Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Why the Church is Granting More Annulments
"I understood that marriage is foreverfor
better or worse. Now the Church is granting annulments right and
left. Whatever happened to 'let no man put asunder'?"
This isn't just a question. It's a cry of anguish
from many sincere Catholics who are puzzled, upset, at times angry,
when they hear that someone who has been married five, 10, even
25 years, obtained a Church annulment and remarried with Catholic
rites. How could a marriage go on for years and still be invalid,
they want to know.
Yes, marriage is still permanent. The indissolubility
of sacramental marriage remains a central Catholic teaching. Pope
Paul VI and Pope John Paul II strongly reaffirmed the uncompromising
doctrine that a consummated, sacramental marriage bond is lifelong
and cannot be broken by civil or Church authority.
While carefully protecting Jesus' teaching of the
sacredness of marriage, the Church also is obliged to provide
justice for anyone whose marriage has failed when it can be shown
with moral certainty that the marriage lacked from its onset some
essential element for a true sacramental bond. Pope Paul VI noted
that delayed justice is injustice, and streamlined the annulment
procedure. During the 1970's and early 80's, special norms for
the annulment procedure were in effect on a provisional basis.
Many of these revisions have now been made part of the Code of
Canon Law promulgated in 1983, acknowledging the continued necessity
for a just procedure in marriage cases and the deep needs of those
whose lives have been touched by divorce.
There are six million divorced Catholics in the United
States. However one views this statistic, it represents a searing
experience of personal tragedy for six million persons. Many of
these persons are wounded further by feeling cut off from the
Church, and should they remarry, they are barred from the solace
and strength of the sacraments. The annulment procedure is an
attempt to bring justice and compassion to many divorced and separated
Catholics whose marriage actually was one in appearance only.
"An annulment is divorce, Catholic
This is a catchy, but incorrect, way
of putting it. Misunderstanding is due partly to the word annulment.
The precise term is "declaration of nullity." A declaration of nullity
is a judgment by the Church that what seemed to be a marriage never
was in fact a true marriage. An annulment is not a divorce for it
does not dissolve an existing marriage. A declaration of nullity
is granted when it can be shown that some essential or juridical
defect made a particular marriage invalid from the beginning despite
outward appearance, despite even the good faith of the partners
or the establishment of a family. It should be underscored that
an annulment does not affect the legitimacy of the children of such
Certain factors have brought about the
considerable increase in Church annulments over the past decade.
First and foremost, the Second Vatican Council fostered development
in the theology of marriage by restoring the interpersonal relationship
of the spouses as an essential component of marriage.
Secondly, advances in psychology have
provided a deeper understanding of the complexity of both human
decision-making and interpersonal relationships. Thus the Church
has new insights for appraising a marriage. Marriage, after all,
is the most important decision most people make, and marriage is
the most intimate of adult relationships.
"Did the Second Vatican Council
change the Church's understanding of marriage?"
The Council changed the understanding of marriage
only by deepening it. Those of us whose catechism days were before
Vatican II learned that marriage is a contract whereby a man and
a woman pledge themselves exclusively and perpetually to one another,
bestowing the mutual right and duty of sexual intercourse. We
learned that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation
and rearing of children, and that secondary aims included mutual
affection and support of the spouses, as well as satisfaction
of sexual desire. We also learned that any valid marriage between
baptized persons, Catholic or Protestant, is a sacrament as well
as a natural bond.
The Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution
on the Church in the Modern World recast the standard definition
of marriage which previously had been stated in terms of primary
and secondary ends. The Council Fathers repeated that marriage
is ordained for the begetting and education of children, "the
supreme gift of marriage." But the Fathers also noted that "[some]
other purposes of matrimony are not of less account." Marriage,
they said, is a "communion of life, and maintains value
and indissolubility, even when offspring are lacking..." (#50).
"Is the Stress on the Relationship
Between the Spouses New?"
The Council Fathers thereby returned to the teaching
of medieval theologians like St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas, who
taught that the relationship between the spouses undergirds
the traditional ends of marriage, namely, children, fidelity and
More fundamentally, the Council returned to the biblical
theme of marriage as covenant, an interpersonal commitment
based on trust, self-giving and sacrificing love. By this covenant
the partners "render mutual help and service to each other through
an intimate union of their persons and their actions" (#48).
A deeper theological understanding of marriage emerges
from the Council's brief but cogent overview. Marriage surely
serves God's command to increase and multiply, but this does not
exhaust its essential qualities.
Church Law today reaffirms the personal relationship,
the intimate partnership between the spouses, as a crucial, basic
dimension of marriage. While conjugal union is expressed most
specifically and intimately in sexual relations, it also extends
to the couple's total life together, to physical, emotional, intellectual
and spiritual community. In short, marriage is a union of persons,
not simply a union of bodies. The purpose of marriage is to give
life, but equally, to share it.
Unfortunately, this focus on the interpersonal core
of marriage had become blurred ever since the 1 500's by a legalist
mentality in the Church which viewed marriage within the limited
scope of sexual rights and duties. As long as a man and woman
had pronounced their vows and had consummated the marriage physically,
it was presumed valid, regardless of the quality of the interpersonal
relationship. The Council restored community of life between
spouses as an essential element of marriage.
