I had been a widower for almost two years when I met Beth. I had anticipated staying single for the rest of my life. Sharon had been a wonderful wife and mother; when she died of cancer in her early 50’s, I grieved deeply. The Lord, however, blessed me with the opportunity to find a transcendent love a second time. There was one glitch. Beth was divorced, with the judgment recorded 20 years ago. Several years after the divorce, her former husband, Jack, remarried. Beth had remained single.

 

According to one study published in 1993, 21 percent of married Catholics have been divorced, and another 23 percent are separated from their spouses. Many Catholics find themselves therefore in a quandary. If they wish to remarry, they must apply for and receive an annulment from the church or be permanently barred from the sacraments. Furthermore, relatively little has been written about the effects of the Catholic annulment process on the people involved. The description by Joseph A. Califano Jr. of his successful annulment petition is one of the few published accounts (Am. 11/15/04). Like him, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to return to the sacraments. Yet the annulment process, as Beth and I experienced it, created intense anguish for us both and for Beth’s former husband, her mother and especially her children.

Before we married, Beth and I talked with our pastor. He was understanding and compassionate and explained the annulment process: nothing was guaranteed, but at least there was hope that sometime in the near future, if an annulment was granted, we could return to the sacraments. We were married in a civil ceremony a little more than three years ago. Two months later, Beth submitted her annulment application.

It was my idea for Beth to apply. My parish means a great deal to me. I have been an active member there for 30 years. Mass and Communion (Sundays and weekdays) are especially important. Beth, a devout Catholic but not as close to the parish as I am, was willing to apply, but her intuition told her it would not be painless. We thought it best not to mention the annulment application to her four grown children (ages 22 to 31), none of whom were practicing Catholics. She also did not mention it to her former husband, an agnostic who had married her in the church only because his Italian father demanded it.

As part of the application process, Beth was required to write a long narrative explaining why neither she nor Jack had been emotionally ready for marriage. In part this was therapeutic. Reflecting on her life as a child and adolescent, a life of turmoil and distress, she came to realize how unprepared she had been. Yet the experience was also very painful. Deep psychological wounds were reopened as she relived the problems of her marriage and the pain of divorce.

Beth asked her mother, Millie, to be one of the witnesses who would testify in writing about Beth’s situation. Perhaps no other person knew better Beth’s tumultuous early life, which included several dysfunctional stepfathers.

Unfortunately, Millie felt that Beth’s depiction of her childhood, in which she often felt alienated and rootless, was a criticism of her. Angry, she telephoned Beth’s daughter Mary and told her about the annulment proceedings. “Do you know what your mother has done?” she said. “She is claiming that there never was a marriage between her and your father. That makes you illegitimate.” Mary told this to her siblings, who also became disturbed and upset.

Beth and I had extensive talks with her children. We explained that a Catholic annulment does not deny the love that had existed, the validity of the civil marriage or their own legitimacy. Still, they all felt very hurt.

Beth’s former husband was also contacted as part of the annulment proceedings. He too became angry and depressed. He remembered the pain of the divorce, but in his mind an annulment meant that the marriage never happened and that all the good times of his marriage to Beth were erased. Jack never responded to any of the letters sent him by the diocesan tribunal.

It took two years and 10 months until the annulment was finally granted. Beth was at various times saddened, upset and thoroughly depressed.

Had we known three years ago what we know now, Beth would not have applied for an annulment. Had I known how much pain Beth and her family would go through, I would not have asked her to apply. I realize I would have been barred from Communion for life, not just for the duration of the process. I would be able to attend Mass, but when it came time for Communion, I would have to step aside, let others advance toward the altar and return to my pew.

our experience was not unique. Many Catholics have gone through an annulment and felt much pain. There are many others who do not bother to apply and remain on the margins of Catholic life.

