Streamlining the annulment process: A good thing

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 08, 2015

Throughout the years of my active presence on the Internet, I have received quite a few heart-rending emails from men and women who found themselves in one of two positions: Either a judgment of the nullity of their marriage had been reached despite their moral certainty that the marriage was valid; or they were in need of a judgment as to whether a prior marriage was null, yet even after several years their annulment process was still unresolved.

The first case is, of course, heartbreaking. A spouse who wishes to abandon marital responsibility may well abuse the annulment process. In any given diocese or region, especially over the past fifty years, there could be an unfortunate tendency to declare marriages null on insufficient grounds. In such cases, even though both parties can follow the judgment in good conscience, a severe injury is done.

But the second case is a real burden as well. Based on my own anecdotal evidence, these cases are too frequent even in the “annulment mills” of the United States. I encountered a situation just a few weeks ago in which a civilly married couple with children, who had matured spiritually since their marriage, were now willing to live as brother and sister until the Church made a judgment on the validity of the husband’s first marriage. But they had been waiting for three years for a decision, and were still being told by the diocese in question that a shortage of qualified priests made it unlikely that their case would be taken up in the foreseeable future.

Based on the numbers of annulments each year in various world regions, I think it is safe to say that the first case is more common in the United States, and the second more common elsewhere. But while instances of the first case are inescapable, instance of the second are not. The changes to the rules of the annulment process announced by Pope Francis today are designed to reduce or eliminate cases of the second type.

As the Pope himself acknowledged, a reduction of cases of the second type could result in an increase in cases of the first type. It is, after all, inevitable that some erroneous judgments will be made, whether willfully or not, by tribunal judges. Hard evidence may be scant and what evidence there is may be manipulated by the party (or indeed both parties) desiring an annulment, and by their friends and relatives. Moreover, the modern understanding of psychological grounds for nullity can be applied incorrectly or even with duplicity, leading to an inadvertent or even a deliberate adoption of faulty grounds for nullity.

Clearly, mistakes can be made in the process. Just as clearly, there must be a certain number of incorrect decisions. But it is by the dispensation of Providence that nearly all of the gifts given to the Church for our salvation are administered only fallibly by the Church’s ministers. Nonetheless, ecclesiastical judgment remains a work of mercy. Our Lord still expects His Church to judge not only carefully but in a timely way that meets real needs.

Justice Withheld

It may be helpful to recall that our time is not the only time in which abuses have crept in. Abuses afflict the Church in every age, and they almost always reflect the cultural tendencies of each time and place. As one who holds, with respect to the permanence of the marriage bond, that a minimal contractual understanding is sufficient for validity—the depredations of the dictatorship of relativism notwithstanding—I suspect it is undeniable that too many valid marriages are annulled today on the grounds that one spouse or the other “did not truly understand what he was getting into” (in the fullest sense, who does?). But that does not mean that many invalid marriages are not annulled. And surely it is even less deniable that too many invalidly married couples—including many with arranged matches in which one spouse or the other had no opportunity for free and informed consent—had not even a hope of annulment in other periods of the Church’s history.

Therefore, contrary to most who raise the question, it ought not to be a brand new idea that many marriages witnessed by the Church might be null, as some theorists of the ravages of relativism believe to be the case. We ought not to say, “In former days this could not be so!” To the contrary, the likelihood arises from the widely differing sets of cultural attitudes and specific circumstances that lead to marriage, both at any given time and over the course of the Church’s history.

Thus: I may prefer a culture in which marriage is far more stable than it is now; this does not free me from recognizing that part of the price for great marital stability may be injustice of another kind. There is always a need for marriage tribunals; their potential fallibility is far better than their non-existence. They are essential for those who, usually spurred by marital unhappiness but at least sometimes by conscience, seek a careful reexamination of their bond as it exists—or does not exist—in the eyes of God.