"How can a Church court decide
whether a marriage is valid or not? How can anyone undo the 'I do'?"
This question hits the bull's-eye. For
marriage is effected by consent, freely and knowingly saying
"yes" to all that marriage involves. Therefore, in considering a
particular marriage, this "yes" is the key issue. Its validity may
be considered in the context of two basic questions about consent.
First, when they said their vows,
did both partners freely accept and clearly understand the lifelong
commitment they were making? And secondly, at that time,
did both partners have the personal capacity to carry out consent,
to form a community of life with the chosen partner?
Quality of Consent. Let's take
that first question and look at the quality of marital consent,
which is far more exacting than ordinary decisions. Consent to marry
is the most weighty decision the person ever will make. Its effects
endure beyond the here-and-now; it is a lifelong choice. Obviously
an individual must know to what he or she is agreeing.
Consent must be free and discerning.
External or internal pressure, which significantly reduces freedom
or undermines critical judgment, could impair consent to such degree
that commonsense requirements for such a binding decision as marriage
are not fulfilled.
For centuries, theologians have recognized
that strong emotion and external pressure could weaken free choice
and diminish responsibility as far as sin was concerned. The Church
has been more cautious in applying these principles to marital consent.
Modern psychology's study of decision-making shows more sharply
how unconscious motives and situational pressures can get in the
way of freedom and judgment. Such findings greatly help Church tribunals
assess the adequacy of marital consent.
The shotgun marriage is an outdated joke.
Yet more subtle pressures may interfere with freedom and discernment
just as effectively. Take, for example, the couple who have been
intimate and now the woman is pregnant. She rightly refuses abortion.
She does not want to give up the baby for adoption. The father feels
trapped. He may have fine intentions, feeling honor-bound to do
"the right thing." One or both may see marriage as the only way
out. Is this decision a free, mature choice of a lifetime partner,
or is it a pressured solution to a problem?
What about the consent of the teenager,
overwhelmed by infatuation with the only person ever dated, in love
more with love than the person he or she consents to marry? Or the
youngster with no critical appraisal of the character of the intended
partner, and with meager appreciation of the financial responsibilities
of marriage or the burdens of parenthood? Add to the picture, perhaps,
the desperate need to escape an unhappy home life, marred by alcoholism
How would we assess the widower, still
grieving for his deceased wife? He has a demanding job and is anxious
for his young children. So he hastily remarries. Is he giving prudent,
thoughtful consent or enlisting a housekeeper and stepmother for
What sort of consent is given by a person
with lukewarm, nominal faith, who has absorbed the divorce mentality
which pervades U.S. culture, and the philosophy of casual sex which
is daily TV fare?
There is no automatic answer about the
quality of consent in these examples. Surely the average disinterested
adult would question the wisdom of such marriages, and have qualms
about the freedom or discretion of the immature or agonized person
taking marriage vows. A thorough investigation by the tribunal of
the premarital situation may support the conclusion that one or
both of the partners could not freely and maturely choose to marry
at that time.
Capacity to Carry Out Consent.
Marriage essentially includes a community of conjugal life which
is perpetual and exclusive. Therefore, both partners must have the
maturity to establish and sustain a mutually supportive communal
relationship with one another.
Saying "yes" without the capacity to
carry it out is invalid, even though a person takes marriage vows
in good faith and with the best intentions. St. Thomas phrased the
principle neatly: "No one can oblige himself to what he can neither
give nor do."
Before we had a better understanding
of human behavior, both the average person and the Church thought
everyone had what it takes to make a marriage work except the most
overtly disturbed individuals. Before Vatican II, the Church considered
the marriage contract principally in terms of procreative rights
and obligations. The wider issue of a mutually supportive human
relationship, while never totally ignored, was given second billing.
The right to a communal relationship
does not mean that marriage must be idyllic. Any two people, even
ordinary friends, have incompatibilities to work through. Few if
any persons are so mature that they have no failings, foibles or
hang-ups regarding self-worth, pride, aggression or sexuality. But
the basically mature person tries to be honest with self, admit
mistakes, be open to advice and to grace.
But in some persons, psychological problems
are the consuming, motivating force of life. One's sense of alienation
or inadequacy, self-depreciation, hostility, sexual problems, impulsiveness
or selfishness can be pervasive and chronic. It is most unlikely
that such a psychologically burdened individual can establish and
maintain the close, empathetic, cherishing relationship with a spouse
which provides for mutual growth and the proper rearing of children.
In plain words, the person entering marriage does not have what
it takes to develop the community life which is the substance of
the marital pledge.
"What type of emotional problems
could impair the consent?"
For some time, the Church has recognized that psychoses,
the disintegrative mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and
manic depression, could so impair mental and emotional stability
that one's consent to marriage lacked the necessary discernment
or capacity. More recently, using further psychological insights,
the Church acknowledges that other dysfunctions of personality
may render a particular marriage covenant impossible. It is difficult
to make general statements because human psychology is so complex.
