What is a Marriage Annulment and Should it be Easier?

John Allen writes in the Boston Globe here suggesting that Pope Francis and the cardinals, when facing the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive communion, might come up with a compromise. Here’s the problem:

It’s hard to overstate how important the issue is at the retail level. A 2007 study found that in the United States, nearly 10 percent of Catholics are divorced and remarried 10 years after their first marriage, a figure that rises to 18 percent after 20 years.

Finding a way to let those folks receive the sacraments has been kicked around for decades, and Francis seemed to open the door to relaxation of the rules during remarks in July. Senior cardinals have differed, with the coordinator of the G8 panel saying change is possible but both the Vatican’s doctrinal czar and O’Malley signaling it’s probably not.

German Cardinal-to-be Gerhard Müller and O’Malley have argued that given Christ’s teaching on marriage – “what God has joined, let no one separate” – somebody who remarries without an annulment is at odds with the faith, and therefore can’t receive the sacraments.

Sometimes mocked as “Catholic divorce,” an annulment is a declaration by a church court that a marriage never existed in the first place because one of the conditions for validity wasn’t satisfied, such as free consent by both parties.

Facing that tension, a compromise may be coming into focus: No change on the sacraments ban, but an easier and broader process for granting annulments.

Should we make annulments easier? The point is for people to understand what an annulment is.  The critics of the process say it is just a “Catholic divorce”. Those who say this clearly do not understand either the theory or the process.

First of all, the church does not grant an annulment or annul a marriage. Instead it grant a “decree of nullity” this is not just a semantic quibble. It indicates what is really happening. When an application for a decree of nullity goes to a Diocesan Tribunal the tribunal does not annul an existing marriage. They examine a marriage to see whether it was ever valid in the first place or not. If the tribunal decides that the marriage was not valid, then they grant a decree of nullity recognizing that fact.

What is required for a marriage to be valid in the Catholic Church? If a person is a Catholic, he or she needs to marry a spouse of the opposite sex who is Catholic and free to marry. That means the spouse cannot be a close relative or be already married. The Catholic also needs to be married in a Catholic Church according to the Catholic marriage rite by a Catholic priest or deacon. If a Catholic wants to marry a non-Catholic or be married somewhere other than a Catholic Church by someone other than a Catholic priest using a nonCatholic rite they will need permission from their bishop. If any of these criteria are missing from a Catholic marriage the marriage could be declared null.

In addition to this the spouses must also understand what Catholic marriage is and enter into the marriage with free and full consent. This is where things get complicated and the tribunals examine things more closely. What exactly does it mean to “understand what Catholic marriage is” and what exactly is “free and full consent”? Too many couples over the last fifty years have entered into marriage not knowing what a Catholic marriage truly entails or they have been encumbered with all sorts of prejudices, misunderstandings, psychological or social factors which have inhibited their full and free consent.

Should we start to recognize more of these factors and so make the process of obtaining a decree of nullity easier? There’s a good case to be made for this. As I began to ponder the number of broken marriages and the high number of decrees of nullity I asked a fellow priest and his reply was simple, “There are more decrees of nullity than ever before because there are more invalid marriages than ever before.”

We are reeling with the impact of huge social changes. The invention and widespread acceptance of artificial contraception has fueled a sexual revolution. Cohabitation and fornication are commonplace. Added to this is widespread poor catechesis on marriage. The breakdown of the extended family has meant that examples and teachings on Catholic marriage are missing. Support for marriage and an understanding of Catholic marriage that came from the extended family has vanished. Increased mobility and the ease of getting married quickly has eroded a more stable and secure understanding of marriage. Changing sexual roles in society has undermined and eroded a Catholic understanding of marriage and family life. All these factors and more mean that more invalid, shaky marriages are being entered into, and if this is so, then it follows that there will be a greater call for decrees of nullity.

Considering the principle of subsidiarity, it is arguable that marriage tribunals could be delegated down from the Diocesan level–leaving the Diocesan Tribunal for the first stage of appeals and for the more complicated cases. The Tribunals could delegate the simpler cases to a board of experts at the deanery level expediting the process and making it cheaper and more accessible.

Safeguards would need to be put in place so that the local tribunals are not simply rubber stamping applications. Genuine care would still need to be taken over every application, but firstly recognizing that more invalid marriages are taking place will help people realize that as a consequence, more decrees of nullity need to be issued.

HOWEVER, as soon as I say this I am aware of the lax discipline that already exists. When I hear of a man who is a serial adulterer apply for a nullity and receive one–to go on and marry one of the women who was responsible for the breakdown of his marriage–and I hear that his parish priest has waved away the problem with a toss of his pastoral hand it gives me pause.

Therefore while it may be right to make the process of applying for a decree of nullity easier, the application must still be examined carefully and prayerfully lest in our attempt to be more pastorally sensitive we perpetrate injustice to the victims of divorce and validate the promiscuity and adultery which is destroying the precious and delicate sacrament of marriage.