Abuse, addiction, adultery and “irreconcilable differences” may top the list of reasons people give for getting divorced, but statistics and data only shed so much light on the epidemic of failed marriages that is a sign of our times.

For once-married Catholic couples, a divorce is often the first formally guided spiritual step in a process that has long been — and continues to be — misunderstood: annulment. Just as every marriage is unique, so is every annulment proceeding.

Once a couple has divorced, one or both partners can petition for a declaration of nullity. In the eyes of the Church, it’s a legal case falling under the jurisdiction of canon law.

“You never know what you’re going to see from a tribunal,” said canon lawyer Pete Vere, who co-authored Annulment: 100 Questions and Answers for Catholics with Jacqui Rapp. “I’ve seen marriages where couples were petitioning after 53 years, and I’ve seen cases where the marriage broke up the day after the wedding. And I’ve seen everything in between. Most of the cases I [work on], the marriages are under seven years; lately I’ve been doing quite a few where the marriages are under two years; and certainly I’ve done my share of judging or defending a 30-year marriage.”

But wait: How could a marriage endure for many, many years only to eventually be declared null? I asked myself that question when I served as a witness in my own parents’ annulment case.

I didn’t have trouble imagining that a declaration of nullity would be issued, and I didn’t have difficulty understanding why. I was familiar with some of the many misconceptions about annulment and knew that it neither declares that heartfelt vows were not exchanged nor implies that children born of the annulled marriage are illegitimate. Instead, the proceedings look at the state of mind of the bride and groom on the day of the wedding and ask the questions: Did they enter the marriage willing and able to fulfill the marriage vows? Were they capable of entering into a marriage as marriage is defined by the Catholic Church?

“The tribunal doesn’t judge if a marriage is sacramental or not,” Vere clarified. “It judges whether, from the beginning, it was a marriage as the Church understands marriage. It’s perfectly possible to have a valid, non-sacramental marriage; for example, Joseph and Mary had a non-sacramental marriage — neither party was baptized. We have to judge what happened at the time of consent, which is basically what happened when they exchanged their wedding vows.”

Though length of time can be an indicator of the validity of a marriage, it is only part of the equation. As Vere explained, something lacking in one of the partners’ consent or will might not affect the relationship until 20 years down the road. Or a couple may decide to stay together “for the sake of the children”; once the youngest graduates high school or earns a college degree or moves out of the family home, the only motive to stay together vanishes.

The tribunal comes to a decision by looking at testimony offered by witnesses and evidence provided by the couple in question (although it is possible for a couple to receive a decree of nullity even if one of the former spouses does not participate in the process at all).

My testimony was nine pages of answers to 36 essay questions that probed every facet of my parents’ relationship: their attitudes toward family, toward sexuality, toward money. These questions required me to consider my grandparents’ marriages and asked my opinion on my parents’ marriage.

Generally speaking, the Church does not encourage tribunals to involve the couple’s children, even if full-grown, in annulment proceedings. I saw the situation as an opportunity to apply an adult perspective to a relationship I’d observed — and thought I’d understood — since childhood.

In fact, I saw the chance to participate as a calling to learn: I was preparing to marry the man who would become my husband.

Sobering Numbers

In the Office of Canonical Services of the Diocese of Orange, Calif., four full-time and five part-time canon lawyers deal each year with a few hundred applications for declarations of nullity. The numbers have been falling in recent years — 2009 saw 190 applications and 161 declarations — but the downward trend is probably not indicative of stronger marriages.

Msgr. Doug Cook, judicial vicar for the diocese, said that, when he considers the more than 1 million Catholics in the diocese and the high rate of divorce in the general population, he said, “I wonder where the heck everyone is!”

Annulment’s downward trend is writ large nationwide. In 2008, fewer than 33,000 cases were decided, down from more than 40,000 cases in 2004. Clearly cohabitation has become common in our time, even among Catholics, and this sad reality probably goes a long way in explaining the annulment drop-off.

In speaking about annulments, as in warning about cohabitation, Pope Benedict has been forthright.

Earlier this year the Holy Father noted the large number of people in “irregular marriage situations” as he reminded members of the Church’s highest marriage tribunal, the Roman Rota, to consider marriages valid until proven the contrary.

There must be no yielding to a “false charity,” he pointed out before adding: “Some believe that pastoral charity could justify any step towards declaring the nullity of the marital bond in order to assist people who find themselves in irregular matrimonial situations. … The problem arises when the very essence of marriage is more or less obscured” when the fact is that the “the existential, person-centered and relational consideration of conjugal union can never be at the expense of indissolubility, an essential property” of Christian marriage.

Fallen World

The length of time to decide each case varies, but it’s usual for the process to take more than a year. My parents’ case took close to two years before nullity was declared. The time frame depends on how swiftly petitioner and respondent fulfill their responsibilities and how quickly witnesses fill out and return their questionnaires. After all the evidence has been gathered and reviewed, a decision is reached.

But unlike a civil court case, where someone wins and someone else loses, annulment proceedings are not about victory and defeat. They are about discerning the truth of the past in order to move forward.

“It’s not a perfect system,” says Msgr. Cook, “but it tries to strike a balance of fairness, to respect both parties, and to foster our understanding of marriage as a sacred and permanent thing. It tries to recognize the sacredness of marriage in a world marked with fallen human nature.”

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.