Do Easy Annulments Degrade the Value of Marriage? The Pope Says Yes.

Some people call it the “Catholic Divorce.”
It is often treated as a pro forma ritual that divorced people go through to “normalize” their relationship with the Church.

It requires a lot of paperwork, but it doesn’t cost much money. In fact, the Church will waive any fees if they would prevent people seeking it.

The “it” I’m talking about is annulment. Annulment is the somewhat lengthy process Catholics go through when they want the Church to “invalidate” their marriage.

As I understand it, the whole process is predicated on the fact that marriage is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ. This is the same Jesus who did away with divorce with the statement “What God has put together, let not man put asunder.”

Marriage is a life-long commitment between a man and a woman. It involves, among other things, a willingness to create life through the bodily union of these two people. Marriage is the nest, so to speak, in which young human beings are nurtured and shaped into responsible and productive adults who can then repeat the cycle with their own marriages and children.

As such, marriage is of premier importance, not just to the two people who marry, but to the whole of society. Without responsible, productive adults who can marry and raise their own children to be productive and responsible adults, our society and indeed, all of civilization will founder.

Marriage is not only essential to the good of society, it is also holy.

This holiness is where annulments come in. Since marriage is a sacrament instituted by Our Lord, it is not possible for people — including priests, bishops and popes — to undo it or, to phrase it as Jesus did, “put it asunder.” Our Lord told us we can not do this. Not, notice that we may not, we can not, for the simple reason that marriage is created by God.

What God creates in this deep sacramental fashion, no one can uncreate.

However, there can be instances in which no marriage actually took place. For instance, the infamous “shot gun weddings” in which one partner or the other was forced into the marriage would not be a sacramental marriage because at least one of the parties involved did not consent to it.

There can be many ways in which consent or understanding or an intention to be married in the full sacramental sense was not present at the time of the marriage vows. I am not a canon lawyer, so I would not and could not begin to discuss them in depth. This is the purview of the marriage tribunals of the Church who, on the request of the couple, review the marriage in question to determine if it is a sacramental marriage, or, as they put it, if it is “valid.”

The process is called an “annulment.” It has become something of a scandal in the Church because of the easy way these annulments are granted.

This is complicated by the many converts who come into the Church with matrimonial baggage. There are other people who should be granted an annulment but can’t get through the paperwork for some reason. If the former spouse and the marriage witnesses are violent, dangerous, out of pocket or simply uncooperative, they can exercise what amounts to veto power on the annulment process.

This happened to a friend of mine who was a refugee from a violent and troubled past before attempting to convert to the Catholic Church.

The whole process appears, at least on the outside, to be fraught with troubles. One of the many problems is that it can seem that these same tribunals who sometimes refuse a just annulment over an inability to fill out the paperwork also sometimes grant annulments almost like slot machines for those who can wend their way through the process successfully.

I don’t think for a minute that there is any deliberate desire to harm people or to cheapen marriage by any of this. I believe that the priests who do this work want to help people. I believe they grant annulments more easily out of compassion for the people involved. On the other hand, the intransigence over paper work in situations that are life-threatening confuses me. I honestly don’t understand it.

Pope Benedict has weighed in on all this, echoing the thoughts of Pope John Paul II on the same subject. They both came down on the side of greater discretion in granting annulments. One of the reasons Pope Benedict  gave was that the practice of granting annulments too easily created pessimism in the public mind about our ability to “engage in lifelong commitments to love another person.”

I agree with the Holy Father about this. I think our divorce culture has damaged us in deep and difficult to heal ways, including teaching many of our young people that marriage is a futile and hopeless enterprise.

As a woman who has been married to her only husband for 30 years, I can tell you that this is untrue. I can also say that marriage is a wonderful, sustaining and nurturing lifestyle that enhances your life in ways that you cannot imagine until you partake of them.

Unfortunately, we have damaged many of our young people so badly with our serial marriages and serial monogamies that they don’t value stable relationships, and don’t know how to form them even if they want to.

