Catholic Annulments: Prevention better than cure

Taken from the Catholic Universe 27 October 2013

 

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There has been a lot of speculation that divorced and remarried Catholics may  be allowed to receive Communion following Pope Francis’ remarks on the flight back from World Youth Day in Rio in July, when he said that a synod would need to explore the ‘somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage’, including the thorny issue of divorced Catholics.

Speaking from the perspective of someone who has had a former attempted marriage declared invalid by the Catholic church, I have to confess to having mixed feelings on the issue.

 The subjects of annulments is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented facets of the Catholic faith and many’s the time I’ve rolled my eyes heavenwards on hearing the hoary old cliche that annulments are the equivalent of Catholic divorce or involve a secretive process which is only available to for the rich and well-connected.

 A Catholic annulment is not a dissolving of a marriage, rather the statement that while civil legalities may have occurred between a couple, something was missing that enabled the relationship to be considered a marriage in the spiritual sense of the word and that no sacrament ever existed.

 It’s a very difficult teaching for many to swallow and can seem rooted in sophistry, how can someone who observed all the legal formalities of marriage, who went through a wedding ceremony, later claim that they were not in reality, married? One can see why many might consider annulments a convenient piece of clever rule-bending, as they are subject to a strict code of canon law, couched in legal and theological language which is not easily understandable.

The reason why the annulment process remains shrouded in mystery is because not many of us make recourse to it, the subject only raises its head when a Catholic embarks upon a subsequent relationship and wishes to remarry. Personally I found the procedure incredibly healing, far from being an exercise in rubber-stamping or greasing the palms of officials, faced with the truth about the Catholic teaching on marriage, I was able to go through a process of self-examination which helped me to lay the past to rest, experience personal growth and finally move on.

It was not an easy time, I had to face up to my own faults and failings in terms of how I had approached the relationship, there was certainly an element of penitence, not least because as a Catholic I had married outside of the church without permission, ignoring and disregarding her teaching on marriage, but this only served to strengthen my resolve in terms of ensuring that were I to marry in the future, not only would it be sacramental, but that any potential spouse would share my understanding upon the nature of a Catholic marriage, that it is permanent, exclusive and open to life. In addition they would also need to support me in the practice of the Catholic faith.

It is therefore extremely annoying to hear that annulments are either far too complicated to obtain or being dished out indiscriminately to those who know how to bend the system, according to whom you listen to. I entered into the process in good faith, throwing myself on the mercy and judgement of the Church who acted pastorally, compassionately and above all, fairly.

The Church cannot change her teaching on the dissolubility of marriage, she cannot re-write Scripture and this is why Archbishop Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has this week sought to dampen down the expectation that the rules on remarried Catholics receiving communion will be altered. Furthermore the German diocese of Freiburg in Germany which issued new guidelines making it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion has been instructed not to implement them.

This seems right and just on the one hand, but on the other it can seem lacking in justice and compassion for those who have been left in impossible situations. Is it really the right thing to expect a spouse to remain permanently bound to another, who has left them for another partner? Why should someone be forced to make a choice between finding another lifelong partner, someone who could in many instances act as a supplemental parental figure for their children giving them much needed stability and security, and their relationship with God?

The adage hard cases make bad law comes to mind, divorce may be becoming far more commonplace, however that does not mean that the Church should sanction or encourage it or relax her rules regarding annulments. The permanence of marriage needs to be upheld for the good of individuals and society as a whole.

But where does that leave those in heartbreaking and complex situations? Pope Francis’ announcement of a more pastoral approach is certainly welcome, those who are unable to receive communion need to know that they are still loved and welcomed by the Church and not excluded. Hopefully some pastoral solutions can be sought whether that be through extending the practice of annulments whilst keeping their rigorousness intact or some other unforeseen remedy. The Eastern Orthodox Church allows for remarriage in the spirit of penitence, in which the formerly married partner stays away from communion for a short period of time, but Archbishop Muller seems to have ruled this out for now.

Prevention is better than cure however, so rather than going with the spirit of the age in terms of attitudes to marriage, the Church needs more than ever to reinforce and explain the importance of the sacrament. There is no way of avoiding all marital break-ups but armed with a full understanding of the commitment and responsibilities of marriage as well as the circumstances that constitute validity, we stand a much better chance of not needing to be rescued from messes of our own making.

Annulment

Unfortunately I’ve received quite a few unpleasant comments over the last few days, none of which I have been prepared to publish, due to the fact that I have an annulled marriage. My stat-counter has also brought up some rather disturbing searches regarding my name, my children and attempts to discover details pertaining to personal circumstances. The implication is that it is highly hypocritical of me to defend marriage, given that due to having a previous marriage behind me I have a part to play in the undermining of the institution. Furthermore there have been allegations that annulments are only available to the rich and well-connected who are able to twist arms and pay for expensive canon lawyers to employ Jesuitical arguments. There are demands for me to disclose the circumstances of my previous attempted marriage – something that is frankly none of anyone’s business.

