The National Catholic Review
Two articles about the Catholic Church’s process for granting an annulment of marriage were recently published in America: The Annulment, by Joseph A. Califano Jr. (11/15/04), and The Anguish of Annulment (2/28/05). We publish here a representative sampling of the letters prompted by these articles. Because so many who wrote requested anonymity, none of the writers has been identified. Each new letter begins in bold

As an active parish priest, I tried to follow the annulment procedures, and over a period of 40 years I have seen them move to more pastoral levels. My first marriage annulment was a reverse Petrine Privilege modeled after the famous Helena, Mont., case. The petitioner was a Protestant. It took three years and was submitted (personally I am told) to Pope Paul VI. I was instructed to sign the petition ...kissing the sacred purple.... It was mailed in a 3-inch thick envelope of testimony to His Holiness Pope Paul VI. It came back affirmative and opened the door to an abbreviated lifetime of connubial bliss for the petitioner, who died shortly thereafter.

Another incident involved a 67-year-old Catholic woman and a 73-year-old Methodist man who wanted to become a Catholic, around 1985. By that time some annulment procedures were placed in the hands of the petitioners. My petitioner began to cry inconsolably as she tried to write of the beatings and infidelities to which she had been subjected during her failed marriage. I stopped the whole process. The petitioner’s new partner converted to the Catholic religion. They married civilly, and I invoked the good-faith solution. Both were able to receive the sacraments and enjoy parish life as dedicated Catholics for the remainder of their lives. Both are now deceased. They loved God and they loved the church.

Since then I have followed annulment procedures for those who want them. I have invoked the internal forum (good-faith solution) where warrantednot for everybody. I have been tempted to do my own annulments since I know more as a parish priest than those not personally acquainted with the parties involved. Would Jesus have been a judicial vicar? This is not to antagonize those who sincerely work and pray for their annulment clients. It is simply to say we need new norms, new procedures and less control in dealing with the tragedy of Catholic marriage breakups.

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The husband who described his wife’s pain, and the pain of everyone in the family, resulting from their experience with the annulment process, sent me into a period of self-examination. I am a tribunal judge.

We can also say, though, that many of the people who have, with trepidation, petitioned for a declaration of nullity and worked through the process, which can be painful, have told us that they have found it in the end to be a healing experience. The healing comes from the declaration of nullity. But it also comes from the experience of having dealt with memories that have been, for understandable reasons, put in a box, sealed closed. Bringing them to light and, with help, looking at them with perspective is what therapy is.

Canon lawyers spend a lot of time talking about a simpler and more pastoral process. While we have this one, though, I think I would say it is a good one, if used well. I would not claim that what we do is glitch-free. I suspect that, in moments of trial, neither my auto mechanic nor my surgeon would claim that what they do is glitch-free, either.

Asking that a tribunal study a petition for a declaration of nullity is a right that people have. I hope that the painful experience described in the article will not keep those who are thinking about it from picking up the phone and calling.

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Thank you for publishing the account in your Feb. 28 issue. I share the author’s misgivings. At the behest of my ex-spouse and despite our children, I too went through the annulment process. Much of what was revealed would have been better left behind us and our families. Truth may have been served; charity was not. The process was a painful dredging up that hurt others and rubbed relationships raw. I question whether this examination of faults and failures even served the cause of justice.

Too many believe that this process is the salutary way to right a mistaken marriage. Only those who have been through it know the injury and damage it can inflict. Surely there must be a better way. My annulment was granted. I have never remarried.

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The personal experience described in The Anguish of Annulment was the most discouraging article I have ever read in America, since I was introduced to it in 1957.

Since my ordination in 1962, America has been a source of encouragement that Vatican II really does trickle down, that there are priests and parishes whose primary energy is the compassion of Christ, that procedures take a back seat to people.

I was certain that the days, the priests and the parish styles described in the article were gone forever. Your article frightened me a lot. Am I living in a fool’s paradise? I do not think of myself as a latter day Curé d’Ars, Oscar Romero or even Barry Fitzgerald, but I was stunned when your anonymous author longed for a day when the Catholic Church will reflect the compassion and forgiveness of Christ.

You, America, have a far-reaching eye on the American church. If my fears are unfounded, surely you would know and might consider another article that would reflect what I truly hope is the prevailing experience for our people.

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The anonymous author of The Anguish of Annulment presents a very real and not rare experience of the often bumpy road of the annulment process. Hopefully readers unfamiliar with this area of healing ministry will not presume that his story is like most stories.

Few would argue that old and sometimes painful memories, often thought dead and buried, are resurrected for the sake of a case’s testimony. But it has been my experience, both as a pastor to those going through the process and as a tribunal judge, that such recollections have the effect of bringing the darkness into the light. Many parishioners have expressed gratitude and relief for receiving closure they thought they had but, in reality, did not have.

I have been involved in cases that lasted a mere five weeks to one that took seven years to complete. No case is ever like any other case. Our ministry to those in broken marriages requires going the extra mile pastorally, especially by sometimes bureaucratic tribunal personnel. A well-informed case participant, one who has hand-holding along the way by knowledgeable pastoral ministers, almost always has a much more positive experience.

