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Annulment: A Chance to Heal and Start Again
By: Susan K. Rowland
Seeking a Catholic annulment, officially called a declaration of nullity, is one of the most healing experiences a person can have after divorce. It allows both partners time to reflect on what happened in the marriage—from issues they had when first married, to the deterioration of the relationship and the decision to divorce. The process helps them regain balance, recover from the trauma and begin healing.
Yet there are many misunderstandings about this process. How many of these have you heard?
• Annulment’s just a Catholic divorce.
• It says the marriage never took place.
• Your children will be declared illegitimate.
• You can’t receive any of the sacraments until you get an annulment.
All of the above, by the way, are false.
The Catholic Church takes marriage very seriously and has elevated marriage from a social convention or legal contract to a sacrament. Christian marriage is a holy covenant made by two people before God; their marriage is “joined” by God. It’s such a serious matter that Jesus said, “[W]hat God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6).
But in this sinful world, not every marriage, even those witnessed in a church, has been “joined by God.” There can be deep problems in the relationship—issues that the couple hasn’t admitted to the priest officiating, the people guiding their marriage preparation or even themselves. With love, prayer and hard work, the normal problems of relationship-building can be worked out, but some are too complicated. It’s then that marriages that had been presumed to be sacramental may end in divorce.
What’s the Catholic Church to do in these cases? Wise Church leaders through the years have investigated enough of these marital breakdowns to know that, in certain cases, the marrying couple had little or no idea what Christian marriage is about. If there were deep problems in the couple’s relationship or families of origin, a truly Christian marriage may have been impossible.
In the Catholic Church, a declaration of nullity can declare a marriage not to have been sacramental. This doesn’t mean that a marriage never took place, only that it wasn’t sacramental or “joined by God.” A civil divorce ends the legal contract between a husband and wife. The Church’s process determines the sacramentality of a marriage that has ended in divorce.
The Church requires a declaration of nullity before a divorced Catholic can be remarried because it’s responsible for guiding its members into healthy relationships with God and one another. Since Christian marriage is a sacred covenant, it cannot be set aside by a civil court. Only a ruling by a Church tribunal (court) can do that. One can understand the Church’s reluctance to rubber-stamp a civil court’s decree and allow its members to walk into the same difficulties again.
Divorced Catholics may fully celebrate the Church’s sacraments, with the exception of Marriage and Holy Orders. They are welcome to celebrate Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick and to participate in the life of the Church.
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It’s only when a divorced Catholic chooses to marry again without a declaration of nullity (or becomes involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage) that his or her status within the Church changes. “Although the Church cannot recognize such subsequent unions as valid marriages, she hopes that people in this situation will participate in parish life and attend the Sunday Eucharist, even without receiving the Sacrament” (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan).
Non-Catholics seeking to become Catholic or marry a Catholic also need to present cases to a Catholic tribunal to see if any prior marriages can be declared null. If one or both of the spouses is not baptized, the marriage is not a sacrament. But the Catholic Church still regards it as a natural union that’s binding for life unless that marriage is declared null according to Church law.
A tribunal of at least one and usually three canonical judges (Church law is known as canon law), plus a defender of the marriage bond, investigates the circumstances of the marriage from its beginning. This gives the man and woman a chance to reflect upon their relationship, their backgrounds, why each of them chose the other for a partner and what dynamics caused the marriage to break down. These reflections can be healing and bring new insight and maturity to them both. The tribunal, using statements from the former couple and those close to them, looks for signs that the parties were unable to commit to a lifelong relationship.
Paul, from Arizona, was 20 when he first married. His wife was a foreign national who married him to stay in the country. “The annulment process was healing for me,” Paul says. “I had to learn to set boundaries, make better decisions. It helped me become more mature.” Ten years later, Paul met the love of his life; they were married in the Catholic Church in 2008 and now have a baby boy.
