Annulment Reform: “Amnesty” or Necessary Mercy? UPDATED

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During the Great Big Illegal Immigration Brouhaha of 2006—a drama of conservative hyperventilation and La Raza flag-waving parades that has since been repeated each May preceding a mid-term election—about two thousand of my blog readers left, never to return.

They left because I had argued for the reform of a bogged-down and inefficient National Immigration Service, and the creation of a reasonable path to citizenship for peaceful people who had often been living in America for years—sometimes decades—working, and building lives and families and sometimes our homes and churches, too.

Readers too reasonable to simply lob a “shamnesty” brick through my window and run away did challenge me on the issue of fairness. Grandfathering-in schemes, they suggested, insulted those immigrants who had come into the country “the right way,” jumping through all the (admittedly arduous) legal hoops.

Given yesterday’s headlines proclaiming the Vatican’s intention to explore pastoral means by which divorced and remarried Catholics should be ministered to–and whether that includes the reception of the Holy Eucharist–we can expect to hear similar questions of fairness arise. Without a doubt, some will call any simplification of the annulment process a kind of “Catholic amnesty”, rendering annulments too easy to obtain, too lenient, too easily misunderstood as a watering down of our teachings on marriage and divorce.

These concerns are valid to a point; compassionate instincts aside, no serious Catholic should want (or expect) to see an erosion of our teachings, particularly as regards a sacrament instituted by Christ and definitively pronounced in scripture. At the same time, however, our brothers and sisters–standing in need of healing, community and the unique spiritual nourishment that may only be found within the Holy Eucharist–remain outside our doors, either confused about what it takes to come through them, or convinced that they will be hounded out as unwelcome.

The confusion and uncertainly arises partly from poor instruction; despite forty years of Pre-Cana classes, many priests and pastoral assistants (and even bloggers) know Catholics who think their divorce has automatically excommunicated them—that even without remarriage they are unwelcome in the communion line or the pew.

The purpose and value of annulment is also misunderstood. Meant to determine whether issues of honesty, maturity, or character defect could have intruded upon the sacramental rite, thus rendering it void, an annulment can also be a grace-filled vehicle for self-examination and healing; some credit the process with helping them identify unhealthy relationship patterns before they are repeated.

I have never met anyone who has regretted seeking an annulment, but many divorced-and-remarried Catholics nevertheless believe they are difficult to obtain, costly, time-consuming, and personally intrusive. For some, the idea of having to re-engage with their former spouse is so painfully repellent that it seems a cruelty inconsistent with the mercies of Christ, unendurable, even for the consolation of Communion.

That last indicates a deficient understanding of the Eucharist. Coupled, perhaps, with an underwhelming experience of the mass and a poorly formed sense of Christ’s presence amid our sufferings, it all adds up to a failure of instruction and catechesis for which the Institutional Church must accept a deal of blame. If the sheep are unable to recognize the reality of the Good Shepherd made Present before them, it is up to those charged with their care and feeding to rescue them from their wanderings and correct their course, but with gentleness, acknowledging how their own negligence contributed to the scattering.

Our teachings are founded upon the words of Christ Jesus and they’re hewn through two thousand years of nuanced, lively, and inspired reasoning that has always managed to balance justice with mercy. And yet, when Catholic marriages began to fall to the sexual revolution, the Church—like the sloth-slow, unresponsive NIS—seemed to seize up; it did little to explore more fluently pastoral ways to communicate its wisdom, and even less to tell divorced Catholics that they still mattered, and still belonged.

The Church must always, first and foremost, reflect the teaching of Christ, but as a cleric who assists on a diocesan tribunal wrote to me recently, “virtually all the cases I’ve encountered come down to one problem: one or both of the parties was young and stupid and didn’t fully appreciate what they were getting into when they stumbled into their previous marriage.”

Concerns that immaturity (and its effect on one’s capacity to consent) may become a convenient catch-all, by which any marriage may be set aside, are not unreasonable. Surely, of the 28% of Catholic marriages ending in civil divorce, a fair number are sacramentally licit and lacking real grounds for annulment, full stop.

It is nevertheless a fact that mature reason appears to be at a premium in the West, where consumerism, media enticement and crumbling family structures have failed to model healthy relationships thus contributing to a confused understanding of what love, sacrifice and commitment entail. Faced with a flock deeply wounded before attaining their maturity–before fully getting their legs under them, so to speak–our shepherds should be practical about whether the injuries of reckless youth and insufficient catechesis must leave so many forever crippled, or whether healing might yet be possible.

