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BY Edward Peters
A MARRIAGE is a special kind of union between two people, but the existence of a marriage also has serious implications for other people besides the couple, especially for family and friends of the couple. Fundamentally, an annulment is a determination about the ecclesiastical status of two people, but a declaration of nullity has a serious impact on those around them as well.
The first way in which others may be impacted by an annulment arises when the petitioner or the respondent asks the tribunal to contact such persons about serving as witnesses in the case. It is important to realize that in a canonical trial, unlike a civil trial, witnesses are not put in the position of supporting one side in the case against the other. Because canon law follows the inquiry-based approach to trials, instead of the adversary-based approach used in common law, witnesses in canonical trials are called to assist the tribunal-not the individual parties.
Almost anyone can be asked to serve as a witness in an annulment case. However, tribunals tend not to seek testimony from children in a marriage, because they usually were not prior to the wedding-the most relevant time to an annulment case. Similarly, parish priests serve infrequently as witnesses in order to avoid complications related to the seal of confession or general pastoral confidentiality. Additionally, expert witnesses, such as physicians and professional counselors, usually require releases before being able to assist the tribunal.
Witnesses are usually asked to share what they know with the tribunal in their own words. They are encouraged where possible to avoid statements that are conclusions or opinions rather than objective descriptions. This is not as easy as it sounds, for people are prone to evaluate behavior, according to their perspectives, in the same breath with which they describe it.
For example, two witnesses might say, with every intention of being accurate, “Jane had a problem with alcohol.” But the first witness might have in mind that “both times I saw Jane drinking in college, she acted silly and got sick” while the other might mean “Jane spent most of her senior year passed out in the student lounge, and was even drinking the day of her wedding before the ceremony.”
Inside Annulments Part IV of V
Parents of persons in annulment cases, when called to testimony, sometimes feel as if their performance in raising their children is being questioned. Certainly, one's upbringing is important, and there are cases of annulments being declared in part because of the deleterious effects of seriously distorted home life. But Church law and common sense recognize that, eventually, people must stand behind their own decisions or fail because of their own faults. Parents must be careful not to minimize or exaggerate important aspects of the children's history out of misplaced desire to impress the tribunal with their parenting skills. Sibling witnesses, obviously, are less susceptible to these tendencies and are frequently very important in adjudicating an annulment case.
Given the high percentage of annulment cases in which neither party was Catholic at the time of the wedding (when one or both parties has come into the Church subsequently), the Church accords the institution of marriage in other faith traditions the same favorable presumptions it does its own. This point is sometimes overlooked by non-Catholic witnesses who, upon receiving questionnaires from a Catholic tribunal, feel that the quality of marriage in their denomination is being questioned, or that the Church is holding their family or friends to standards that did not apply to them at the time of their wedding.
Many witnesses, mistakenly assuming that “Church annulments go to nice people,” present testimony about how decent the parties were, or how important the annulment is to them, or why the parties deserve another chance, and so on. Such witnesses are reluctant to mention the problems they saw in the marriage. At best, this attempt to second guess the tribunal delays cases while the real facts are sought out; at worst, such testimony deprives the tribunal of the information needed to reach an accurate decision in the case.
Witnesses are asked to provide information to the tribunal, but unlike petitioners and respondents, they enjoy no right to know what other information has been provided, or even whether the tribunal accepted or rejected their testimony. In cases making use of indifferent outside observers as witnesses, such a rule raises no complications. But in annulment cases, this one-way flow of information may lead to some unsupported, but seriously mistaken, conclusions on the part of observers.
Problems often arise when people assume they know much more about a person than they actually do. For example, some annulment cases involve histories of spousal abuse, which is frequently unknown even to the victim's family and friends. If this behavior pattern had been confirmed (by confidential medical expert testimony) and helped prove canonical grounds for nullity, the witnesses may conclude that nullity was declared despite the absence of any serious problems until late in the marriage. There is nothing the tribunal, being bound by confidentiality, can do to correct that erroneous conclusion.
This is not to suggest that every hard case in which matrimonial nullity is declared must have hidden smoking-gun “grounds” such as spousal abuse, abortion, drug addiction, or the like. Rather, it simply underscores the importance of witness cooperation that is as frank and as accurate as possible, and recommends some basis for trusting that the tribunal has a better picture of the whole than any one of the individuals involved. Given the importance of witness participation in annulment cases, potential witnesses with questions about their manner of participation should not hesitate to bring these concerns to the tribunal. Generally, tribunals try to be accommodating to witness preferences regarding manners of testifying.
Impact on Children
Besides witnesses, other people are impacted by marriage nullity cases. A common concern is the effect annulment cases have on the status of children who were born to the couple. In a word, none. Annulments do not have, and never did have, any effect on “legitimacy,” as it is called.
The practice of labeling as “illegitimate” children born to parents who were not married has nearly disappeared from Western society. Under modern canon law, so-called illegitimacy no longer has any canonical effects, and the concept is barely mentioned in the 1983 Code. For those who still wonder, however, legitimacy is established from the time of a (presumably) valid wedding ceremony-whether that ceremony precedes or post-dates the birth of a child-or from the time of a putative marriage, that is, a marriage which, even though it is later declared null, was entered into by at least one of the parties in good faith.
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of marriages coming before tribunals were, in fact, entered into in good faith by at least one, and usually both parties, and that fact alone establishes the legitimacy of the children born during the marriage.
Interpreting the Decision
When one learns that the marriage of a family member or friend has been declared null, one should not look at it as a victory in the case of those who wanted the annulment, or as a defeat for those who might have been opposed. The Church doesn't. An annulment is not a second chance to do something right; it is a recognition that the first time never satisfied the objective requirements of law.
There is nothing satisfying about declaring marriages null. Every annulment, correctly decided, discloses a failure. It documents the frustration of two people who tried to do what was right and who probably wanted to enter the kind of life-long union the Church calls marriage. But for reasons centered in one or both parties, that attempt was null from the outset. In cases involving Catholics, every annulment represents the failure to identify factors that could threaten the validity of a marriage and address them adequately in advance. Every annulment is another voice calling for higher standards in marriage preparation programs.
What family and friends can perhaps glean from an annulment case is a better appreciation of the factors that can result in matrimonial nullity. Time and again, tribunals receive testimony from family and friends who say that they were privately opposed to the wedding in question, but that they hid their feelings out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the couple. Regrettably, these people did not trust their instincts at a time when it might have made a difference. It is hard not to feel joy at the announcement of an upcoming wedding. But perhaps the hard lessons of annulments will help more people realize that a wedding is not a panacea for the serious problems burdening so many people in modern society.
Dr. Edward Peters is a matrimonial judge with the Tribunal of the Diocese of San Diego. His 100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments (Basilica Press/Simon & Schuster, 1997) is available at Catholic book stores.