

What to do in the case of serious spousal abuse? Serious spousal abuse – say physical harm is being done, etc. – calls for a solution. One solution is separation. “Separation” is not divorce. Separation is “separation from bed and board.” The two spouses no longer live in the same dwelling. However, each is called to that fidelity that the bond entails as solemn obligation. Infidelity is mortal sin! And mortal sin has everlasting damnation as its consequence, unless it is repented. Repentance entails, minimally, the firm purpose of amendment. That is, I must, if I repent, decide with determination, “I will not commit this sin again.” Short of that, my repentance is only regret. The fidelity must last because the bond still obtains, until one or both die. However, the abusing spouse has forfeited in practice his use of the matrimonial rights. He has forfeited his right to have intercourse with his wife. Thus, she is freed of her obligation to have intercourse with him. The bond remains, the rights forestalled. This is not divorce. It is separation. (Some states in the United States even recognize a reality called separation and distinguish it from divorce.)

Annulment is not separation. For annulment is the declaration that there never was a bond.

But who is it who “declares” a marriage null? Only an ecclesial judge of the Catholic Church. Now we come to the crucial issue: Is this judge “infallible”? BY NO MEANS. He judges the case in virtue of the evidence presented. It is possible that he makes a mistake. If he makes a mistake, does the marriage become null? NO IT DOES NOT. No judge “performs” anything. The judge can only “declare” something. And if he declares what is false, he does not make it to be true. This point has pastoral implications about which almost no one speaks.

But one must speak of these implications. These implications mean that all parties must give as fair and objective a testimony about the facts as possible. Should anyone approach the judge with a deceptive intent, they sin against Almighty God and violate already the sanctity of marriage. If one wanted to “manipulate” the judge, “manipulate” the Church into granting an annulment, one essentially is treating the process like divorce and therefore trampling on the fidelity proper to marriage and running roughshod over the holy bond of matrimony. This is a sin. Further, such sins could lead to a false outcome. And a false outcome does not change the truth. Therefore, a false outcome might invite the other spouse, let us say the other one is “innocent” of deceptive intent, to lead a false life – to remarry when in fact the bond really exists, even though the judge erroneously decided.

Because no judge is infallible in these matters, there always remains the possibility that either spouse might appeal a declaration of nullity to a higher court. True story: The Protestant spouse of an important US senator actually believed in her heart that the declaration by the court in Boston was false, that the judge declared something in error. She thus appealed to the Roman Rota. I do not know whether the Rota ever issued a decision on her appeal. However, she retained that right.

And God bless her for taking marriage so seriously. She gives us all a lesson. No one should approach annulments with a cavalier attitude. Rather, one should examine one’s conscience very solemnly before ever approaching a canon lawyer, much less the bench of a judge. One should examine oneself before God. That examination must involve the desire to do God’s will, not my own. The “desire to manipulate” is totally contrary to a Christian approach and already indicates sin, and probably grave sin.

If one determines that one’s conscience is clear, one must present evidence as accurately and as fully as possible. If one misleads the judge, lies, is dishonest in any way, one must stand in the judgment of Almighty God on the last day. If one “won” a decision of nullity by crafty deceit, Almighty God knows the truth. If one “won” a decision falsely and then went on to another marriage, one is guilty of trampling the first marriage. One cannot justly acquit oneself of guilt here. Therefore, one is guilty should one go and remarry on these grounds.

These points have implications for the judges and canon lawyers. They must take their duties as duties before God. They must take them very seriously. If they have the attitude of “we can get this nullified” or “we can get a declaration of nullity on anything,” then they shall stand before the Judgment seat of Almighty God. God is not mocked!

The problem is, the practice of annulments in America seems very close to, if not is, a mockery in many cases. It appears a mockery on a couple of fronts. On the one hand, priests are pressured to marry about anyone who presents themselves desiring marriage. Most priests have very little say in being able to delay or deny couples who present themselves. Even when they have serious grounds for doubting the potential spouses’ capacity to contract a marriage validly. Now, there is a serious reason priests are under this pressure. The reason is that the members of the Church are blessed with free access to the Sacraments. A priest cannot forbid someone from receiving Holy Communion unless he has clearly established legal grounds for doing so. The people have free access to the Sacraments. And this principle is most important. However, it does seem that this principle can be taken to an extreme, if priests cannot in practice delay or refuse to marry people who really have little maturity for the serious duties of marriage. On the other hand, annulments are readily granted. And often for reasons of “immaturity.”

Let us reflect on these two facts. If very many Catholic couples can get their marriages declared null, especially for reasons of “immaturity,” then very many Catholics are premising their lives on a falsity. They get married, premising their life on the idea that they were mature enough to undertake this life. But then when the going gets tough, they easily get out of this tough obligation and go on to another marriage – supposedly they are more mature because they have left a difficult task! The priests had to marry them a couple of years ago, and now the canonists and the judges have to declare that false marriage “null”.

This double practice … how does it not make a mockery of the sacrament?

Finally, let us reflect on this message. If X% of Catholic marriages are easily annulled for grounds of immaturity, then we can forecast that 2X% of Catholics are immature people, incapable of the serious commitment of life, and so far untrustworthy of intimacy. They are like adolescents. Sure, they have free will, but not for the total gift of self. But they expect to be treated as adults at the same time.

(Note, by “Catholic marriages” I indicate marriage of two Catholics. This could be applied analogously for all sacramental marriages.)