We have a lot of things to answer for from our excesses and self-indulgences, and this destruction of the ability to marry for life and raise children who will become stable, productive adults in our young people is one of the most serious.

A CNS article describing Pope Benedict’s recent statement about too-easy annulment says in part:

Pope cautions tribunals against granting annulments too easily

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Granting marriage annulments too easily and without real cause plays into a modern form of pessimism that basically says human beings are not able to make lifelong commitments to loving another person, Pope Benedict XVI said.

“We run the risk of falling into an anthropological pessimism which, in the light of today’s cultural situation, considers it almost impossible to marry,” the pope said in a speech Jan. 29 to members of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota.

The tribunal mainly deals with appeals filed in marriage annulment cases.

Pope Benedict said there is still a need to deal with a problem Pope John Paul II pointed out in a 1987 speech to the Roman Rota, that of saving the church community from “the scandal of seeing the value of Christian marriage destroyed in practice by the exaggerated and almost automatic multiplication of declarations of nullity.”(Read more here.)

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  • James

    I see the bigger problem here as too many people are entering into marriage without proper discernment.

    I am not at all surprised that the annulment rate is so high. I’ve seen many marriages, Catholic and not, that were so clearly doomed to failure from the start that people joked about having a “divorce pool” at the wedding to see how long the marriage would last.

    The real scandal isn’t at the tribunal, it’s long before that. I think some well-meaning Priests are performing invalid marriages because they don’t want to run the couple away from Church. When the marriage fails, the tribunal has an obligation to clean up the mess. Blaming the tribunals for excessive annulments is shooting the messenger.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      James, I just got a letter from a priest friend of mine, making similar points. I’m going to write another post tomorrow, talking about what he says. If you have any ideas for that, send them to me by pm.

      • renee

        i have 6years of terrible thoughts,memories,knowledge on these “tribunals” or at least the one i am dealing with,the priest (believe me today they should hang their heads carrying the title) belittle & degrade women,run a tape recorder under their sleve as he interviews you,this is a fact! annulments depend on how much money your giving them.i cannot believe this is going on in our catholic system.i was raised roman catholic,catholic school,piano lessons,scrubbed the convent & rectory floors,my parents took the nuns food shopping ect…to find out after almost 20 years & 6 children ,all catholic my ex husband could petition grounds for annulment was so traumatizing to my children & myself. do not tell me this does not have any affect on my tribunal has put us thru hell & still doing it! i even petitioned the roman rota & received an affirmative that my marriage was NOT annuled his grounds for an annulment were confirmed NULL & VOID.i have the letter in front of me.these “priest” went against rome & started up their games again on as of today i got a letter that my ex won i will not give up! the even cc’d it to my advocate i never had! we are free to marry in the catholic church, doesnt matter to him he already got married while this was going on & the “priest” gave him permission to do so.i dont see any point to this procedure not when your 60yrs old.what did it accomplish? just messed up my childrens heads. no wonder people are pulling away from the catholic church.these priest think they are better then God! This is God’s house he makes the rules! so this piece of paper is just that!

    • Dave

      Kids should listen to their parents more. While this obviously isn’t an iron-clad rule, I know of cases where the parents were earnestly trying to talk their children out of it even right up to the start of the wedding, but “what do the old fuddy-duddy’s know, we’re in love!” Then the marriage predictably turns into a train-wreck, and when it involves children, it can truly wreck lives.

      If the priests are knowingly marrying people who aren’t ready to be married, obviously that’s another problem. I imagine it is difficult for the priests, because maybe 1/2 the couples who come to them for marriage are not mature enough to enter into marriage, and if they don’t marry them, someone else will. It’s a tough situation all the way around.

