Culture of Life
BY Tom and Caroline McDonald
November 18-24, 2007 Issue | Posted 11/13/07 at 4:49 PM
I’ve been encouraging a civilly divorced friend of mine who had an abusive husband to look into an annulment. She is reluctant to pursue it because she believes that marriage is for life in the eyes of God. Am I right to encourage her to investigate this?
On the one hand, your friend is absolutely correct — a sacramental marriage is intended to be lived “until death do us part.” That presumes, however, that the couple does in fact have a valid marital bond in the first place. That’s the real question.
You aren’t asking your friend to end her marriage; rather, you are asking her to confirm whether she is or is not actually married. A “Declaration of Nullity,” as the Church calls it, never has the power to end an authentic marriage. It answers the question regarding whether that marriage ever took place at all.
During the interview process, the diocesan marriage tribunal will focus on the state of the relationship when the couple got married. If they were validly married, nothing that happens later can reverse that. To put it simply, either there is a valid, permanent marriage covenant, or there is not.
At first glance, this may seem harsh or cold. After all, if a woman is being abused, shouldn’t this be taken into account? Surely the Church wouldn’t want a woman or her children trapped in an abusive relationship?
We recently had a conversation about this very subject with a wise, diocesan canon lawyer. She informed us that, in all her years working in the marriage tribunal, she has never encountered a single case where the abuse began out of nowhere after the wedding. In each and every case she found that the abuse had manifested itself in some way prior to the wedding. (The abused spouse, however, hoped and convinced herself that he would magically change after the wedding ceremony.)
That being so, a declaration of nullity is common in abuse cases — if it becomes clear that the abusive partner did not enter into marriage with a full understanding of the covenantal, sacramental bond, or the full capacity to live it out. Either that, or sometimes the abused spouse, out of fear, felt coerced into the marriage. In either case, an annulment declares that there was never a valid, sacramental bond.
We should also point out that the Church recognizes the need for legal separation in cases where the spouse or children are in danger. But that procedure, done for safety reasons, says nothing about the state of the marriage bond and is different from pursuing an annulment.
Our best advice is to encourage your friend to talk about the process with a trusted priest who could then put her in touch with the right people at your diocesan tribunal.
Your friend could at the very least talk to the canon lawyers to find out more. A book that you both may find helpful is Annulments and the Catholic Church: Straight Answers to Tough Questions by Edward N. Peters (Ascension Press, 2004).
We can tell you that friends who have completed the process have described it as “healing.” We pray that your friend experiences Christ’s healing, too.
The McDonalds are
of Mobile, Alabama.
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