WASHINGTON — American Catholic marriage tribunalists are denying rumors of a Vatican crackdown on the high number of annulments granted in the United States.

Secular news reports about Pope Benedict XVI’s late January comments to the Roman Rota, the Church’s court of final appeal, used “crackdown” in headlines and singled out the Church in the United States as the target of Benedict’s comments about tribunals showing a “false charity” untempered by justice and granting annulments erroneously.

But these stories failed to back up their sensational headlines with documentary evidence or named sources.

“U.S. annulment rate may spur Vatican crackdown,” warned the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a March 20 story, which began with a discussion of the therapeutic value of annulment for one St. Louis woman previously divorced by her husband. Beyond the headline, it said nothing about a crackdown; it did attribute to “some Vatican sources” the opinion that “the Church may decrease the number of annulments.”

A Jan. 29 Associated Press story interpreted Benedict as having told the Roman Rota “that they shouldn’t confuse ‘pastoral charity’ in granting annulments with their need to uphold Church law.”

The story goes on to claim, without giving evidence, that “the Vatican’s concern is seen as being mainly directed at the United States, which in 2006 had more annulment cases launched than the rest of the world combined,” though only 6% of the world’s Catholics live here.

The Vatican’s Annuario (statistical yearbook) of 2007 shows 60% of the Church’s annulments coming from American petitioners, 5% from Italy, 4% each from Poland and Brazil, and 28% from the rest of the world.

And there is no shortage of critics of the American annulment process who insist the tribunal system itself is infected with the divorce culture.

Retired anthropologist Robert Vasoli, in the 1998 book What God Has Joined Together, cited statistics indicating virtually all American (and Canadian) petitions for annulment between 1984 and 1994 succeeded on this side of the Atlantic. But virtually all that were appealed by the responding partner to the Roman Rota were overturned; that is, the marriages were recognized as valid.

Vasoli wrote that many dioceses advertised their annulment processes as virtually fail-proof. He argued that the processes were one-sided, with little effort given to defending the marriage, and unjustified weight assigned to “junk psychology” as practiced by experts who did not take the trouble to examine the two partners face to face.

But several canon lawyers contacted by the Register agree there is no crackdown — nor any need of one.

Jaqui Rapp, a judge on the Louisville, Ky., tribunal and co-author of a new book titled Annulment: 100 Questions and Answers for Catholics, said she has “yet to encounter one diocese that makes promises” such as the kind Vasoli spoke of.

“The law clearly states that all marriages are presumed valid unless proven otherwise,” she said.  “Each marriage case must be evaluated on its own (there is no idea of precedent in canon law) and no one can presume to know the outcome of a case until the evidence is collected and the judge(s) review that evidence.  Every tribunal that I personally have encountered is very clear and upfront with each party to a case that there are no promises and the case can only be adjudicated by the judge(s) when all of the evidence has been collected.”

Sister of Mercy Victoria Vondenberger, chairwoman of the Association of Canon Lawyers’ Committee on Sacramental Law and the director of the Cincinnati Archdiocese’s marriage tribunal, says the Pope’s address to the Roman Rota, which is given annually, should not be interpreted as a signal to any particular part of the Church. “The U.S. simply has the largest number who ask for annulments,” she said.

According to Sister Victoria, the large number and high proportion of annulment petitions in the United States is partly a function of the large number here of both functioning marriage tribunals and of qualified canonists to adjudicate them, as well as to act for the petitioner, the spouse and the marriage itself — even if both parties want an annulment, a “defender of the bond” argues for the marriage’s validity.

The Pope “said that charity and justice are not to be seen as opposing each other,” said Sister Victoria. “You can’t be truly charitable unless you are just. A false charity would be to give people always what they ask for.”

To rule a marriage null, she said, when in justice it was not, would be “a false annulment and would also not be charitable.”

Americans Committed

Another reason for America’s relatively high number of annulments, said Rapp, is that “American Catholics are still committed to the Church, far more than in Europe. They want to remain in the Church” after a marriage ends.

“In Europe, they just get a divorce, get remarried and stop going to church,” she said. “And, in fact, most baptized Catholics don’t go at all. They are secularized.”

Rapp said there is no crackdown from Rome or general hardening of attitudes: “Tribunals treat every case as unique.”

Rapp’s co-author, Peter Vere, is a freelance canonist based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who works for both American and Canadian tribunals as judge, advocate and defender of the bond. He supports Rapp’s contention that Americans seek annulments so much because they value their life in the Church.

“What is unique about America is that there still is enough of a sense that it’s important to get the marriage things sorted out so your religious life can continue,” Vere said.

At the same time, he said, America is “oversexualized and very much influenced by the divorce culture,” meaning Catholics want remarriage after the failure of an earlier marriage like everyone else. “In Third World Catholic cultures, marriages stay together,” regardless of their canonical validity. In Vere’s view, America has more annulments simply because it processes more applications.

Rapp said the biggest reason she sees for granting annulments is the attitude of the partners to marriage itself. Canon 1095 of the Code of Canon Law gives “grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning essential matrimonial rights and duties” as a reason for which a person would be “incapable of contracting marriage.” In other words, Catholics who are recognized by a marriage tribunal to have been too immature at the time of their marriage to understand the significance of their vows are ipso facto recognized as not having been married.

As well, in her part of the U.S., “often the marriages we’re looking at are between two Protestants, one of whom now wants to marry a Catholic.” If the two Protestants are validly married, their marriage cannot simply be dissolved in order to permit remarriage. But Protestants often do not hold the requisite sacramental view of marriage as indissoluble, their attitude being “that the ideal is the marriage should last forever, but if it doesn’t work out, divorce is perfectly acceptable — and that a civil judge can dissolve a marriage.”

Steve Weatherbe is based in Victoria, British Columbia.