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Annulment Motivation: The Crux of the Matter

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 25, 2014

It created a stir on our Facebook page when Phil Lawler called attention to Edward Peters’ argument that, on annulments, the process is not the problem. One person became so heated in his castigation of Peters that I felt obliged to delete the entire thread so the discussion could start over. Decried by some, this decision was rewarded when a woman named Valerie Kay Amerson Sporleder posted the following comment:

As a convert I had to go through the annulment process. It is painful, insightful and very introspective. The process works. It is a little slow but I imagine it is necessary. I agree that the whole process of marriage outside of the Church is almost totally devoid of the understanding of what marriage really is, and sadly a great deal of the marriages within the Church are as well.
We live in an instant gratification, not my issue/problem, victimization society that raises children who feel even more entitled than the last [generation]. The Church must keep to Her teachings and traditions. We must educate our children in Church and at home.

Valerie’s comment does not mean that the annulment process could not be streamlined in some ways, especially to reduce the time it takes. Pope Francis is exploring that possibility. But her comment highlights an important reality: The annulment process is not designed to accommodate our contemporary attitudes toward marriage. That is not what it is for. That can never be what it is for.

According to a recent report, Pope Francis understands this perfectly well, too.

Motives for Seeking Annulment

After all, what is the only legitimate reason to seek an annulment? The sole legitimate reason is a spiritual concern that one’s putative marriage might not be a real, sacramental marriage, replete with the graces of this state in life. This concern can obviously be triggered by a variety of factors. For example, for someone who does not have a sacramental marriage, entry into the Church—especially if it places one at spiritual and moral loggerheads with one’s spouse—can raise profound questions.

But we need to ask ourselves how often such a legitimate reason, or any reason which is strongly allied to it, underlies entry into the annulment process today. Surely the typical situation is that a Catholic enters into a marriage expecting it to be a gateway to happiness. When the marriage goes sour, the couple either separates or divorces. At some point, one spouse or the other develops a romantic passion for somebody else, with whom he or she presumes that marriage will be a gateway to happiness. But to contract this marriage within the Church, the person in question suddenly develops a dubious self-interest in proving the previous marriage null.

In other words, perhaps nine times out of ten, the desire to prove the marriage null does not arise from a genuine concern that it was no marriage from the beginning but from an essentially selfish desire to manipulate the Church into declaring that the marriage never existed. The goal is to act on fresh romantic desires without giving up one’s religion. Is that too stark? I don’t think so.

However, I do not wish to be misunderstood about this. It is perfectly natural that a new romantic interest would be a motive to question the validity of one’s marriage. The point is not that a person in this situation has no right to explore the problem. The point is that regardless of what triggers a desire to have a marriage declared null, the one in doubt has a moral obligation to remain spiritually centered. He or she should curb the “desire”, which of its nature does not respect the marriage bond, and instead genuinely seek to know whether the marriage is valid, in order to act appropriately in its regard.

What he or she should not be seeking is a negative judgment for its convenience to some other purpose.

Injustices

It is in fact both a sin and an injustice to “seek” a declaration of nullity, in the sense that one spiritually desires his marital union to be found null. Nobody should attempt to use the Church for ulterior motives when there is no legitimate doubt involved. Yet many have done so, and there can be no question that many tribunals, staffed by persons too much influenced by a secular culture, have been guilty of miscarriages of justice. There are plenty of men and women who, hoping to preserve their marriages, have been shamefully treated by marriage tribunals, which have aided and abetted a very real spouse who simply desired to abandon his (or her) family and move on to “better things”.

Tribunal judgments are not infallible. Those who staff tribunals are also under great cultural pressure (and some, I suppose, have a genuine desire) to work with an eroded understanding of marriage, and to give the benefit of every doubt to the spouse who, in effect, desires to be “free”. Especially in the United States, where annulments are granted in much higher numbers than elsewhere, the annulment process has, whether fairly or not, earned the sarcastic nickname of “Catholic divorce”.

Now this could be partly because men and women in our culture simply have no conception of what marriage means, in which case there could be more invalid marriages than one would imagine. But how incapacitated do we really believe they are? If they are baptized, of reasonable age, justly available for marriage, and give their consent freely, all that is required of them for validity is consent to a very basic contractual understanding of what it means to enter into a spousal relationship until death.

No one ever understands all the implications in the fullest depth of his soul. A basic contractual understanding of the significance of the terms is all it takes, or else no marriage would ever be valid. The absence of such an understanding would ordinarily suggest either extraordinary ignorance, extraordinary immaturity, deliberate deception, or a serious psychological incapacity for commitment which can hardly be remedied simply by trial and error.

Such a lifelong commitment is always difficult, and it is rendered far more difficult by a lack of firm cultural support, not to mention a lack of serious spiritual formation by the couple’s parents. But the fundamental fact remains: When we take our case to a marriage tribunal, our primary commitment must not be to desires which foster a hope that our marriage will be declared null. Our primary commitment must be to the truth about our marriage, so that we can follow God’s will.

[See also my follow-up piece: Legitimately Fuzzy Grounds for Annulment.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: islandpastries1867 - Sep. 29, 2014 8:40 PM ET USA

    At some point in our lives - hopefully before we cross over to our judgment! - we adults must take responsibility for our choices. Valerie Kay Amerson Sporleder's experience is like my own. Seeking a decree of nullity is serious business. As a convert the process with the Tribunal was the beginning of my education in the realities of marriage and family (how I wish I'd learned what the Church teaches 20 years earlier). If I hadn't been through it, I'd be twice-divorced and completely secular

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Sep. 27, 2014 2:19 AM ET USA

    If a party or parties seeking an annulment successfully lie to the tribunal and get a decree of nullity are they really free to remarry or would the subsequent marriage be adulterous?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Sep. 27, 2014 12:36 AM ET USA

    The Crux of the matter is that people have lost their faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church. So few believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is the most important issue facing the Church. If people won't believe in the real presence then why should they believe in the other teachings of the Church?

  • Posted by: Nuage - Sep. 26, 2014 11:54 PM ET USA

    Again, Dr. Mirus hits one out of the park with this excellent analysis. A cause for the collapse of Catholic marriages today is, tragically, the false spiritual direction of many priests, who believe that they are "helping" a couple who are suffering in a difficult marital relationship by telling them to just go off and marry someone else, stay away from Communion for a while, and then apply for an annulment in order to "regularize" their new conjugal situation.

  • Posted by: littleone - Sep. 26, 2014 9:04 PM ET USA

    I have intimately known those who are unsure their marriages celebrated in the Catholic Church are indeed valid on the basis of serious psychological reasons,and other reasons,and yet regularly hear from priests/spiritual directors that the presumption is validity and that they should soldier on, seeking to repair the marriage.If your conclusion makes sense,then why does the Church insist there must be a civil divorce first?Why does the Church not help couples discern first?

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Sep. 26, 2014 2:03 PM ET USA

    "Our primary commitment must be to the truth about our marriage, so that we can follow God’s will." To this end, I would very much like to see tribunals do away with the requirement for a finalized civil divorce before they will investigate the validity of a marriage. I can see situations where a couple believes a marriage invalid but wishes to submit that to the Church before pursuing a civil divorce.