    • Linda

      Twenty years ago, I married wrong. It was the worst 2 1/2 years of my life and I am completely to blame for wanting so much for him to be “Mr. Right.” I thought that I would be able to make anything work even if all the signs indicated that the marriage was a bad idea. Our priest told us we could skip pre-cana and I was glad because I was afraid of the truth.
      I made a huge mistake by marrying that person and I am eternally grateful for the healing annulment process through which the Church and the tribunal guided me.
      God forgives murderers; I’m quite certain he forgives me, though many of my peers may want to judge me harshly.
      I have since married again and we have a wonderful marriage.
      Catholics make mistakes and through the sacrament of reconciliation, we are forgiven.
      It’s incredible and , again, I am grateful.

  • Bill S

    I don’t think priests can determine who is ready for marriage and who is not. That is quite a responsibility.

    My cousin’s wife obtained an annulment from her prior marriage only to be told that she still could not receive the sacraments because my cousin had not done the same. The priest then said to my cousin “don’t even think about it” (as far as getting an annulment) since my cousin does not attend Church. So his wife is no better off than she was before. The funny part is that they are great people, have a great marriage and live a perfectly moral life as far as I know. My cousin found his first wife cheating on him and divorced her. I don’t know his wife’s history but it didn’t keep her from getting an annulment.

    • Dave

      The priest in that situation sounds like he is being grossly unjust. Whether or not your cousin attends church, your cousin’s wife’s spiritual welfare is being affected by the situation. Unless there is something I’m missing, I’d talk to a different priest.

      • Bill S

        I think she has just resigned herself to not belonging to the Church any more. I only had one conversation with her about religion and at that time (before her annulment) her attitude was that religion didn’t matter and the only important thing was living a good life. However, she did go through the whole annulment process so it must have meant something to her. I’m sure that the priest’s attitude was the last straw for her and that she no longer feels the need for religion. That’s fine with her husband and with me as well.

  • FW Ken

    An historian friends of mine says that in the past marriages were presumed valid. At some point, the presumption shifted toward invalidity, so that any defect was assumed determinative of nullity. That explains a lot about the current situation I think.

  • Bill S

    “God forgives murderers; I’m quite certain he forgives me, though many of my peers may want to judge me harshly.”

    Wow. There really isn’t even anything to forgive. I don’t see how anyone would be in a position to judge you harshly.

    If I were to believe in a God, which I don’t, it would be the intelligence that created the universe from nothing. The laws and constants of nature and the programming of DNA in every living being seems to indicate the existence of some sort of intelligence in the universe.

    Whoever or whatever God is, I doubt very much that he/she/it holds your mistakes against you. I certainly feel for you and I am glad that you are now in a good marriage. Please go easy on yourself.

  • Rev. Katherine Marple

    My Aunt had to write to the Vatican to have her first marriage annuled, she explained that since she was not married in Catholic church – even though she had children – that it was not ‘recognized’ by the Church (mid 70′s). She got her annulment, married a man she dated for YEARS, planned a big wedding and they were divorced 2 short years later. No, marriage is not taken seriously enough to fix what’s wrong before the magic wand of divorce is waved liberally.

  • pagansister

    What happens to the children of a marriage that has been deemed “invalid” and has been annulled? Were they born “in wedlock” to use an old fashioned term?

  • Peg

    My understanding is the legality of marriage is separate from its sacramental validity. An annulment only refers to the sacramental, legally a divorce must still be obtained, therefore children are still “legitimate”.

  • Bill S

    My post was deleted because of an irreligious comment so I will do it again sans the comment. A member of my men’s group was going through a divorce and becoming religious at the same time. He had married his wife in a civil ceremony in their driveway. He was told by his confessor that, in the eyes of the Church, he was never married and could therefore get married to another woman (provided, of course, that she is Catholic) without an annulment. A cute little Catholic quirk.

  • carole

    My marriage of 29 years was annuled. My X had mental problems which after many years caused me heath problems and caused me to fear for my life. Yet he got the annulment!!!!!! The Catholic Church needs to look at itself before judging others. People do lie to get what they want even in the Catholic Church. And what about the children, if the marriage isn’t valid how can the children be. Its all very interesting