A few years ago this piece from Cristina Odone in the Telegraph would have had me reaching straight for the laptop to bash out a corrective response, but fortunately Joseph Shaw has beaten me to it.
Efficiently deconstructing her doublethink, Dr Shaw critiques her dismissal of the Church’s annulment process as being ‘dependent on money and contacts to unpick the marital knot’ as follows:
“This is extremely insulting to those many people who have been through the process of annulment in good faith, after marrying a person whose marriage vows were an empty sham.”
I am one of those people whom Cristina presumably believes used their money and contacts to unpick the marital knot. Except the whole process took six weeks and required an admin processing fee of under £20. Technically speaking for any canon lawyers who may be reading and wanting to nitpick, I did not receive an annulment, but was declared free to marry. No thorough examination needed to be conducted, the bare facts spoke for themselves.*
Nonetheless, an annulment is categorically NOT a Catholic divorce, It is a statement of fact that a marriage never existed in the first place. The judges involved in a tribunal case do not seek to apportion blame or guilt to a single party, they are there simply to examine the facts before them.
A tribunal panel does not in any way resemble a civil court process. Meetings are held in complete confidentiality and on a one-to-one basis. Where possible both spouses are asked to testify along with relevant witnesses. One does not need to spend money on hiring specialist Church, or canon lawyers. In terms of fees, all that is asked that a contribution is to made towards covering the admin fees and costs, but those who are unable to afford to do this, are not required to pay anything at all and neither will cases be prioritised according to wealth. Typically they are dealt with in date order and the reason that the process may sometimes take a few years is because it can often take that amount of time to get all of the relevant documentation and witnesses assembled. Pope Francis has already announced a commission to review whether or not the process may be simplified or streamlined, in advance of the forthcoming Synod on the Family.
Another thing Cristina omitted to mention is that this process is not only open to Catholics but to anyone who wishes the Church to investigate the circumstances of their marriage, say for example an Anglican divorcee who now wishes to marry a Catholic. The Church will examine the circumstances surrounding their marriage and determine whether or not it was valid.
Any decision does not have any bearing on the civil law, nor does it decree that a civil marriage never existed. Hence any children born from that union, are not deemed to be illegitimate, in case any bigots still care about that these days.
Cristina’s attitude is symptomatic of that I have experienced from non-Catholics. One woman even came onto this blog to decry my selfishness. I was so desperate to get married in a Catholic Church that I deliberately made my daughter illegitimate. A gay man, who is so invested in the issue of gay marriage, deliberately briefs people that I have a child from another man, as proof of my alleged inconsistency and hypocrisy. A Twitter account was set up in the name of @realfarrow which stole my photo and accused me of adultery. And they say that Catholics are judgmental? Fact is I once made some errors of judgement and committed some sins, (several actually) long since confessed, along with every other Catholic on this planet. It doesn’t invalidate the truth of the matter at hand, nor does the fact that I failed to live up to Catholic teaching, mean that it is therefore wrong. I didn’t know what it was!
It’s also worth noting that prior to getting sacaramentally married, even though the wedding took place in a Catholic Church, the permission of the former Bishop of Chichester needed to be sought. He agreed that my former marriage was not valid, purely on the grounds of my ex not being open to children, and gave his consent for my marriage to Robin to go ahead, but noted that he did not value my Catholic annulment. Like Cristina he believed it to be a process for the rich and well-connected which was both infuriating and distressing. By contrast the Anglican church does not have any formal process for investigating validity of former marriages, instead operating a postcode lottery depending on the personal opinion of the minister involved. There’s something very reassuring about having one’s case independently and formally assessed.
How does one obtain an annulment? Simple. Approach your parish priest and ask for his help and advice. Every single diocese in England and Wales has their own marriage tribunal department who will investigate these matters for you. The priest will help you to fill out the paperwork and will then send it to the local office. Only in the extremely rare cases of Pauline and Petrine privilege, does anything need to be approved by Vatican bureaucracy. No palm-greasing, rolling up of trouser legs or funny handshakes involved.
Anyone who has gone through a divorce will testify that not only is it an extremely painful experience but that it requires a great deal of soul-searching and brutal honesty. The Church walked with me throughout this process, never once judging or telling me what I ought to do, but instead offering compassion, practical help and prayer.
I had to face up to the fact that I had made mistakes through a combination of my own emotional immaturity and ignorance. Had I not fallen away from the faith or been woefully unprepared for marriage, not least in terms of my understanding, then a lot of heartache could have been avoided.
With that in mind, it was the experience of an unplanned child combined with a difficult relationship which facilitated my return back to the Church. Once I fully understood Church teaching and the vision of marriage on offer, it was obvious that I had been living in a pale imitation without any of the graces conferred by the sacrament.
There isn’t a day that goes by when I am not grateful for being given the opportunity to live out the true vocation and vision of marriage in contrast to my previous experience. My life is now lived in the fullness of truth, instead of self-deceit, in glorious high-resolution technicolor, not fuzzy black and white.
I threw myself on the mercy of the Church, hoping and praying that she would indeed recognise that I was free to marry, but that involved having to accept that she may rule otherwise.
For internet trolls to throw ignorant uniformed insults about is one thing. When seasoned Catholic journalists and leading Anglican clerics intimate that you have done some dodgy deal to buy yourself out of a spot of bother and valid union it is quite another. But hurt feelings aren’t the main issue here. By propagating incorrect myths, not only about divorcees not being able to receive communion, but by misrepresenting the annulment process, Cristina Odone puts people’s spiritual welfare at risk, both by deterring people from presenting themselves for communion and also by preventing them from accessing the natural justice to which they are entitled.
*(As a baptised Catholic I married outside of the Church without a dispensation, or to use the lay term, permission, meaning that it was illegal according to Church law. With that in mind, had matters gone to tribunal, given that I was married to a divorcee who had explicitly and repeatedly stated to myself, friends and family that he did not ever want children, and who still confirms that to be the case, then it’s fairly obvious which way things would have gone.
Couples who are in an illegal marriage are able to get the Church to formalise them later on, however in my case this would have been impossible. )