Regardless of the prevailing atmosphere of respect or disrespect for the marriage bond, I am a firm believer in the axiom “justice withheld is justice denied.” When the requirements of legal cases are excessively costly, complex and/or lengthy, justice is not served, and the parties involved suffer harm as a result. Without casting a wide net over every kind of law in our litigious society, and also ignoring the incredibly long duration of many cases in the secular courts with all their attendant appeals, it seems clear that the Church at least owes a prompt determination of marital status to those among her children who find themselves in marital distress.

Let me emphasize also that it is no good taking the view that “those people” should not be in these situations in the first place. That may at times be true, of course, but it is also often the case that at least one of the spouses is caught without significant fault in a web of judicial anxiety. Mercy always demands that the Church speak not only clearly but in a timely manner. If it is unacceptable to waffle, for example, in the doctrinal and moral instruction of young couples thirsty for marriage, so too is it unacceptable later for the Church either to speak out of both sides of her mouth when drought ensues, or to delay long in giving a clear answer to those who ask for judgment.

No Perfect Adjudication

The adjudication of the sacrament of matrimony has never been perfect. By its very nature—entrusted by God to ministers who, like the rest of us, possess in comparison with the Almighty little knowledge and less wit—the process must inescapably be subject to error. But there is no reason to believe that the degree of error can be dramatically reduced by stretching our comparative witlessness across two, three, four or more years.

Time will confirm or deny the overall utility of Pope Francis’ changes. Time will also bring new conditions and new tendencies which affect the manner in which marriage is perceived, contracted, lived, broken and nullified. As a result, procedures will be adjusted again and again. But in our time, surely, there are too many who await the Church’s judgment; and not one of these, unless guilty of deceit, need fear to follow that judgment as a concrete instance of obedience to the will of God.

Properly received, a timely judgment can only help those who suffer and wait. But what of long years of delay? In Christ’s name, we bear responsibility for smoldering wicks and bruised reeds (Mt 12:20; Is 42:3).

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: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 15, 2015 10:08 AM ET USA

    To Bernadette: You raise a good point about a procedure that I've criticized as well. In defense of the common procedure today, it is worth noting that the Church does a great deal of marriage counseling. That's the level at which she typically tries to make unhappy marriages happier. I would suppose, distasteful as it is, that the bishops do not really want to start a judicial process until it is clear that the couple has given up. There is something to be said for this, but it unfortunately limits the use of the judicial process in reinforcing the bond before it is all water under the bridge.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 10, 2015 12:31 AM ET USA

    Shouldn't marriage tribunals work to help unhappy marriages instead of requiring a divorce decree before they can do anything about a Declaration of Nullity?

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 09, 2015 10:08 AM ET USA

    The Church's judgment of nullity of marriage always follows a civil divorce, and so the conviction (moral certainty) of one party about continued validity of the marital bond does not have any practical implications already. In the nullity process the Church is formally invited to offer an independent and final judgment about the validity of that marriage. Disagreeing with that verdict with a moral conviction, or out of spite towards the ex, does not overrule reality and validity of the Decree.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 08, 2015 10:13 PM ET USA

    Way too small a space..., but the underlying problems are fundamental. Cardinal Burke looks to fundamentals. In 1967, the priest who married my parents quipped in his sermon that he'd give them a few years rather than one because they were a strong couple compared to most he had married. 1967. 48 years later things are as they ought to be based on the way things have been. The surveys are clear. Pervasive, profound problems. There's been and continues to be striking attrition. What awaits?

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Sep. 08, 2015 6:46 PM ET USA

    But there are issues with it: Leaving it to the bishop leaves open greater opportunities for corruption: "Hey, Bish, I've got a big gift to give, if..." A single judge may not see issues that three judges will. A lax lower court can be easily swayed by anything while a second review has the opportunity to correct that laxity. With the emphasis on "compassion," many may think the compassionate thing is to grant them all. Years of experience shaped the current system which has been undone in one.