Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, co-founded mtncatholic.com, and co-hosts the Pit of Culture podcast. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew lives and works in Spokane, Washington.
“Through the centuries, the Church, having attained a clearer awareness of the words of Christ, came to and set forth a deeper understanding of the doctrine of the indissolubility of the sacred bond of marriage, developed a system of nullities of matrimonial consent, and put together a judicial process more fitting to the matter so that ecclesiastical discipline might conform more and more to the truth of the faith she was professing. All these things were done following the supreme law of the salvation of souls insofar as the Church, as Blessed Paul VI wisely taught, is the divine plan of the Trinity, and therefore all her institutions, constantly subject to improvement, work, each according to its respective duty and mission, toward the goal of transmitting divine grace and constantly promoting the good of the Christian faithful as the Church’s essential end.” —Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus”
The Church’s process for seeking “annulments” (as decrees of nullity are commonly called) is hardly a lighthearted affair. Its very existence comes as a result of an imperfect humanity, perhaps more specifically a broken culture. Annulments were never a part of God’s plan, to be sure. Then again, neither was the very Fall itself.
But here we are. Sinners who rely on the mercy of God to come anywhere close to eternity in heaven with Him. We’re able to sing “O Happy Fault…” and prostrate ourselves in homage to the Father, because it “gained for us so great a Redeemer.” It was the overwhelming mercy of God that gave us the Incarnate Word, and likewise it’s the same mercy that affords we Christians something like the annulment process.
That’s why I have mixed thoughts about something I read recently entitled, “Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness.” The author wrote well of the annulment process over the article’s first half, rightly affirming -- through several quotes from St. John Paul II -- that the annulment process ultimately serves the indissolubility of marriage. He also noted well that any union that could be reconciled and convalidated by the Church should be reconciled and convalidated, since the preservation of family life is always tantamount wherever possible.
I even agreed especially with the author’s line, “It is human weakness that allows a man or a woman to appear to enter a valid marriage while not really doing so.”
But it’s here, when the topic arises of whether a decree of nullity is necessary, that I believe clarification is needed:
“If I really believe I meant what I said about marrying for life, for better or worse, until death do us part, even if I’m abandoned by my spouse, it doesn’t automatically mean that I “need” an annulment. The sad thing is that I’ve encountered well-meaning Catholics who wrongly say the decision NOT to pursue an annulment is “pathological” when in fact it’s heroic and virtuous.” (emphasis in original)
Now, it is indeed wrong to call someone “pathological” simply for refusing to pursue an annulment. But for those who genuinely have “doubts regarding the validity of their marriage or are convinced of its nullity” (Pope Francis, Mitis Iudex), such a refusal is not necessarily heroic and virtuous.
On a couple’s wedding day, only one of two things can happen: either a marriage is validly contracted, or it isn’t. Just as Jesus either is the Son of God or isn’t, there can only be two options, and personal feelings have no bearing on the objective fact. It is commendable that an individual may want to stay true to a promise he or she made, even while harboring serious doubts regarding the validity of a marriage. In fact, it would be virtuous to stay true to such a promise, say if one spouse was abandoned by another, and a subsequent annulment petition deemed the marriage valid.
However, when someone has “doubts regarding the validity of their marriage or are convinced of its nullity” (and when the relationship seems irreparably broken), refusing to submit the matter to the Church in the name of “staying faithful” isn't necessarily “heroic and virtuous”.
Part of the canonical process’ service to the indissolubility of marriage is its ability to definitively declare marriages null, in order that the parties might pursue the vocation to which the Lord is calling them.
Our Lord calls each of us to something specific. Whether it’s the married state or religious life, we’re all called to something definitive, and part of being a Christian is having hope that we’re able to discern such a calling through prayer and an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. This is no different for those who have experienced divorce and are able to obtain a decree of nullity.
Furthermore, an act is not heroic simply because it’s difficult. If that were the case, requesting to be held underwater for three minutes could be considered heroic. Doing a difficult act simply because it’s difficult is the definition of foolhardiness.
We must not forget that Jesus, while saying that getting to heaven required treading the narrow way, also unequivocally promised an easy yoke and a light burden when walking daily with Him. We have an obligation to reconcile the two, and doing otherwise denies a key portion of the nature of God -- that He is equally rich in mercy as He is in justice.
On this very subject, St. John Paul II, in a 1990 address to the Roman Rota, quoted the Angelic Doctor himself:
“It is necessary to try to understand better the harmony between justice and mercy, a theme very dear to both the theological and canonical traditions. St. Thomas Aquinas, after having explained that divine mercy in forgiving offenses does not undermine justice, but rather goes above and beyond it, concludes: ‘From this it is evident that mercy does not weaken justice, but is the perfection of justice.’”
The annulment process, in conjunction with its affirmation of marriage’s indissolubility, puts the mercy of God on full display. It’s an acknowledgement of the Fall, of human weakness, and of our constant need to cry out to our Creator for help.
Although annulments are a juridical process -- an act of the Church’s call to seek justice -- we must never forget, first, that the grace of the Lord’s mercy ever flows strongly, and, second, that it is the Holy Spirit who guides us through all such difficulties … but only if we let Him.
And it’s important to note that why Our Lord desires to give such grace is so that, whether or not a decree of nullity is eventually granted, you can continue to pursue the path to sanctity for which you were made.
And so, in the words of the Apostles who called out to the blind man:
“Take heart. Rise. He is calling you.”