An annulment mill straw man, or, turning ignorance into the eighth sacrament redux
October 4, 2014 § 25 Comments
No, the objections of the first group to the number of annulments being declared is, I suggest, not to the annulment process but to the people running that process. Tribunal officers are, it is alleged, too naive, too heterodox, or just too lazy to reach sound decisions on nullity petitions; they treat annulments as tickets to a second chance at happiness owed to people who care enough to fill out the forms. How exactly members of this first group can reach their conclusion without extended experience in tribunal work and without adverting to the cascade of evidence that five decades of social collapse in the West and a concomitant collapse of catechetical and canonical work in the Church is wreaking exactly the disastrous effects on real people trying to enter real marriages that the Church has always warned about, escapes me. Nevertheless that is essentially their claim: the process needs no major reform, processors do.
Peters in effect asserts a reverse ad hominem, suggesting that opponents of the annulment mill are attacking the character of the people carrying out the process rather than attacking the process itself.
There is a another view, which is that the process needs to be reformed because the ‘internal forum’ criteria for defective consent are inherently subjective. On this view, attempting to judge the majority of ‘internal forum’ annulments is like attempting to judge whether a particular confession was valid or not, based on the testimony of the penitent — who, by the time the issue comes up juridically years later, may not be certain himself.
In the case of a bad confession there is a simple sacramental solution: go make a good, valid confession and don’t leave anything involving ‘grave matter’ out, including the possible invalid confession.
In the case of uncertain consent to marriage there is also a simple sacramental solution: convalidation. This is how the Church has always consistently treated epistemic doubt about the validity of sacraments, to wit, conditional baptism. When in doubt because of inherently subjective factors or other uncertainties, the way forward is to ensure that the sacrament is confected validly and licitly.
Modern annulment practice is unique in the history of the Church, inasmuch as it treats a possible sacramental irregularity – based on purely subjective considerations – as a two way street. It doesn’t provide a way forward, it provides a way backward, in the name of a false ‘mercy’. This is terribly unfair in a way in which carrying out the death penalty without objective third-party evidence would be terribly unfair. Errors in death penalty cases result in killing the innocent; errors in ‘internal forum’ annulment cases turn various people (including innocent ‘spouses’, past and future) into material adulterers. This is just the very modern phenomenon of turning doubt or ignorance into an eighth sacrament: it pretends that mercy means letting people stew in objective evil with no real way out.
It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values. – Veritatis Splendour
I’ll cite the documents of one American diocese just to give flavor on the sort of criteria which are actually being employed in the actual current process to annul marriages. Of course examples can be multiplied, and I’ve seen many more egregious examples than these. If someone doubts that, we can hold a contest to come up with more examples. This just happened to be what I grabbed with a quick Google:
Error Concerning a Quality of the Person: (canon 1097, §2) Defect of consent due to error concerning a quality of the other person, directly and principally intended in a spouse. If one party intended to marry someone who possessed a certain quality (perhaps of a moral, social, physical, religious, psychological or legal nature), and the primary reason for entering the marriage was the erroneous belief the intended spouse possessed that quality, the marriage may be invalid. The intended quality must be of such a magnitude that, without it, the person would not have married the other, and the discovery of the truth must have had a serious effect on the nature of the marriage.
Conditioned Consent – Past and Present Condition (c. 1101, §2) Defect of consent when a person entered a marriage based on a past or present condition of the existence or non-existence of a fact, typically concerning the spouse’s or his/her past (e.g., citizenship, criminality) or present state (e.g., pregnancy, a medical condition, career, a character or trait). Placing such a condition on the marriage raises serious questions, and it invalidates marriage when it is proven the condition, upon which the marriage decision depended, was not fulfilled at the time of marriage. This ground may be considered when one or both spouses entered the marriage with an expressed condition based on something from the past or present
Notice that, in addition to relying on wholly subjective testimony about peoples’ expectations going into marriage, these two criteria basically contradict each other. If you married expecting your spouse to have a certain quality and your spouse doesn’t turn out to have that quality, the marriage is null because your spouse didn’t have that quality. But if you married expecting your spouse to have a certain quality at all, that too casts doubt on the validity of the marriage.
This sort of jurisprudence makes the very idea of validly consenting to marriage into a joke.
Now reforming the process to basically close off the way backward represented by ‘internal forum’ annulments still leaves ‘external forum’ cases open to adjudication, and I would use the term broadly to include cases where objective third-party evidence of defective consent prior to the wedding is admissible: e.g. bragging to friends about the mistress at the bachelor party, as attested by third party witnesses.
But closing the door on all ‘purely subjective’ and even self-contradictory internal forum cases – whatever one thinks of it – would (contra Peters) be a process reform, would be consistent with the way the Church treats cases of possible invalidity when it comes to other sacraments, and would preach to the world by walking our talk – unlike current practice – that the Catholic Church is serious about the indissolubility of sacramental marriage.