I’m not going to disclose my private life, not least for the fact that a child resulted from my previous relationship – there are real human beings and relationships at stake, which are far more important than my standing in the eyes of hostile internet commentators. With that in mind, I am aware that I am a (very minor) representative of Catholicism and therefore it might be necessary to put a few bare facts of the matter out there as a matter of record.

Firstly – mea culpa. I did attempt to contract a marriage, but what is also clear is that I didn’t have any understanding of what that involved. Perhaps providentially, I had made enquiries as to getting married in the Catholic church that was the place of my baptism, though the community involved were happy to facilitate, they insisted that some form of marriage preparation was undertaken first. My then fiance refused as he did not wish to be instructed in how to be married by a bunch of celibate Catholics – it was none of their business. So we were ‘married’ instead in an Anglican church with no dispensation from the Catholic church as is required by canon law.

Secondly – one of the basic tenets of a valid sacramental marriage is that it must be open to life or children. Before we got ‘married’ my ex had been explicit on multiple occasions that he did not ever want children and had in fact sought a sterilisation at the age of 22. I was ambivalent on the matter, I certainly had no intention of having any children, but hadn’t ruled it out either. On our wedding day, my former father-in-law was witnessed telling everybody that his son did not want to have any children. When I unexpectedly fell pregnant there was a divergence of opinion as to what the best course of action should be and the relationship was put under enormous pressure, which resulted in my then partner going off to Marie Stopes in Reading for a sterilisation when the baby was 6 weeks old. A process in which I had no involvement – personal bodily autonomy and wishes being of paramount import. As an aside Marie Stopes did not once ask for joint couple counselling and the offer of individual counselling was refused. I don’t know whether or not this may have changed minds, certainly he was adamant that this situation was not going to reoccur.

There are other canonical and legal issues, but that is more than enough information for the public domain. Needless to say, when I married a vicar who usually refused to perform re-marriages, the Church of England having no formal annulment process, it was necessary not only to be very public and open about my situation not only with our parish, but with the then Bishop of Chichester whose formal permission was sought as a matter of courtesy.

What I can testify is that no matter how cordial, friendly and open one keeps relations, divorce is absolutely horrible for children and not something that I could recommend as being the ideal.

My hope is that my children can learn from my example, that they take care to ensure that they marry someone else whose faith and values matches theirs, that they don’t succumb to outside pressures but can prayerfully discern in their choice of spouse and vocation. There is a whole world of difference between being sacramentally married and not. I appreciate every day the graces and blessings that we receive from the sacrament – something that gives us both enormous comfort and strength when times are tough.

Life hasn’t always been plain sailing for me, but I count myself extremely fortunate and blessed in not only having a wonderful spouse who shares my faith, but in being able to have a sacramental marriage. That the church has absolutely no issue with my circumstances was demonstrated by the fact that we were able to have a nuptial Mass and received an apostolic blessing as a gift from the parish.

Annulment isn’t a Catholic divorce or a fudge for those with recourse to huge funds. When applying to a marriage tribunal one has to throw the whole affair into the hands of God and trust in the judgement of Holy Mother church and accept the ruling, whichever way it falls. In my case, no tribunal was needed, it was a very straightforward process which cost me £18 in total!

Annulment presumes that every marriage is valid, until proven otherwise. It is very clear in my situation that no marriage existed, which goes quite a long way to explain many of the difficulties. Like many Catholics, I found the process incredibly healing. Here is a page that dispels some of the common myths, such as illegitimacy of children – an accusation that comes my way fairly often, or that the process is only for rich, famous or well-connected members of the faithful.

The Pope has recently reiterated the need for the annulment process to be rigorous and warned about the danger of contrasting charity with justice. If we as Catholics wish to reinforce the strength of the marriage bond, it causes great scandal if we collude with secular authorities and dissolve marriages for spurious or flimsy reasons. Furthermore it does a great disservice to those of us who indisputably had no previous sacramental bond. Fr Dwight Longnecker also has some very harsh words for those Catholics who collude in the undermining of marriage.

Though I admittedly haven’t always upheld marriage in my past actions – all of us are sinners, I did what I could to remedy what was a heartbreaking and impossible situation whereby convalidation or sanation were unavailable as options. I can also appreciate that though our divorce laws are in urgent need of reform, some civil recourse is often necessary not least for the protection of women and children.

‘Gay marriage’ is the inevitable result in a society that seeks to put individual needs and wants first and seeks to redefine marriage as simply being all about love and commitment. My ex, passionately believed that when he said those vows (despite the fact that children are mentioned in the Anglican marriage service) that children had nothing to do with it and are entirely separate to marriage. I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other at that time, despite having been nominally brought up as a Catholic and having attended Catholic school.

The New Evangelisation must include a reclamation of marriage – what it constitutes and what it most definitely isn’t. We have much to remedy.

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