Ellen, from Rhode Island, says the process helped her recognize that she’d barely known her husband when they married, thus leading to their many problems. She says she sought a Church declaration of nullity because “I knew in my heart that I’d never want to be cut off from the Church if I married again.” And while she hasn’t remarried, she wants to have that choice if she meets the right person. “I can’t imagine going to Mass and not being able to go to Communion,” this daily communicant says. “The community of Church means so much to me.”
Going through a divorce is one of the most difficult challenges any of us can experience. Counseling and a divorce support group can help, but let’s not overlook the good that the Catholic Church’s tribunal process offers to help divorced persons reflect upon their experiences and heal their sorrow.
Permission to Publish received for this article, “Annulment—A Chance to Heal and Start Again” by Susan K. Rowland, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 6-14-2010.
Susan K. Rowland is a freelance writer from Arizona and the author of Make Room for God: Clearing Out the Clutter (2007) and Healing After Divorce: Hope for Catholics (2010), both published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. See her Web site at http://www.susankrowland.com.
By: Frank Frost
Woody Allen’s 1986 movie, Hannah and Her Sisters, is ultimately about finding meaning in life. In the case of Mickey (Woody Allen), his obsessive search for meaning leads him down many paths, including a misguided resolve to become a Catholic.
■ What new understanding have you gained from reading this article?
■ Why are there so many misunderstandings about annulments? What can the Church do to remedy this?
■ How will you help others come to see annulments as an opportunity for healing rather than just another hoop through which to jump?
In the case of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest), their search is to find meaningful relationships. Even though the movie is comedy, it deals with the difficult issue: When is a marriage not a real marriage? And that certainly relates to the question of annulment.
Hannah is married to Elliot (Michael Caine), who is obsessed with Hannah’s sister Lee. Lee is living, unmarried, in an unsatisfying relationship, but soon takes up a guilt-ridden affair with Elliot. Holly is drug-dependent, unsuccessful as an actress and seemingly incapable of having a continuing (not to say mature) romantic relationship. Mickey is Hannah’s former husband. Together, they have two children. Having children makes Hannah feel whole; she’s the most stable one of the bunch.
Mickey is a television producer surrounded by neurotic individuals. But he is the most neurotic of all, driven by a simple hearing problem to fear a fatal disease. His fear of death leads to a sense of meaninglessness and a fumbled attempt at suicide. Eventually, he’ll find meaning in a marriage. Will it last?
By the end of the movie, there’s been a shift in all the relationships. At one point, Mickey tries to explain his plans to become a Catholic to his Jewish parents, saying, “I’m old enough to make a mature decision.” All the characters in Hannah and Her Sisters are old enough. The question is whether they can make mature decisions.
Next time you watch Hannah and Her Sisters, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
“You’ve got to come to know them as friend. They may have made poor decisions and be squeamish about sharing these. But I’m here to help, not judge, them,” says Deacon Pete Markwald about his relationship as a marriage tribunal advocate with those petitioning the tribunal for annulments.
■ Of all the marriages in this movie, which are built on a foundation of mature relationships and decisions?
■ Granted that the movie exaggerates for comedic effect, do I find a ring of truth in the characters’ struggles to find stable relationships? How have I struggled in this regard?
“The role of an advocate,” he explains to Every Day Catholic, “is to be a person’s intermediary or sponsor through the process of seeking an annulment from the Church. I’m here to answer questions or get answers to their questions if I don’t know the answers myself.
“I’ve been an advocate for the eight years I’ve been ordained,” says Deacon Pete. Following his retirement from UPS, he “did a lot of volunteer work at my parish—counting money on Mondays and ministry to the sick.” His call to the diaconate came when he was attending a Christ Renews His Parish weekend at St. Ann’s, in Coppell, Texas.
His formation and ordination as a deacon prepared him for additional ministries: grief ministry, Baptisms, marriage preparation and witnessing of marriages. “My wife, Jackie, is very, very involved with me in my ministry as deacon. She’s been involved every step of the way,” he says. They’ve been married 44 years.
