A Rome conference in late April hinted that the Vatican may be moving towards a more restrictive posture on annulments, the procedure in church law for declaring a marriage null and void, which some critics refer to as “Catholic divorce.”
If so, the fallout could have special significance for the United States, home to just 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population but accounting for roughly two-thirds of the 60,000 annulments issued by church courts each year.
The April 26-27 Rome conference focused on canon 1095 of the Code of Canon Law, which allows a marriage to be declared null if one of the parties lacked the ability to consent because of “causes of a psychic nature.” Of the 15 to 20 possible grounds for an annulment in church law, more are granted on the basis of canon 1095 than all others combined, roughly two-thirds of the total.
As a result, some wags have dubbed canon 1095 the “loose canon.”
Over the centuries, church courts typically interpreted the capacity to consent fairly narrowly – as long as someone was of age, not coerced and not clearly insane, they were presumed to be capable. Yet as divorce has become more common, there’s often a powerful pastoral drive to find grounds for an annulment, given that a Catholic whose marriage breaks up can’t get remarried in the church without one, and if they remarry under civil law, they’re excluded from the sacraments.
Some critics argue that the pastoral desire to help people in difficulty has led to an overly elastic interpretation of canon 1095.
Sheila Rauch Kennedy, who successfully fought to overturn an annulment granted to her husband, then-U.S. Congressman Joseph Kennedy, in 1997, has written that church courts in America have adopted such an expansive reading of canon 1095 that it can now cover “almost anything … from personality traits such as self-centeredness, moodiness or being eager to please, to unproven ‘disorders’.”
If the conference sponsored by Rome’s Opus Dei-run University of the Holy Cross is any indication, that loose canon may be about to become a little tighter.
Polish Bishop Antoni Stankiewicz, dean of the Roman Rota, the Vatican court that handles most marriage cases, told the conference that interpretation of canon 1095 must avoid an “anthropological pessimism” that would hold that “it’s almost impossible to get married, in view of the current cultural situation.”
“We must reaffirm the innate human capacity to marry,” Stankiewicz told the group.
The session during which Stankiewicz spoke was presided over by American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s equivalent of the Supreme Court.
Stankiewicz argued that Christian doctrine insists upon a “natural disposition to marriage” because the “gift of Christ is not exhausted in the celebration of the wedding. It extends to all of married life, supporting the spiritual growth of the spouses in the necessary virtues, duties and commitments of marriage.”
His conclusion was that church courts should not be quick to presume an inability to give consent.