I hope that someday the Catholic Church will reflect the compassion and forgiveness of Christ by developing a more understanding process to reconcile divorced and remarried Catholics with the church. Instead of requiring a long, formal annulment process, which in many cases is filled with pain, perhaps the church could allow divorced Catholics an opportunity to return to the church and the sacraments through a parish priest. Or the church could create a process similar to that used for members of the clergy who petition to set aside their ordination. As in the case of these laicized priests, a stipulation could be made that such reconciled Catholics could not serve in such church roles as lector or eucharistic minister. Such a limitation is something most divorced and remarried Catholics would be willing to accept, so long as they had the opportunity to receive the sacraments. They could take their place once again in the Communion line, with all the other communicants whose sins have been forgiven.

The writer of this article requested anonymity and has changed the names of the individuals in this account to protect their privacy.

Comments

Paul Iwanski | 2/21/2005 - 1:02pm
As a Tribunal representative in my diocese, I have personnally walked many individuals through the annulment process. Although there is certainly some pain involved I frequently use the analogy that an annulment is like going to the dentist... No one wants to go, but after you've gone, you are glad you went. Annulment can have a healing effect on the parties involved. In fact I'm sure that the hundreds of individuals that I have worked with would agree. The children are not 'bastards' and the representative should have focused on the 'sacramental' aspect of the marriage and not the civil...was the marriage a sacrament? Sorry for any pain it might have caused, now pick yourselves up and move on...as Catholics in full communion with the Church.
Deacon Alan Whitson | 2/24/2005 - 10:57am
Dear Writer,

While your anguish is very common what is also all too common is that you had no one to walk the journey with you. Jesus’ journey to Golgotha was filled with anguish. Yet He had many to comfort Him along the way. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis we have advocates to walk with those who have found the courage to seek an annulment. These individuals, of whom I am one, are not intended to be Cannon Lawyers but are trained enough to help the petitioner and their families deal with the common misconceptions of this most difficult process. I pray that you and “Beth” can at some point heal and put this painful experience into a positive light.

Thomas Lee | 2/19/2005 - 12:08pm
I too have experienced the barbaric, legalistic process that our hierarchical church arbitrarily imposes on Catholics who divorce and seek to remary in the Church. They do not break their vow "until death do you part" for in fact there has been a death, the death of their marriage. Had our annulment petition not succeeded, my new wife's Lutheran pastor would have married us as he was authorized to do so in the Lutheran tradition.

Since less that 10% of divorcing Catholics seek an annulment, a great number of Catholics face being cut off from the central expression of our faith, the eucharist. I have encouraged many such fellow Catholics to follow their conscience and if a thoughtful consideration of the issue has the judgement of their conscience be to receive the eucharist, they should proceed to do so.

For me, the annulment process is another product of our hierarchical church that cries out for change along with mandatory celibacy, absence of women priests.

Denise E. Bossert | 2/24/2005 - 6:37pm
I don’t think any article on the annulment process could adequately describe the anguish the process engenders. In January, I submitted the paperwork for an annulment, and I have to agree with the writer that it was a very difficult exercise in self-reflection. It also raised some questions and concerns for my children, and confusion on the part of my Protestant mother and siblings. I am braced for the potential negative response of my former husband.

That being said, I would do it all over again.

First, the process is difficult just as many medical diagnostics seem torturous. I learned things about myself that I never wanted to know. I saw my sin and immaturity up close and personal and it wasn’t pretty. It was, however, healing.

Second, I want more than anything else to be able to receive the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. I crave it with my entire soul. As humbling as the annulment process was and as embarrassing as it is to remain seated during Holy Communion, it is (and will be) worth it. After all, it was my sin that created the mess, not the work of the Holy Catholic Church.

Third, the annulment process is an act of submission to the Church. As a recent convert (my father was a Presbyterian pastor and my first husband an associate United Methodist pastor), I understand that the number one issue that divides Catholics and Protestants has to do with spiritual authority. Can I believe what the Church says about the Holy Eucharist, Mary, the Communion of Saints, Purgatory and so on? If the answer is yes, then I must submit here as well. Why are there more than 2,000 Protestant denominations? Nobody wants to stick around when they disagree with the authority.