An attempt to streamline the annulment process is not an idea that will please everyone. Those who—like our newly-pledged immigrant citizens—have jumped through the hoops and endured the long and difficult bureaucratic processes may justifiably wonder about fairness. They may feel like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, and they will need to be reminded–with great love–that “everything we have is yours” but that their brothers and sisters are on the horizon, seeking to come home.

The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. — Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 47

When I think of the Catholic Church, I think of the crucifix, and of the Body of Christ as the centering balance between the horizontal bar of justice on the right, and mercy on the left. There is mercy for the sinner; mercy for the truly penitent. Whether the sin is abortion or theft or fornication or even idolatry, a sincere confession and absolution restores the sinner to the healing sacrament of Holy Communion.

Jesus said “What God has joined together, no human being must separate,” (Mark 10:9) and those words alone absolutely justify, nay demand, an examination of sacramentality before an annulment and remarriage—a simple confession will not meet the case.

Better heads than mine can thrash it out, but perhaps a shorter and less arduous annulment process–one combining adult catechetical classes, a solemn, specific penitential rite (where needed) and a blessing to close the issue—could finally align justice to mercy on behalf of the brothers and sisters who, season after season, we are missing.

Deacon Greg Kandra,
who works on his Diocesan annulment tribunal has a few thoughts, as well.

And a giddily alliterative Msgr. Charles Pope lists the Four Factors that Fuel the Crisis in Marriage and Family.

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  • Katherine Schultz

    Thank you for this thoughtful article–I have a dear friend who feels she is still not in full communion with the Church because her first marriage was not annulled. How can the poor catechesis ever be undone for our age group–maybe this Pope will lead the way to bringing back so many of my peers and, Catholics in general, to the Church.

  • MeanLizzie

    If she was married in the church, civilly divorced and then remarried elsewhere, very likely she is correct about not being in communion with the church. That’s the whole point of pursuing an annulment: one determines the sacramentality of the first marriage in order to find if there are, or are not, grounds for annulment.

  • Kmy

    With all due respect, my ex-wife, (or whatever I should call her since after getting her annulment we were never technically married, I guess), after taking advantage of the no-fault divorce laws, she simply paid some money, wrote some misleading comments, and got a couple of family members to do the same, and magically had an annulment in a few months from our local Tribunal. FYI her parents also got an annulment after 6 kids and being supposedly married for 35 years. The process is simply a joke, speaking from the perspective of someone who wanted to work to save my supposed marriage, only to be told by my Church that their never was one. And I am guessing about 90%+ of annulment petitions result in a finding of nullity. So all this claptrap about ministering to divorced and remarried Catholics is a lot of hot air. These people are apparently just too lazy to initiate the annulment process, because if they did, based upon my experience, they would virtually be guaranteed to get an annulment and then would have no moral worries. Personally, i have been a celibate single since the annulment, since in my mind and heart my marriage was validly entered into and consummated so I cannot really justify deciding otherwise at this point. We are a bunch of weak, undisciplined, selfish people and the Church annulment process is now catering to that reality, basically rubber stamping no-fault divorces, which is shameful, in my opinion.

  • perpper

    May God bless you, sir.

  • Stephen

    If the process for getting an annulment is biased toward rigidity, then some civilly divorced people who were not in a sacramentally valid marriage will needlessly exclude themselves from the Eucharist, which is a Very Bad Thing.

    If the process for getting an annulment is biased toward ease, then some civilly divorced people who were in a sacramentally valid marriage will set aside that valid marriage, which is a Very Bad Thing.

    In a world of imperfect information, and under the limits of time and space, we will inevitably tolerate one or the other Very Bad Thing. I think reasonable people can differ on whether the annulment process should be tighter, looser, or left how it is now. But that reasonable disagreement must be informed by the reality that however the process functions there will examples of bad outcomes.

  • Nancy

    You state, “I have never met anyone who has regretted seeking an annulment” – unfortunately I have – and way too often. As a family therapist, I heard all kinds of stories, from the woman whose ex-husband nastily refused to co-operate, leaving irate and destructive messages on her voicemail as well as to others, reopening scars from an abusive marriage; to pastors who stuck papers in the drawer and never submitted them; to horror stories involving priests in various tribunals. In many cases, this is a very difficult situation because it deals with human beings, often faulty. Often the sacramental and compassionate piece gets foreshadowed by priests in the tribunal, pastors and punitive ex-spouses.

  • Victor

    Dear Anchoress,

    Funny that you should be writing about marriage and annulment cause last night I had a dream about me walking and talking with my first younger wife and at the end she hurt me so much that I pushed her into a deep ditch. Long story short, I was happy when I woke up and saw my wife still sleeping and she looked just as beautiful to me as when we first got married forty three years ago in a Holy Angel church.

