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.