In all the tohubohu over the papal document on remarried and the divorced (Amoris laetitia), no one seems to mention the issue of annulments.
It’s the elephant in the room.
And it may play in the back cerebral anterooms of those who want to revamp the Church’s approach, allowing more divorced Catholics who have remarried civilly to resume participation in the sacraments.
Why it may play in the back of their minds is the nature of the annulment system, which can seem inconsistent and even capricious.
Simply put, one diocese may have a “tribunal” that grants annulments more readily than the next diocese — making the system inherently unfair — depriving one couple the sacraments while another couple elsewhere, with similar circumstances, is allowed full participation (although the approval rate is said to be 95 percent — another point of contention).
Is the Holy Spirit at work infallibly in every such case, such that it isn’t man breaking marital bonds asunder but God? Does any human, of whatever position, have the authority to transcend what Christ said?
These are only questions. Perhaps they do not figure as major issues. But annulments are highly peculiar and often seem like sanctioned divorce. Some receive annulments not just for one but for two or even more previous marriages. Some receive annulments despite having children — which technically means, since the marriage was voided, that they were born out of wedlock.
Actually, the U.S. bishops deny this is the case.
“No,” they state in a question-and-answer on annulments. “A declaration of nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children who were born of the union following the wedding day, since the child’s mother and father were presumed to be married at the time that the child was born. Parental obligations remain after a marriage may be declared null.
“It means that a marriage that was thought to be valid civilly and canonically was in fact not valid according to Church law. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship existed. It simply states that the relationship was missing something that the Church requires for a valid marriage.”
This may be a bit befuddling. If a marriage is not a real marriage according to the Church, but only presumed, how was it a marriage in other ways?
Ted Kennedy got an annulment after 23 years of marriage.
In 1995 Church tribunals in the nation’s 119 Catholic dioceses grant about 50,000 marriage annulments annually, said the Rev. Patrick Cogan, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America, the professional body of church officials who deal with such questions. This number has increased about 100-fold since the early 1960’s, leading to accusations by some conservative Catholics in the United States and in the Vatican that American Catholic officials were undermining the Church’s teaching on marriage.
It is especially popular in the U.S. Americans accounted for about half of the nearly 50,000 annulments granted in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available: 24,010 cases, or 49 percent of annulment cases, were petitioned from the United States in 2012. That’s down sharply from the 72,308 cases introduced in the United States in 1990, but far more than in Poland, the country with the next highest number of petitions, accounting for six percent with fewer than 3,000 cases.
Most annulments are granted on psychological grounds, what is technically termed in church law “lack of due discretion.”
There certainly seem to be cases that justify the process — the existence — of annulments, as when a young couple gets married but parts ways within, say, a year or two. That clearly seems like a mistake. Or in any case where pressure and force were brought to bear, or deception.
But, before more argumentation over Amora, perhaps the Church needs to take a look at the process, explore how much it figures into the current debate, and ask itself if it is consistent and in keeping with the Holy Spirit.