    I better stop before I get off topic again! :)
    God Bless Peace

  • Missionary_mom

    Sorry, Kmy, for your pain, but, you are mistaken. I worked for years for the Church and I know that annulments are not a rubber stamping process. Many petitioners are denied. I cannot speak for all diocese world-wide. No one should make broad generalities.
    I do agree that some want something for nothing or are too lazy to go through the process. I have those within my own family.
    I will pray you find peace.

  • Bill

    I have a friend going through exactly this situation, separating from a wife who got bored with the marriage, had an affair, and now wants a divorce and an annulment. My friend entered the marriage well-informed and with total earnestness, and yet it looks like it wouldn’t be that hard for his now-wife to get a piece of paper telling my friend that the sacramental marriage he had been devoting his life to means nothing and never happened in the eyes of the Church.

    The idea that this can be done in the name of “compassion” is sickening to me.

  • MeanLizzie

    I have a friend who also went into his marriage prepared and informed. His wife, a few years later, told him, “I never loved you.” Tribunal found that there was no sacrament…but it took almost three years for that. Yes, I think it is compassionate to not put people through three years of pain to get there.

  • John Placette

    Having just completed the process to be certified as a case sponsor for my diocese, I can attest to the fact that the review of the validity of a marriage is a very serious matter.
    What one might anticipate in the future is a streamlining of the procedural process in some manner, but I would doubt the “watering down” of any canonical statutes.

    The current process is really not all that complicated, but one must remember that all elements of the marriage, including the intent and proper formation of intent of both parties are reviewed.
    The Church tries to balance the biblically expressed guidance of Christ, with the pastoral care of human souls in an all too imperfect world. Not an easy job.
    May God bless and guide us all.
    John Placette, Dcn.
    Archdiocese of Galveston/Houston

  • Chris-2-4

    I think that whenever a request for annulment is investigated the results should be sent back to the priest who performed the marriage and “marriage preparation” and be counted against that priests year end bonus! :)

  • Augustine

    As I stated previously, I really think that the Church should get involved in the matter of the validity of the marriage sacrament before the divorce. She might get some splatter and get soiled by the mess created by her children, but what kind of mother wouldn’t?

    Perhaps many divorced couples dread the thought of going through a painful divorce, which the Church didn’t want to have anything with, and then being subject to the judgment of the Church. She does come across as a cold enforcer of rules, not as a source of healing.

    A previous pastor of ours always advised those in his flock who had filed for divorce to seek the annulment weeks, not years after the divorce. I think that he understood that there might be the will to go through with the annulment petition then and that it would be better than to try to remedy a sinful situation later.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    One factor usually ignored in looking at diocesan annulment statistics is the fact that poor cases for annulment are not supposed to be forwarded to the diocesan tribunal (at least in our archdiocese).. Thus it is not surprising that 90% of annulment requests are granted at the archdiocesan level–they usually receive nothing but “good” cases.
    Another factor we should be wary of is basing our marriage practices on “failed marriages.”
    A third factor to recall is how past Church policies and procedures had made it very hard for people who deserved an annulment to get one from the bureaucratic maze. This makes today’s situation look “loose.”

  • Nan

    There are way too many interpretations; I know someone who is divorced but didn’t pursue annulment. Meanwhile, he’s living with a widow, and the priest thinks it’s fine for the widow to receive communion, but not the guy she’s shacked up with due to lack of annulment. Because apparently living together is okay.

  • Almario Javier

    Also, there is the problem from at least the 70s of priests ignoring the warning signs that the proposed match might not be valid, but going ahead wuth the ceremony out of an inordinate fear of not being compassionate.

  • Jan

    I’ve just read the 15 current comments and some of them don’t set right.

    Randomly: a “local” tribunal can’t grant an annulment. The purpose of the diocesan tribunal is to receive the case and collect information. There is, among others, a “defender of the bond” whose job is to look for any evidence that the marriage is sacramental. After the local tribunal makes a decision, (and while I think they can declare a bond valid, I don’t know that they are the definitive voice) the case is then forwarded to a regional tribunal where the ultimate decision is made.

    Another thing is that the former spouses are NOT put in contact with each other, and don’t NEED to be in contact with each other. Indeed, if the petitioner doesn’t know the where-abouts of the former spouse, that will not necessarily harm your case. If someone is having issues with abusive ex’s, that’s a job for the local police. If the non-petitioning ex chooses not to cooperate with the tribunal, that is their problem, not the petitioners. If you are an ex who doesn’t wish the marriage to be declared null, then fight it! You may lose, but you tried.

