Like many divorced and remarried Catholics, I looked down on the church’s annulment process, viewing it as cover for Catholic divorce, a process tinged with hypocrisy, reserved for the rich and powerful. Then one day, Walter Modrys, S.J., my pastor at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, said to me: You’ve mentioned several times you were not married in the Catholic Church. It obviously bothers you. Why don’t you seek an annulment?
How can I do that? I was married 20 years before we separated. I’ve got three children.
Don’t be so sure, he said. The church is understanding, especially if you were married young and didn’t fully understand what marriage was all about. How old were you and your wife when you got married?
I was 24, she was 22.
Think about it, he said.
With each passing year and the changes in American society, the church had become more important to me. As a Catholic, I was finding little support and reinforcement for my faith and values in our society, particularly in my milieu, New York City’s Upper East Side and Ivy League academia. Popular films, television, books and the nation’s style-setting institutions were becoming more aggressively secular. Our culture was materialistic and hedonistic. As the culture seemed to drift further from faith-based values, I found the church to be my most solid and reassuring rock.
An annulment would end any remaining estrangement from the church. But how, after 23 years, could there be a determination that there never was a marriage? How would my children, Mark, Joe and Claudia, react to having their parents’ marriage annulled? Our divorce had not been easy for them. Ten years later, they were still puzzled, hurt and suffering emotionally from our breakup. Annulment would raise another issue for them: were they legitimate? My current wife, Hilary, had two children; her daughter, Brooke, had become a devout Catholic. How would she react? I was concerned that my receiving an annulment would in some way undermine their faith and commitment to the church, which I considered my most important legacy to them. I hoped that Hilary’s son, Frick, would someday receive the gift of faith. How would he take it? How would my former wife react?
Father Modrys suggested I see Amadeus McKevitt, O.S.U., at the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York. I visited Sister Amadeus, and as I told her my doubts and how long I had been married, she gently interrupted. The church seeks ways to have divorced and remarried Catholics fully integrated and to permit them to marry within the church. That’s what I’m here for.
What’s important, she continued, is whether you fully understoodor were capable of understandingall the rights and obligations of marriage at the time you wed.
I was skeptical, but she was reassuring. The bond of marriage, she said, should contain an efficacious grace, which is attached to all sacraments. That grace enables the couple to raise children and love each other through good times and bad. The annulment process tries to determine if that sacramental grace was there at the beginning of a marriage and seeks to restore the possibility of that grace occurring in another marriage.
She explained that I would have to respond in writing to a rigorous series of questions. If grounds for annulment were based on psychological factors, which she believed mine would be, then a psychologist would examine me. Based on my application, the testimony of any witnesses and the psychologist’s assessment, a determination would be made about whether there was sufficient reason to hold a formal hearing. If so, I would be asked to give sworn testimony before a canon law judge.
Would my first wife and I face off against each other? I asked.
The annulment process is not adversarial, Sister Amadeus insisted. What we seek is healing. An effort is always made to contact the other spouse. If your wife wants to testify, the judge will hear her privately, but she is not obligated.
Sister Amadeus stressed that the annulment process is of an entirely different character from divorce proceedings. Although many call an annulment a Catholic divorce,’ she said, it is not. It is differentiated from the civil process because the judges look only at the person you were, your maturity and understanding at the time of the wedding, your previous dating experience and your courtship. They do not focus on what went wrong during your marriagethough these facts often support the allegation of invalidity.
My mind was opening to a world of hope as I listened to this caring nun. In fact, the annulment process can heal the scars of divorce, she added.
After testimony was taken, she said, the tribunal would consider the matter and make a decision. She explained that the tribunal consisted of a judge; a defender of the bond, who was responsible for marshalling and presenting the arguments against annulment; an advocate to present my case for annulment; and one for my former spouse, if she wished to participate.
Sister Amadeus then said, Normally there is a charge, $600, to cover the tribunal’s costs.
I was surprised the amount was so low, having heard stories that obtaining a Catholic annulment could involve a significant contribution to the church.
Seeing the surprise on my face, Sister Amadeus said, For those who cannot pay all at once, we can work out installment payments. And if the parish priest tells us that an individualsay a single parentcannot afford to pay anything, there is no charge.
This wonderful woman had misread my expression. Sister, I said, I am more than able to pay the $600. I was just surprised that it was so little.
Sister Amadeus suggested that I read a book, Annulment: Your Chance to Remarry Within the Catholic Church, by Joseph Zwack. I learned that for years the Catholic Church in the United States had considered psychological factors in determining the validity of the bond (and granted thousands of annulments on these grounds). Out of Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council came a revised Code of Canon Law, which included among those considered incapable of matrimonial consent individuals who suffer from a grave lack of discretionary judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and obligations to be mutually given and accepted. The ability to grasp fullynot just intellectually, but emotionally and spirituallyand to assume the real obligations of a mature, lifelong commitment was a prerequisite to valid matrimonial consent. In the absence of such full understanding, the church could find that no valid marriage ever existed.
