Why Yes, I Do Think Reforms of Annulment Process Are Needed – UPDATED

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
The thing I appreciate about hate mail is that, while it usually comes my way because someone on the internet is holding me up as an example of Bad Catholicism (with all of the attendant inaccuracies one finds when someone is making a sacrifice to the godling of snotty superiority), the hate mailer usually references something I’d written-and-forgotten, and usually just when I need to revisit the topic.

So, then, the hate mail becomes a kind of gift. The Holy Spirit, after all, moves in mysterious and confounding ways.

Here is where the remembrance of a forgotten piece of mine is appreciated, though. A discussion among friends touched on the issue of a young woman who had been married less than a year before needing an order of protection against her mentally and physically abusive husband. Several years post-divorce (and after lots of therapy) she is seeking an annulment but is so fearful for her physical safety, and of reigniting the interest and fury of her ex-husband, that — if his involvement is mandatory — she may not have it in her to complete the process.

One can judge it and say, “if she’s really a Christian and depends on the Lord, she will face all things for His sake” if you want, but we are not born saints; for most people the instinct to such heroic self-surrender is part of an incarnational process.

So, a friend asks, if this terrified young woman does not make it through the annulment process because the fear of violence has overwhelmed her — and she ends up marrying outside the church because of it — “how could someone reasonably justify denying a woman such as this, a woman who is an otherwise faithful and obedient Catholic, the Blessed Sacrament?”

This is precisely the sort of circumstance that Pope Francis and some Cardinals are referencing when they ponder — as they will in October, at the concluding Synod on the Family — the reception of Holy Communion by some divorced and remarried and the issue of pastoral determination.

The teaching of the Church is wholly correct; the indissolubility of marriage is a doctrine pronounced from the very mouth of Christ Jesus, and it cannot change. But as with every human issue requiring pastoral address, individual stories and actions matter.

I write that fully understanding that some people will see read it and predict — not without reason — a whole-scale disruption of our understanding on the reception of Communion, and who may worthily receive.

That said, let’s be honest about where we stand at this moment: some divorced-and-remarried Catholics are already taking Holy Communion, even though the Church (and Saint Paul) says they should not, because they have determined that, teaching aside, their individual conscience is clear. Others have simply left the church, usually because they do not rightly understand our teaching on…well, almost anything.

Sometimes, like the family I wrote about here, it’s a combination of both.

The [Mother of the Bride’s] divorce created anxiety before the wedding: would the mother present herself for communion? We brilliant twentysomethings mused on it over wine and cheese, noting that from a purely legalistic view, the mother had ex-communicated herself by remarrying outside the church, and before attaining an annulment. Finally, in vino veritas, one pertinent fact came to the fore: “She never loved my father,” said our friend. “Her family wanted the marriage, and she was obedient, but she never loved him.”

Oh. That does matter in the grand scheme of things – where sin and sacraments are concerned, intentions matter.

Prior to the divorce, this had been a family of practicing Catholics. Three decades later, the mother is fulfilled in her healthy, loving, second marriage but still removed from the church, as are all of her children and grandchildren. If you ask them, they will tell you they’re Catholic, but only nominally; everyone has been baptized and confirmed, but no one attends Mass or observes Holy Days – not even Christmas. Whether the grandchildren will feel compelled to baptize their own children is unknowable, but we can hazard a guess.

Within four generations, a previously-faithful family has experienced a categorical move away from Catholicism, trending toward 21st century “None-ism” (a belief in not much of anything) and that trajectory can be traced to a civil divorce that was met by inadequate outreach and, likely, inadequate catechesis.

A failed marriage that had been entered into out of obedience to one’s parents is a failed marriage ripe for the attention of an annulment tribunal, but not everyone knows that and many Catholics (particularly members of “the Greatest Generation”) too often believe, quite erroneously, that an annulment turns their children into bastards — a thought they find unbearable. Nearly 35 years into her second marriage, it is unlikely that our friend’s mother is interested in seeking an annulment. She just doesn’t worship, anymore. Not anywhere. Blame her for her decisions? Okay, but let us also blame ourselves, as the Church, for not reaching out and explaining to her what she did not understand. Instead, we just let her (and perhaps thousands of other souls) slip away, in ignorance.

Had such outreach been available to her perhaps she, and all of her children and grandchildren, would still be praying and praising and seeking the consolation of the Holy Eucharist, faith with us.

So, getting back to the young woman currently seeking an annulment, but fearful? What should the church do, in her case? How might the annulment process help her to remain in the faith, as she clearly wishes to do, and to hopefully someday marry in the church?

I’m strongly of the opinion that when there is a real issue of physical safety, the church — if she is erring at all, which is debatable — should err on the side of mercy, and not take actions that might end up putting someone’s safety, and thus their personhood, at risk. If one can show that an order of protection had been issued and/or can bring forth witnesses attesting to such a risk, I think it really behooves the tribunal to do what it can to demonstrate the value of a human life, and its protection, over a dot and tittle of a piece of paperwork. In this young woman’s case, it is literally a life-issue, and we are pro-life.

And that might be precisely the way a reform of annulment processes might be reasoned, as life-issues. Annulment poorly taught affects the life of the church and empties the pews through ignorance. Annulment administered without timeliness and a measure of prudent flexibility affects the life of the individual soul.

Some serious thought to all of that might be the way to go: this young woman who is trying to engage the church in good faith shouldn’t have to end up outside of it because a bureaucratic requirement has trumped a more pastoral response. This goes to the same thing Melinda Selmys is saying is saying in this piece on the pastoral care of the homosexual person: we need to look at every person within the totality of his or her own story, and not see people as units of sin or error.

Because, as we have been very quick to say to the government, assessing people as units, whether of age, or illness, or sinfulness, is evil.

UPDATE:
Reader M.A.G. sends this along
and graciously allows me to reprint with her initials

Dear Elizabeth,
Thank you for today’s article about the need for reforms in the annulment process. The situation you described regarding a young woman who left an abusive marriage within less than a year of the union hit close to home. This was very similar to my daughter’s first marriage.

She was too frightened to pursue annulment, for the very reasons you mentioned in your article. Additionally, she didn’t know if she could emotionally handle reliving the nightmare. She has suffered some PTSD and is on medication.

She is a spiritual person and receives the Eucharist despite divorce and remarriage in a civil union. But she wants to come out of the shadow.

Factually, I know little of the annulment process. But there are a lot of anecdotes “out there” that my daughter has heard, which contribute to her reluctance to investigate annulment.

I don’t want the church to relinquish its strong stance on the marital union. But it seems there is an information gap, and the procedure for Catholic dissolution of a marriage that in fact wasn’t a marriage should be less intimidating. It might help if annulment was discussed a couple of times a year from the pulpit, perhaps by a guest speaker from the marriage tribunal (there’s a name that could be changed!) and the information for how to proceed made available.

As our Catholic Church enters a period of renewed evangelization, my daughter is part of a large group who long to be re-embraced by their church, have their marriages blessed and participate fully in their faith.

Thanks again. God bless.

Related and of-interest:
I and Thou: An Orthodox Theology of Marriage


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