    Yes, it can take time. When you fill out your papers, you are asked to submit names of witnesses who will be helpful in describing your relationship BEFORE the marriage took place. What happens after the ceremony is less important, to a degree, than the state of mind of both parties before the marriage took place. In my experience, the average is about a year for completion.

    Yes, it can cost you some money! But what doesn’t? Why do some people just always assume that because an issue is church-related, it should be free? There are real people involved trying to make sense of your mess of a marriage/life. There are expenses involved. Frankly, its worth every penny. People are much less niggardly about buying movie tickets or cars or eating out than trying to save their own souls.

  • Kmy

    Yes, the local diocesan Tribunal did issue the declaration of nullity. Otherwise most of what you wrote is accurate based upon my experience. The finding of nullity by the diocese was sent to the adjacent Archdiocese for review, but otherwise, the entire process of interviewing, and document gathering, and review was done at the local diocesan level. As I recall, the Defender of the Bond stated, and I paraphrase, that “there was nothing to defend in this case.” To me that does not sound like the Tribunal was operating from the assumption that the marriage was valid, and that the burden is to prove otherwise. In my experience it seemed like the burden was to prove that there was a marriage, and that the finding that there was no marriage was derived from a couple of documents and a couple of interviews, and I am very skeptical that based upon that alone, any Tribunal can definitely assert that at the time of vows, one or both of us was not able to make that commitment. That was the point of my original post, that if any annulment reform is needed, it is to make the process truly operate under the assumption that the marriage is valid, not the other way around. If you are willing to spend a little money, and be a little patient, you can probably get your annulment; and no you do not have to have “painful” interactions with your ex-spouse in the process, My ex-spouse filed for annulment and I had the option to either cooperate or not, which I did. Even so, I did not have to interact with her even once during the process.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    We must be careful about condemning people “living together.” Some do so as “brother and sister” in situations involving disability or illness or age.

  • Y. A. Warren

    The RCC would not have so many problems of annulment if they got out of the political arena of creating civil partnerships of marriage before the couple is spiritually ready for their commitments to the spiritual sacrament of two becoming one. The civil and spiritual commitments serve two different purposes and should never have been conjoined.

    Jesus never asked people what they believed before inviting them to “communion” of loaves and fishes or any other food feeding their physical selves. It is a travesty of the teachings of Jesus as the Christ to withhold The Eucharist from any who approach the sacred supper.

    Jesus was a joyful Jew for 33 years. It diminishes his earthly mission to focus so much on only his suffering in his last three days.

    I, and my children, are victims of the church’s annulment process, which accepts bogus explanations for divorce from anyone wanting to remarry in the church. I was, indeed, married with sacred intentions by a priest who was guilty of child molestation, to a man who thought of me as a whore to promote his egotistical place in the society of his peers.

    I am the one not welcome at the alter because I also used conception control while married to this man. He is now a saint, while I remain, in the eyes of the church a sad victim or a sinner. Damn the RCC!

  • Y. A. Warren

    You, Jan, obviously haven’t been put through the painful process of both the easy marriage and annulment processes by which the church earns money.

  • Jan


  • Nan

    If they were living together as brother and sister I would expect the man to be allowed to receive.

  • Thomas R

    I think you are allowed to challenge an annulment as I recall a Kennedy wife doing so and getting it overturned. (Excommunications have been overturned too. St. Mary Mackillop was invalidly excommunicated over some internal factional thing or other, but it was undone in 1872) If you do/did-that, and it still goes “annulment”, I think in principle you’re likely supposed to assent even if grudgingly.

  • Dave

    My dear friend’s marriage ended in divorce; unfortunately, his Diocesan tribunal lost the paperwork for an annulment, so is his second marriage of 21 years valid, or is he a bigamist?

    Some compassion.

  • Augustine

    FWIW, my wife has and she found healing during and after the annulment process. She’s now at peace with her previous marriage and with herself.

  • Augustine

    What happens is that once the diocesan tribunal declares the marriage annulled, it goes automatically to a higher tribunal for appeal, where the process is reviewed in a manner akin to a grand jury in secular courts, so the parties are typically not called again, unless the lower tribunal didn’t do a good job, which seldom happens, or either party gets directly involved.

  • Augustine

    We are all sinners. Yet, you are most welcome to the Eucharistic altar if you have repented from your past sins. I myself have committed worse sins which I regret and am humbled to be received at His table, where you too may be received.