Once I decided to seek an annulment, I faced the prospect of telling my first wife and the children. My first wife expressed no surprise. I told her that at some point the tribunal would give her a chance to participate. She expressed little interest; and when contacted by the tribunal, she never responded.
Next I explained to each of my children individually how important it was to me to be married in the Catholic Church. Mark and Joe simply listened, as did Brooke. Claudia was concerned: Would this mean she was an illegitimate child? I explained that the ecclesiastical annulment had nothing to do with the fact that she was the legitimate and much-loved child of her mother and me. I suggested that she see Father Modrys, which she did. He put her at ease. In the end, I suspect all the children considered this the church’s cover for divorcethat Mark, Joe and Claudia didn’t like it, but they were willing to accept whatever would make me happy.
With help from Sister Amadeus, I worked on my statementa short biographical account of my background, upbringing, courtship and marriage. I noted that neither my first wife nor I had gone through any pre-Cana preparation to gain an appreciation of the rights and obligations of marriage.
I went to the office of C. Edward Robins for an interview and psychological assessment. I entered gingerly, uncomfortable to be analyzed by a psychologist. His questions focused on my upbringing, parental relationships, courtship with my first wife and the early years of our married life.
One month later, I signed the petition for annulment, in which I appointed Rosemary Doherty of the Metropolitan Tribunal to be my procurator advocate and authorized her to represent me before the tribunal and the Court of Second Instance, the ecclesiastical body that would review the tribunal’s decision. If the tribunal ruled in my favor and the ecclesiastical court agreed, the annulment would be granted. I never met Rosemary Doherty, but Sister Amadeus said she was an excellent advocate.
My petition was accepted, and a formal meeting was scheduled with Msgr. Desmond Vella, J.C.D. Monsignor Vella placed me under oath and tape-recorded my testimony. His questions centered on my understanding of the covenant of marriage when I entered into it, the lack of any preparation for marriage and the extent to which I appreciatedor failed to appreciatethe rights and obligations of marriage at the time. He asked pointed questions about my courtship and engagement and the early years of my marriage. He spoke in a firm, sometimes insistent, but invariably courteous way. I had entered his office on edge and nervous, but I left feeling gratitude for his thoroughness and courtesy.
Months later, I received word that an annulment had been granted. Hilary and I celebrated our church wedding at St. Ignatius Loyola, with Father Modrys officiating. I have rarely known such peace as I experienced that evening. There was a sense of integration with my church and within myself, a letting go of guilt and failure. The bond with Hilary has been immeasurably strengthened with sacramental grace.
I have often thought about the stigma attached to annulments: that they were granted only to the biggest donors or most famous members of the church. In fact, during 1991, the year I began the annulment process, Catholic marriage tribunals in the United States heard nearly 40,000 cases and approved more than 90 percent of the petitions. Still, I took notice in 1997, when Sheila Rauch Kennedy published a scalding book, Shattered Faith, about the annulment of her marriage to Massachusetts congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II. She recounts a conversation in which she says she will oppose the annulment, and Joe Kennedy responds, I don’t believe this stuff. Nobody actually believes it. It’s just Catholic gobbledygook, Sheila. But you just have to say it this way because, well, because that’s the way the church is. It may be impossible for those outside the Catholic traditionand for many within itto understand, but my experience could not have been more different.
Most of my friends, and many if not most Catholics, think of the church’s annulment process as some kind of mumbo jumbo, a sop to the large number of Catholics who have divorced and remarried, especially those with money or contacts in the church hierarchyas did I until I experienced the process. To be sure, Catholic marriage tribunals and the annulment process they adjudicate are institutions set up by human beings, not by God, with the limitations and imperfections that attend any institution that seeks to accommodate human frailty. But they fill a real need of divorced and remarried Catholics committed to their faith.
Going through the spiritual, psychological and emotional process of reflection on my first marriage and why it did not work out, and then entering into a sacramental marriage with Hilary within my church, gave me a peace of mind and soul I have never before known. It is a peace that was so foreign to me I didn’t even realize it was missing from my life. I have since felt peace with my first wife as well. Though my children were not present at the ceremony, I believe that the spiritual peace of that event has spilled over into their lives and their relationship with Hilary and me. As Sister Amadeus promised, my marriage has been enriched by a penetrating infusion of sacramental grace that has deepened our commitment and love and touched all of our children, Hilary’s as well as mine.
I told Sister Amadeus a decade later, Sister, I still don’t understand what motivated me to get an annulment in the first place and what’s happened to me since.
Maybe you’ll never understand it, she said softly. The fact is, you experienced it.