But with that note of caution, it can be said that homosexuality
and alcoholism often undermine the capacity for a permanent
community of life and love.
Another group of emotional disturbances carry the
label personality disorders. The personality disorders do not
show the acute episodes or bizarre features of psychoses, or the
disabling anxiety or symptoms of neuroses. However, they are marked
by deeply ingrained maladaptive patterns of behavior, usually
with roots in early life, and often evident by adolescence. Such
persons may function well enough in certain areas of life. Fact
is, they may be wizards in their work, excellent providers and
efficient household managers, and adept in casual social encounters.
But they are psychologically unable to meet one essential criterion
of marriage, the close and intimate personal relationship of mutual
support and affection.
The facts garnered from a personal history may reveal
that an individual carried a tremendous resentment which sabotaged
the marital relationship by constant and uncontrolled temper outbursts,
by demanding and depreciating attacks on the spouse and children,
and even by physical abuse.
Still others reach physical adulthood hampered by
a sense of insecurity and a lack of trust so corrosive that they
believe no one really could love or be true to them. They are
hypersensitive and often show jealousy which sparks arguments
even with chance acquaintances and rules out the loving relationship
marriage is meant to be.
Some individuals compensate for inner insecurity by
empire-building. Their total involvement in achieving success
or status or a big bank account has a driven, compulsive quality
that engulfs their lives. They tend to be workaholics who cram
their schedules and over-commit themselves. By doing so, they
escape the intimacy which threatens their overblown independence,
and collect the payoff of feeling unappreciated. They may be rigid,
niggardly and domineering; their unspoken motto often is "Do it
my way." Fearful of dependency, they come on strong. Their underlying
insecurity blocks the cooperation, compromise and communication
essential for any deep interpersonal relationship.
There are also persons who are afflicted with a sense
of worthlessness and self-hatred so intense that they are caught
up in a constant search for affirmation and love. But they defeat
their own quest by petulance over an endless series of perceived
slights. Their impulsive grasp for reassurance can entangle them
in extramarital affairs or dependency on drugs or alcohol. Not
infrequently, the long-festering emotional or character problems
become evident only under the stress and pressure that occur in
marriage. The first marriage crisis uncovers the immaturity which
had been signaled only by vague hints before this time. The birth
of a child may reveal gross irresponsibility, unwillingness to
sacrifice or pathological jealousy, which were not clearly displayed
during the romantic courtship or exciting atmosphere of early
However, neither is it unusual that signals of later
problems were quite evident before the marriage, but simply denied
by the other party, or glossed over with the unwarranted hope
that marriage would change the partner. (This seems especially
true when heavy drinking is in evidence before the marriage.)
Marriage to someone with a severe personality disorder is at best
cohabitation, at worst a living hell. A relationship of constant
discord, tension and debilitating stress is hardly a community
of life and love.
The precise clinical labels of these disorders are
not important here. This sampling simply suggests how certain
types of people can make a particular marriage a morally impossible
venture. Nor is it always so one-sided. Sociological studies do
not support the old saw that unlikes attract. One immature person
often manages to find an immature partner. What's unlike may be
the type of immaturity. For example, the person who has an insatiable
need for attention and affection seems to have a talent for marrying
a person scared of closeness.
These personality descriptions sound harsh. Yet they
are sketches of truly handicapped persons. In their early years,
often through no one's fault, they were shortchanged on the love
and stability needed for self-esteem and security, and from which
later mature independence and relationships develop. The failure
of their marriagesand their livesis often more due
to weakness than evil intent.
The marriage tribunals of the Church do not seek to
assign blame for marriage breakup. They seek only to understand
a failed marriage, and determine whether either or both partners
lacked proper consent or the ability to carry out consent.
"Isn't it a painful ordeal for persons seeking
an annulment to dredge up the past?"
Many persons do remark how wrenching it was for them
to recall and sort out painful memories. But they also find that
it helped them to discover some meaning in the tragedy of a broken
marriage. They appreciate their new insights about themselves
and deepen their sense of values. This process can foster psychological
and spiritual growth.
Some Catholics, clergy and layeople, argue that a
decision within one's own conscience is sufficient to be right
before God. Yet most persons have a strong need for external confirmation.
Marriage is a public event, a religious contract over and above
a civil one. Consequently, many believers feel the need for an
external, independent, religious judgment that their marriage
was not valid. As one man expressed, "When you get a divorce,
you think you'll feel not married. I don't."
A woman, forced into divorce to protect the welfare
of her children, obtained an annulment and remarked that now she
felt peace because she had "at least a piece of paper in my hand
to prove to myself once and for all that I did try, that a marriage
existed on paper only, that I did not fail in my duties as a Catholic,
that the Church does understand..."
But the greatest benefit of the pain for many who
have established a happy and stable second marriage is their return
to the sacraments, the sometimes tearfully joyful reception once
more of the Lord in the Eucharist, and the renewal of religious
practice as a family celebration.
An elderly priest, after taking part in an annulment
hearing, put it simply and poignantly: "It's a great healing."