  • PW

    Heh, sounds a lot like what my husband did to me. Reason for getting his annulment — and thereby turning our two children into “bastards”, whom he offered to give up at the civil divorce hearings quite quickly — so he could have a guilt free wedding to the woman he had been cheating on me with.
    And the Church allowed it…because of all the reasons stated…the poor dear was too immature you see to have married in the first place. They didn’t allow him to marry within the Church (so at least they got that one right) and some priests who knew the case proceeded to refuse him the Eucharist — but for me and the kids it was a huge slap in the face.

    I wish you peace brother; for myself I married again — 12 very long, hard years down the road (Mr. Annulment to stay good with the . It causes me a lot of sadness that a good amount of my trust and simple kindness are no longer there for my husband, but they are not…and I will never go back to the Church

  • PW

    How about the compassion for those of us who were perfectly willing to pay the price in regards to what a civil divorce meant, only to be informed a year down the road that our now ex-spouse was seeking an annulment for the their own solace, and to have that granted?
    I entered into that marriage with an honest heart; the priest who performed it did so with an honest heart as well — and all of that turned on its ear by an ex-spouse who wanted to remain a “good Catholic” and a Church that decided he was deserving of compassion.
    I will also note that the only ones who spoke out about the cheating, and the child neglect (my then husband saw fit to leave our children at home alone in order to arrange his trysts while I was at work — the back story is important here), that transpired in that marriage were my parish priest — the one who married us — which obviously the tribunal saw fit to overlook.

    The Church informs much of my own thought, and still commands some loyalty from me (as I sense its rightness), but I was willing to make the sacrifice of never receiving the Eucharist again as the price to be paid for a divorce…and yes, I do have a bone to pick with the Church for allowing so much compassion for my ex-husband’s convenience.
    They at least owe my children some sort of reckoning.

  • Dave

    You chose…poorly.

  • Augustine

    It usually doesn’t happen, for the appearance is that of a cohabiting couple and their receiving the Eucharist could lead to scandal.

    In my previous parish there was a couple living in continence, who I happened to be close to, and our pastor withheld Holy Communion from the couple to avoid scandal, though, in this case, they were already waiting for a decision by the diocesan tribunal.

  • Augustine

    I’m sorry about your ordeal, but your children are in no way bastards, certainly not to you and much less to the Church. Only civil courts consider children illegitimate, not the Church, to whom all children are legitimate and worthy of becoming children of God through baptism.

  • Augustine

    From what you said here, the one deserving compassion by the Church was you, who, as a bona fide bride, shouldn’t be in an invalid marriage.

  • Sharon

    But PW, why can you not receive the Eucharist? Have you gotten remarried? Since your marriage was annulled, you could remarry and still receive the Eucharist. Are you of the understanding that you can’t receive because you are divorced? That is not true – unless you have some other circumstance that makes you unworthy, divorce itself will not keep you from the Eucharist. I am divorced and I still receive Communion.

  • Sharon

    I fully agree that the civil and sacramental ceremonies should be separate. I think it could help people see that the demands and effects of each ceremony are different. It would also help people to see why the annulment process exists. The state can end a civil marriage, but has no role to play in regard to a sacramental marriage. That is why the Tribunal exists.

    I can understand your anger, YA. I am divorced and have no intention of going through the annulment process. A big reason for me is that is says to my children, “God hates divorce, but in your parents’ case, He’ll make an exception.” Children hate divorce and suffer terribly because of it. I would think it would be very hard for a child to see the Church give its stamp of approval to the parents’ divorce. Given my negative feelings toward annulments, I am not looking to remarry, either. I am fully aware that divorce does not exclude me from the Sacraments, but that remarriage without an annulment definitely would do so. If my ex-husband decided some day that he wanted to marry someone who wanted a Church wedding and chose to start the annulment process, I would have to deal with it then, but that is highly unlikely. He already remarried, and is in the process of divorcing, a woman whose first of three weddings was in a Catholic Church. I don’t worry too much about him caring enough to seek an annulment, and he’s not interested in the kind of women who would care about it, either.

    But I can’t help wondering, YA. You were married to a man who thought of you as a whore, and yet you address your anger toward the Church? If the man you married is that bad, then I would be glad the Church didn’t consider him capable of the sacrament of marriage. I know there must be a lot of suffering for you in all of this, but I hope you can get free of the anger. It’s not worth it. And I doubt the Church thinks as highly of your ex-husband as you think they do. Even if he is active in his parish now, people don’t really know the details of his life, so they don’t judge him on the things they don’t know.