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Monday, September 19, 2011

Ask Father...The Truth about Annulments

A reader writes:
With many Anglicans entering the Catholic Church, I know quite a few who are undergoing the annulment process right now. In talking with them, I was surprised by two things that seem to have been, at least implicitly, communicated to them in their initial meeting with the tribunal: they all came away relatively assured of the final outcome of the inquiry, though they were disappointed as to the timeline; and secondly, they seemed to be under the impression that infidelity was grounds for an annulment. I can perhaps see infidelity as speaking to the intent and understanding of marriage or maybe the ability to contract marriage, especially if the infidelity was serial. Even then, that seems pretty weak. I'd like to find out what the standard really is for an annulment, on what grounds annulments have been granted or withheld. 
There's a lot here.  Hopefully I can answer this cogently.  [N.B. This is not intended to be exhaustive!]

First of all, we need to demythologize what an annulment is and is not.  This is probably one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of the Church.  Using the via negativa method, let's start by looking at what an annulment is not.  

  • An annulment is NOT a decree by the Church which negates, nullifies, or renders void a marriage! 
  • A Declaration of Nullity is NOT a Catholic divorce.
  • It is NOT merely a "hoop" to be jumped through.
  • It does NOT make children from a marriage illegitimate.
  • It does NOT suggest, imply, or state--directly or indirectly--that the time the couple was married did somehow not exist (this is a very common misunderstanding--but no matter how we try, we cannot will away the past!).
  • Just because a marriage doesn't "work" doesn't mean it was not Sacramentally valid.  (The fact is, there are many marriages which are Sacramentally valid, but people are not able to achieve harmony in married life.  This is unfortunate, but it is precisely why the Church requires six months of preparation and counseling prior to marriage!)
So, what exactly is the deal?  

To understand what we're dealing with, we first need to understand the basic mechanics of a Sacrament in general.  A Sacrament requires three things: matter, person, and form.  Matter is that which is being acted upon, the object.  Person is the one who is given the authority to perform the sacrament validly.  Form is the words and/or actions prescribed by the Church for confecting a Sacrament.  If any of these three criteria are not present, then the Sacrament is invalid.  For example, if a validly ordained priest (Person) says Mass using the proper words of Consecration for the Eucharist (Form), but uses cookies and milk instead of unleavened bread and natural wine (Matter), the Sacrament is invalid...the Eucharist is not present.

The same is true of Marriage.  In a marriage, the Matter and Person are one and the same--the individuals exchanging their consent.  And the Form is the marriage vows--the consent itself.  

There are a number of reasons that a marriage might not be valid--too many to list.  But there are some basics that can help one establish whether or not a marriage might be invalid.  Most invalid marriages are declared to be invalid by reason of a defect of consent--i.e., some problem with the marriage vows, which is what makes the marriage (canon 1057).  

When someone seeks a declaration of nullity, he or she (called the Petitioner) files a suit in which one alleges that the marriage was not sacramentally valid.  After an investigation by the competent Tribunal, the Church issues a decree stating whether or not the marriage was, in fact, a validly-confected Sacrament.  

What is most important is to remember that all marriages enjoy the favor of the law (canon 1060).  That is to say, every marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise.  So no Tribunal or other office should EVER, under ANY circumstances, suggest, hint, intimate, or otherwise propose that a person's marriage will be declared null by the Church without having seen the proofs of the case.  To do so is a gross miscarriage of justice.  It is unfair to the individuals involved, and it smacks of disrespect for the very favor of the law which protects marriage against undue prosecution.

With regard to infidelity--and again, without going into specifics--a history of serial infidelity on the part of one of the parties is sometimes an indication of a person's defect of consent or an intention to "simulate" the Sacrament.  But it is not a guarantee.  We must never lose sight of the value of Sacramental grace, nor of the possibility of a person's conversion.  Therefore, the evidence in a particular case is extremely important.  Infidelity itself is not a grounds for nullity (this is a misinterpretation of Matthew 19, which I'll try to post on later).  Infidelity may, however, be symptomatic of something which may have prevented the Sacrament from taking place.  It is a subtle, but extremely important, distinction.

As far as a universal standard for a Declaration of Matrimonial Nullity goes, it's difficult to pinpoint.  What is most important--and very commonly misunderstood--is that any defect in a person's consent must be present BEFORE and AT THE MOMENT OF consent.  What happens afterward cannot affect it--it can only give evidence to it!  

So what is this thing that people call "an annulment"?  It is nothing more than a Declaration by the Church certifying that which was already true--that the Sacrament of Marriage did not take place due to a pre-existing defect at the moment that consent was exchanged (with some exceptions, but I won't go into them).  

For anyone who has a marriage case before a Tribunal, a couple of things: NEVER presume that a Declaration of Nullity will be granted just because you apply for it.  It is not a rubber stamp, it is not pro forma, it is not guaranteed!  So those people who go ahead and make plans to be remarried before the Tribunal has issued a decision in their case are only doing themselves a grave disservice (and yet, it's always the Church's fault in their minds!).  

Second, try not to get discouraged.  As divorce rates have increased over the years, Tribunals have been inundated with requests for investigating marriages.  Investigations take time--especially when Tribunals are given little or no evidence.  NO ONE has a right to have their marriage declared null.  A person only has a right to petition a Tribunal to investigate his/her marriage.  Even then, there is no guarantee that a Tribunal will necessarily accept the case for trial.

Over the years, innumerable volumes have been written about Marriage--its Sacramental nature, what is necessary for it to be valid, etc.  And yet, it is by far the most misunderstood and abused of the Sacraments.  Many people see Marriage as something that can be bought and sold, a free pass to tax deductions, a chance to get dressed up and throw a great party.  But Marriage is a solemn covenant that exists until death.  It is the solemn union of man and woman that "they might become one flesh" in the procreative act, and that they might share a harmonious life together.  Marriage is a right according to the natural law--but what a grave disservice we do to ourselves when we misuse it and seek to subordinate it to our own whims and ends!

[As an aside, I think it's really great the number of Anglican clergy who are coming into full communion with the Catholic Church.  However, the Holy See has been abundantly clear that Tribunals are not to water-down the process of marital investigation or in any way "sweep things under the rug."  To do so would be a grave abuse of the tremendous responsibility that Tribunals have to serving the cause of Truth.]

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