The annulment process we have is the widest window we can open right now to serve the divorced and be faithful to Jesus’ teachings on marriage. As the church continues to evolve, so must the avenues of our ministry to these brokenhearted souls.

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The article The Anguish of Annulment was right on target. As a priest for 39 years and a pastor for 28 years, I too feel the frustration, depression, anger and anguish of what we put people through in this process. I hope and pray for a better, more understanding and compassionate process.

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The story told in The Anguish of Annulment is one I have heard repeatedly in my 49 years of priesthood. Such stories, in which annulment has tragically been the only option for Catholics seeking to leave a dysfunctional marriage, prompted me to work in tribunals for years and eventually to choose the topic of divorce and remarriage in Christianity for my doctoral dissertation.

Annulment is but one of four ways to respond to an understanding of the words of Jesus on divorce. This process is virtually only 50 years old, in a 2,000-year-old church. It was made available to the common folk only after World War II, though conceived of a millennium earlier. Today only 15 percent of the Catholic world use itin industrial, educated and wealthy nations. Tribunals are rare south of the border, nonexistent in the Eastern world. The process costs the U.S. church millions each year. Annulments are simply not affordable in poor countries.

In 1985, I sat in shock as a leading canon lawyer addressed tribunal workers in a national conference. He told us this presentation was not to be recorded by anyone. He waited. His opening words were: You are good people, yet you are part of an immoral process. He developed the fact that most priests force this process on people as the only solution. I agreed with him as he gave examples of Catholics for whom annulment was not a viable option yet was the only one given to them: couples over 60, at times in poor health; older couples wanting to have children; minority groups who don’t understand legal procedures; those afraid of any documentation or who have no access to documents; those unable to read or read well; non-Catholics forced through a religious process offensive to their belief; danger because of hostile divorces or child custody fights; all witnesses deceased; couples who alone know the valid reasons; any marriage that died along the way from effects of Vietnam or incest. Insisting that only an annulment can dissolve a Catholic marriage has caused the greatest attrition in the U.S. Catholic Church in our era. The number of warranted divorces and the proportionate numbers of possible annulments is like fitting an elephant in a bathtub. No doubt, annulments can be helpful to some. But for a large number of people they are impossible or harmful.

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After reading The Anguish of Annulment, I felt compelled to respond lest others be discouraged from pursuing this option. In my case, I sought the annulment as soon as the civil divorce was final, so that I would know exactly where I stood with the church. I found the process to be a tremendous benefit in seeing the relationship as it really was and knowing things I would do differently if I ever married again. It brought great healing to me and, I believe, to my ex-husband, and I truly felt very loved and affirmed by everyone I dealt with through the entire process. It renewed my faith to the point that if the annulment had been denied, I would have accepted that judgment and moved on with my life alone. Fifteen years later, I met a wonderful Catholic man, and we were married after a two-year courtship, unmarred by any ties to the past.

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As an R.C.I.A. coordinator, I face the difficult task of explaining the annulment process to people seeking initiation into the Catholic Church. More often than not, this is very hard for them to understand. And often, because of the length of the process, they are told they will not be able to complete the initiation process at the Easter Vigil because the annulment has not been completed. It is also my experience that many Catholics simply ignore the rules and continue to receive the Eucharist, because they feel the annulment process is too difficult and they feel that in their hearts they can receive.

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What about the anguish of an annulment not granted? My sister and her newly married husband remained in the pew at Communion time on the day of my first Mass1962. She had previously married the boy next door at too young an age. Her request for an annulment from that marriage was denied.

She married again, and through the years her children were baptized and raised Catholic, but she remained away from Communion. Now for the past 10 years she has been away from all of us, because she is hospitalized with the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

One day by chance I visited the nursing home at the time of a Communion service. My sister did not receive Communion. She simply stared out of her darkness at what was going on around her. I blessed her and left the nursing home very sad. I realized that even her happy memories of raising her children as Catholic were gone.

It made we wonder, once again, why the church has acted with so little compassion toward so many of her loving, faith-filled people...and continues to do so.

Comments

John L. Coakley Jr. | 2/16/2007 - 2:03pm
The responses in the issue of 4/4 to earlier articles about the annulment process reminded me of a marriage preparation program in 1950, in which annulment was briefly discussed. The priest moderating the program advised that there was only one reason for which an annulment would be granted. That reason was non-consummation. Then he added, “But just try to prove it.” To think what one might have to endure to attempt to prove it translated in my mind to, “My church does not trust me.”

The present annulment procedure apparently is more open but still carries a significant implication that our church does not trust us. There are other occurrences in the current troubles within the church that are, in my view, further manifestations of a lack of trust by the hierarchy for us who sit in the pews. The reluctance of many bishops to open the records of their administration is another indicator of their lack of trust for us.

Could it be that a countervailing sentiment from the pews expressing a diminished sense of trust in the hierarchy is one of the roots of current problems in the church?