A Null Annulment?

December 19, 2005 § 8 Comments

This post is a bit on the speculative side, because this is something that isn’t talked about much and I don’t claim to be expert, though I know a few things about the topic.

In a comment thread below I said:

Someone who causes a divorce utterly ruins at least one other person’s life. That person cannot ever validly remarry, cannot ever take holy orders, cannot ever go on with a valid vocation. In some ways murder is more merciful than divorce, because it doesn’t leave someone in a state of perpetual temptation to damnation. Divorce fractured the Church, destroyed the communion of Christian faithful. Divorce is among the most wicked and vile of crimes, not the least.

“So what about an annulment, smart guy?” is the natural question. I assumed in my comment that the marriage was valid; and a valid marriage does not end this side of death, no matter what the other person does and no matter who says otherwise.

An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce”. An annulment is an opinion on the part of a Church tribunal: specifically, an opinion that there was never a valid marriage in the first place. That opinion carries the force of canon law: it authorizes a priest to witness the marriage of that person to a new (or really the first valid) spouse. But it is still just an opinion, and it doesn’t change the underlying ontological reality. Either there was a valid marriage, or there was not. No opinion, not even an opinion from a tribunal, can turn what was a valid marriage into not a valid marriage. There is still no such thing as a Christian divorce.

So a good Catholic trying to understand what is objectively true and do the objectively right thing is left with a conundrum. The rate of annulment grants in the United States is about 97%. The rate of divorces among Catholics is about 50%, basically the same as everyone else. So that means that on average, in the tribunal’s opinion about half of Catholic marriages are invalid: that is, they are not objectively marriages at all. The number actually must be much greater than half, because presumably a significant percentage of those who don’t apply for annulments, those who stay “married”, are wrong about the objective status of their marriage. No doubt the conditions that give rise to invalid marriages also give rise to divorce, but the correspondence can’t be perfect. So probably about 70% of Catholic marriages are invalid, unless there is a credibility problem with the annulment process.

And there is the rub.

In either case – whether most marriages are invalid or most annulments are false positives – it seems to me that this rather devalues the credibility of the tribunal’s opinion in terms of understanding whether or not, objectively, a marriage was valid. The tribunal’s opinion still functions, as a matter of canon law, to give a priest permission to witness a “new” first marriage; but that is just a juridical matter, an administrative bit of trivia if the intent is to actually do the right thing. The priest may have legal permission to witness a new marriage, but that doesn’t in itself guarantee – or even indicate the likelihood of – the invalidity of the old marriage nor the validity of the new.

The result of the present state of affairs seems to me to be that when someone is granted an annulment, it is still virtually impossible to tell if the first marriage was or was not valid (except in very clear-cut cases of formal defect that amount to a very small percentage of annulments). Rather than being a mercy for the spiritually and emotionally wounded, the high rate of annulment grants leaves them – if they understand the process and are honest with themselves about it – in a terrible state of uncertainty. The annulment is a legal permission slip to the priest, but it doesn’t really help the spouse to better know the actual truth about the status of the first marriage.

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§ 8 Responses to A Null Annulment?

  • Patrick says:

    Just one quibble (which doesn’t do much against the main point, that a 97% rate of granting annulments is scarily suspicious):How many of the Catholic couples who divorce do, in fact, apply for an annulment? Half? One-tenth? Eighty percent?If that number is a lower one (and if, in particular, it is mostly requested by those who see in their marriage clear-cut grounds for one), your 70% scare-estimate may be significantly awry.

  • zippy says:

    That is certainly a fair point, and fair points were made in the thread over at Mark Shea’s blog too. More thought and a more detailed look at the data are needed to know just how scary the situation is, and in what particular ways it is scary – right now we are even uncertain about the precise nature of the uncertainty, as it were.

  • c matt says:

    <>The number actually must be much greater than half, because presumably a significant percentage of those who don't apply for annulments, those who stay "married", are wrong about the objective status of their marriage.<>So, assuming that the tribunals are doing an accurate job, there is no way to tell if you are objectively in a valid marriage. Thus, although you think you have been validly married for 20 years, objectively you could have been committing fornication for 20 yrs? No wonder St. Paul chose celibacy.(of course, culpability may be mitigated).