“I had some exposure to what’s involved in being an advocate when I was in diaconate formation. I attended diocesan tribunal classes to learn most of what I need to know,” says Deacon Pete. “I’ve helped 112 people complete the tribunal process and receive annulments. Fifty started the process and then dropped out along the way. Some cases have been denied, but not that many. We usually get notice from the tribunal if a case is weak so that we can get better witnesses or grounds.
“Gifts I bring to this ministry are my time and the patience to be with people who are having a difficult time dealing with their divorce. My organizational skills help people chase down all the pieces that are needed in each case.
Being an advocate has helped me in my marriage preparation work with engaged couples. I point to the file cabinet of 76 open annulment cases and tell the couples that they don’t want to get in that cabinet.
“My reward is helping people to heal through the process. Most often, unresolved hurt and anger can be healed. It’s also rewarding to help them return to being able to receive the sacraments again, especially those who divorced and remarried outside the Church without an annulment. It means a lot to me to offer Communion to someone who has been coming up in the Communion line for years to receive a blessing.”
There are frustrations, however, such as “people who think it’s not important or too much work,” says Deacon Pete. “Some people get turned off by rumors about the expense or how difficult the process is. These aren’t necessarily true. Go get answers for yourself by asking a deacon, priest or lay advocate. It can be so healing.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
Kevin, a 32-year-old lawyer, can’t believe the e-mail message he just received from “dear old Dad.” Kevin’s father has just informed him that his 34-year marriage to his mother has been annulled.
The Catholic Church agrees that their marriage never existed! A “declaration of nullity” is the term Dad used. Where does this leave Kevin and his siblings? Are they now illegitimate?
Kevin makes an angry phone call to Father George at St. Clare’s Parish to give him and the Church a piece of his mind. Father George has heard it before. He offers Kevin a few pastoral words of consolation: “Kevin, by no means are you any less of a person because of this Church decision about your parents’ marriage. You are the amazing gift of life that issued from their union. While their marriage was not a sacrament, it was a legal and binding civil contract.
“The term illegitimate can never refer to the likes of you. Your parents loved you then and love you now. In fact, you and your siblings are the best part of their woeful union. The Code of Canon Law agrees. It says, ‘The children conceived or born of a valid or putative [believed to exist now or to have existed at some time] marriage are legitimate’ (#1137). When your folks married, they believed the marriage was valid, and that presumption means you are a legitimate offspring in every sense of the word. That fact does not change, even though the Church now believes their union was not valid. Since you are a lawyer, Kevin, you can see that Church law does not affect, in any way, the civil laws related to marriage.
“This is not a matter of the mind; it is a matter of the heart. Your heart is wounded still by your parents’ divorce and by this new idea that they did not share a holy, sacramental marriage. That ache comes from your love for both of them.
“Your feelings are not controllable. They just are. You are filled with grief, anger, regret and many other emotions that tell me you are a loving son. You can’t go back and fix this. All you can do is continue to be there as a blessing to both of them. That is exactly how God and the Church see you: the great blessing of life that was the good news of their time together.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
(for praying alone or with others who have shared your journey)
Preparation: Place a lit candle, pieces of a broken clay pot, a piece of clay and a Bible on a prayer table.
Gentle Potter, create me anew in this next chapter of my life. I feel strangely bereaved. Our souls never bonded. Something was missing, and now I stand alone again—relieved, and yet empty and broken. Mold me into a new version of your beloved.
“I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord. ‘Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.’”
Listen to some reflective music as you hold the pieces of broken pottery. Imagine these shards are the broken parts of your life. Name them as you hold each piece: “abuse,” “loneliness,” “low self-esteem”….
Now take all the little pieces, lift them above your head and give them to the Potter.
Leave your seat and throw them into a wastepaper basket.
When you return, pick up the clay and shape it into a bowl.
While holding your little clay bowl, pray:
Divine Potter, I am your vessel. Fill my soul with living water so that I may be a gift to the thirsty. Fill my vessel with the oil of gladness so that laughter will cheer all my days. Fill my heart with the fire of your love so that I will always be warmed by your presence. Amen.