If we stay in the Church, but grouse about the teachings of the Church, we are “playing Catholic” rather than being Catholic.

If there is anguish to bear because I submit to the annulment process, so be it. Converting wasn’t a picnic, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t exactly what the Lord was calling me to do.

Paul Iwanski | 2/21/2005 - 1:02pm
As a Tribunal representative in my diocese, I have personnally walked many individuals through the annulment process. Although there is certainly some pain involved I frequently use the analogy that an annulment is like going to the dentist... No one wants to go, but after you've gone, you are glad you went. Annulment can have a healing effect on the parties involved. In fact I'm sure that the hundreds of individuals that I have worked with would agree. The children are not 'bastards' and the representative should have focused on the 'sacramental' aspect of the marriage and not the civil...was the marriage a sacrament? Sorry for any pain it might have caused, now pick yourselves up and move on...as Catholics in full communion with the Church.
Deacon Alan Whitson | 2/24/2005 - 10:57am
Dear Writer,

While your anguish is very common what is also all too common is that you had no one to walk the journey with you. Jesus’ journey to Golgotha was filled with anguish. Yet He had many to comfort Him along the way. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis we have advocates to walk with those who have found the courage to seek an annulment. These individuals, of whom I am one, are not intended to be Cannon Lawyers but are trained enough to help the petitioner and their families deal with the common misconceptions of this most difficult process. I pray that you and “Beth” can at some point heal and put this painful experience into a positive light.

Thomas Lee | 2/19/2005 - 12:08pm
I too have experienced the barbaric, legalistic process that our hierarchical church arbitrarily imposes on Catholics who divorce and seek to remary in the Church. They do not break their vow "until death do you part" for in fact there has been a death, the death of their marriage. Had our annulment petition not succeeded, my new wife's Lutheran pastor would have married us as he was authorized to do so in the Lutheran tradition.

Since less that 10% of divorcing Catholics seek an annulment, a great number of Catholics face being cut off from the central expression of our faith, the eucharist. I have encouraged many such fellow Catholics to follow their conscience and if a thoughtful consideration of the issue has the judgement of their conscience be to receive the eucharist, they should proceed to do so.

For me, the annulment process is another product of our hierarchical church that cries out for change along with mandatory celibacy, absence of women priests.

Denise E. Bossert | 2/24/2005 - 6:37pm
I don’t think any article on the annulment process could adequately describe the anguish the process engenders. In January, I submitted the paperwork for an annulment, and I have to agree with the writer that it was a very difficult exercise in self-reflection. It also raised some questions and concerns for my children, and confusion on the part of my Protestant mother and siblings. I am braced for the potential negative response of my former husband.

That being said, I would do it all over again.

First, the process is difficult just as many medical diagnostics seem torturous. I learned things about myself that I never wanted to know. I saw my sin and immaturity up close and personal and it wasn’t pretty. It was, however, healing.

Second, I want more than anything else to be able to receive the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. I crave it with my entire soul. As humbling as the annulment process was and as embarrassing as it is to remain seated during Holy Communion, it is (and will be) worth it. After all, it was my sin that created the mess, not the work of the Holy Catholic Church.

Third, the annulment process is an act of submission to the Church. As a recent convert (my father was a Presbyterian pastor and my first husband an associate United Methodist pastor), I understand that the number one issue that divides Catholics and Protestants has to do with spiritual authority. Can I believe what the Church says about the Holy Eucharist, Mary, the Communion of Saints, Purgatory and so on? If the answer is yes, then I must submit here as well. Why are there more than 2,000 Protestant denominations? Nobody wants to stick around when they disagree with the authority.

If we stay in the Church, but grouse about the teachings of the Church, we are “playing Catholic” rather than being Catholic.

If there is anguish to bear because I submit to the annulment process, so be it. Converting wasn’t a picnic, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t exactly what the Lord was calling me to do.

Recently in Faith in Focus