  • zippy says:

    I can’t vouch for the < HREF="http://www.catholic.net/RCC/Periodicals/Homiletic/07-96/3/3.html" REL="nofollow">source<>, but if true this would suggest that the problem is indeed the credibility of the tribunals, not the validity of marriages. In other words, it is those who have gotten annulments who are left objectively uncertain as to their true, objective status moreso than those who are married:<>A U.S. canonist's study documents a lack of judiciousness in the U.S. tribunal system. In 1980-1983 the Rota overturned 42 of 47 U.S. annulments (89%); another study reported 20 out of 23 (87%) in 1986-1987. It appears, then, that the U.S. tribunal system is cruising off course by almost 180; its nearly 90% annulment record really should be 10%.<>

  • Anonymous says:

    I don’t think that the statistical numbers involved are all that relevant. I would say that zippy is totally correct. One can’t know for sure if he is married unless he is a mind reader of his spouse. I have a feeling that the whole annulment\marriage scene will be changing in the years to come. At least I hope so.

  • Anonymous says:

    But the Church also teaches that one cannot be sinning if they don’t know it is a sin . If one where to go by what the tribunal says and believes their marriage was invalid , goes ahead and remarries believing this new marriage to be valid , they would’nt get the sacramental grace that is bestowed upon a valid marriage ( presuming the first one was indeed sacramental , but was ruled to be not so ) , but they would’nt be sinning . Right ?

  • zippy says:

    <>...but they wouldn't be sinning. Right?<>That is what I understand, yes, absolutely. Though there is an obligation to seek out the truth too: to <>inform<> the conscience.

  • Mark says:

    Yes, I’ve definitely thought this before. The lack of credibility in the annulment procedures is a big problem, and also a real scandal when it comes to witnessing to the Orthodox, who think the whole thing is just a bureaucratic legalistic technicality (which, in a certain sense, is true…I’ll explain later).But your analysis is one that intellectually honest Catholics have noticed before. When the Church (in more traditional days) gave annulments rarely, it seemed credible and justified. People who got an annulment were the exception to the rule so they really did seem to be providing a valid discernment of the rare but very possible case of the marriage never having been indisoluble in the first place due to some defect.Now it basically looks like Catholic Divorce because most people can get one if they try hard enough.Now, a few points that have already been made. One, I agree that Rota decisions imply that Catholics who are married have a much greater certainty and a lot less to worry about than those who are getting the annulment. It’s the INvalidity of many [annulled]marriages that is questionable, not the validity of most perfectly good marriages. Two, the tribunal’s decision, though totally fallible, can be deferred to as a matter of conscience unless you have a good reason not to. If the tribunal says the marriage is invalid, and the party in question didn’t secretly lie or delibrately mislead the tribunal to get that annulment, then they’re conscience is clean if they remarry, they don’t have to worry scrupulously about “but what if the marriage WAS valid?”. They aren’t culpable if the tribunal was wrong unless they know that they culpably did something to cause the tribunal to be wrong (lied, mislead, forged evidence, bribed, etc). If they did lie or something, then of course they are guilty, should report that fact, and the whole case should be retried.However, this whole situation brings into question the whole annulment process. I agree with the theory behind it…but that’s just the thing. It looks like another case of we in the Latin West imposing theological theory on our practice.I believe that for any reunion with the Orthodox to be successful, we may have to loosen ourselves a bit from Scholasticism and the Council of Trent…and have sort of a “first millenium” test. Things obviously were acceptable to both sides in the first millenium, and it is supernaturally guaranteed that things were at least as correct then as they are now…so…any further “development of doctrine” though it is valid and cannot be simply discarded…must be interpretted in the light of the practice of the first millenium.And they didn’t really have a whole bureaucratic tribunal system until relatively late in history. Though I believe that the essential theory behind annulments was preserved…it was put into practice much more like how the Orthodox handle remarriage today: the local bishop grants a dispensation to remarry without any big legalistic loophole mess. It’s done psstorally, pragmatically, with what the Orthodox call “economy” or a seeming laxity in the ideal for the sake of human frailty.However, I don’t believe we can abandon or weaken the indissolubility of marriage like the Orthodox do in their theory. In practice, I have no problem with the Orthodox methods (heck, the Orthodox remarry much less than Catholics these days)…it’s their theoretical justification that is wrong.Perhaps we can work towards getting them to accept the interpretion that their dispensation to remarry by the bishop is what we know of as an annulment. They associated “annulment” with a big legalistic technicality of a bureaucratic process…but obviously, the West has to admit that annulments were handled much more personally simply by the individual bishops in the first millenium, in a relatively short time without as big a process and investigation.This seems like a good enough solution. Reinterpret Orthodox dispensations to remarry as annulments being granted as they would have been in the first millenium: by the bishops, in a pastoral non-legalistic manner. Much how our “psychological immaturity” annulments are given relatively freely…but without the superfluous and legalistic process.However, I’ve suggested this to the Orthodox and they are very wary to say that the first marriage was not “sacramental” except in cases of the most obvious and egregious defects. To them, this looks like another word game. And they have a point. I mean…it happened. A ceremony was preformed in a Church. The two people pledged themselves to each other. They may have even had children. How is this not “sacramental”???This difficulty arises, I believe, from different meanings of the term “sacrament” in the two Churches. The East has a looser definition of a sacrament, and indeed it was used more like this in the first millenium. The West has developed this concept (validly, I believe) into what we may call capital-s Sacraments referring to The Seven alone. And I believe that The Seven are the only ones publically revealed in the deposit of faith, strictly speaking. But the Orthodox know that the deposit of faith is transmitted in a whole culture of religion, much of which indeed acrued and evolved later but which they are almost as hesitant to touch as the “essentials” of the faith. To them, seperating discipline and dogma with such a thick line like the West does…is fatal, as the dogmas are transmitted by the disciplines. Orthodoxy is found in orthopraxy. The West’s approach is very minimalist, concerned with what are the bare essentials, what is revealed strictly speaking, and what is “mere” discipline, what is the minimum necessary for validity, the minimum necessary to not be formal heresy.Now, I take a somewhat skeptical tone only to show how the Orthodox feel. I myself think like a Latin to the core. I am very concerned with precision theologically and logical theory and developed, fleshed-out, fully-explored concepts tested for consistancy and coherence. However, I totally understand the critique and the danger of this minimalist prone-to-legalism approach which is why I think reunion with the Orthodox is so important. We need the East to balance us. And they need us, certainly, to balance them. Otherwise, we each tilt to much towards our poles; we towards legalism and a sort of “cold” minimalist religion, they towards the bad kind of fideist traditionalism and peasent sensationalism. The popular religion and the clerical religion must constantly inform each other…but we drifted too far towards the clerical, and they drifted too far towards the popular. Leaving us with a super-centralized papacy running a bureaucracy unimaginable in the first millenium, and they filled with stubborn infighting and petty politics over mere administrative matters and stuff like an innacurate calendar and how many fingers to make the sign of the cross with.Now, I’m not endorsing a dialect view of history…but the way the Church should move forward and grow and develop is the opposite of what some people might think given the topsy-turviness in the Church today. It is the people, the popular religion, that should be the conservative force, and the clerics more “progressive,” moderating each other. However, when the balance is shifted we get the problems in both East and West today. In the East, they stagnated because their authorities can never get together and agree on anything new (Moscow especially is often a problem) so the popular religion gets a stubborn upperhand even when it seems a little superstitious or the theology is questionable. On the other hand, in the West, the clerics got more and more influence and so theory and legalism too the upperhand and eventually their top-down style culminated in the progressive “experimentation” of the Vatican II era, based on the current “theories” and trends in academic theology, and all the confusion somehow left us with the rather unnatural situation of the laity now being the liberalizing force and the clergy trying to exert a top-down conservativism.Anyway, my point was the Orthodox definition of “sacrament”. It’s broader then our Sacrament that refers only to The Seven. They recognize the Seven, even as being especially important…but they are less clear as to what the concept may encompass beyond that. Their concept of “sacrament” (perhaps better translated “Holy Mysteries”) can cover both the concepts of what we call Sacraments and many of the important and ancient ceremonies (like monastic profession, coronation of a monarch) that we would call “mere” sacramentals. Their theology of grace is not as precise, so the “sanctifying grace directly infused” vs. “actual graces which can be utilized to merit an increase in sanctifying grace” concepts seem like technicalities to them.Perhaps then, to get them to accept the idea that their dispensations to remarry correspond to our annulments…we should admit and emphasize that the first marriage may be a sacramental, even if not a valid and indissoluble Sacrament indissolubly (to use our terminology). I mean, the first marriage was a ritual and blessing preformed in the Church, and thus may have given actual graces. Something, perhaps, like the marriage between a baptized and non-baptized person that is still blessed by the Church. Technically only a “natural” marriage, technically dissoluble given certain circumstances…but nevertheless, can it not still be a “holy mystery”?? And it could have become indissoluble if the impediment was removed (ie, the party is baptized). If we explain that all we mean by “invalid” is that the marriage didnt yet meet the requirements of being totally indissoluble…it seems obvious. If the marriage is dissolved…it wasnt totally and absolutely indissoluble. And if we explain to them that all we mean by Sacrament validity in terms of marriage, perhaps they will warm up the concept more.

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