Divorce & Re-Marriage for Catholics: Kennedy Annulment Battle Offers Cautionary Tale

Pope Francis has fueled hopes that norms barring reception of the Eucharist might be relaxed, but there are two sides to every annulment petition.

Pope Francis has signaled that he wants to help more Catholics who have divorced and re-married return to the sacraments.

Archbishop Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published an article that reportedly sought to defuse speculation on this matter, but during an interview at the U.S. Bishops' 2013 meeting in Baltimore, Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston confirmed that Pope Francis

wants us to find ways to help people in second marriages to return to the sacraments and be reconciled and to see if the annulment process can be more user-friendly.

But, as they say, there are two sides to every story.

Some Catholic -- and non-Cathiolic -- spouses don't want a "user-friendly" annulment process and are angry with U.S. tribunals that approve such annulments in record numbers -- at least compared with the rest of the Catholic world.

Father Dwight Longenecker recently explained the condundrum of an ordinary pastor faced with the push-pull of the annulment process.

Here’s the problem I have as a parish priest.  The Holy Father hints that we need to be more pastoral when dealing with Catholics in illicit marriages. Some Catholic pastors say, “that divorced and re-married Catholic needs the nourishment and strength of the sacrament! They should not be excluded from communion!”

Now I want to be a nice guy as much as the next fellow. I like to be liked. More than that, I agree with the Pope. I want to present a merciful Church, a loving, open and accepting church. I don’t want anyone to be excluded. I sympathize with the wife whose husband has cheated on her then walked out on a twenty year old marriage for a twenty year old. I sympathize with the man whose wife has kicked him out, hired a bulldog lawyer and taken him to the cleaners because she “needs to find herself.”

But that's not the whole story, he notes.

 Let’s say Fr. Feelgood says to a potential convert who is waiting for his decree of nullity before he is received into the church, “There, we don’t need to bother about all that. I’ll receive you into the church now.” Fr Feelgood thinks he’s being real nice to that person, but I’ve met potential converts from Protestantism to whom that has been said and their reply was, “I was shocked that a Catholic priest should take the rules of his church so lightly and that he took the situation of my previous marriage so lightly. Who does he think he is?”

And that response echoes the shocked reaction of Sheila Rauch Kennedy, the divorced wife of former Congressman Joseph Kennedy II, who waged a long crusade to block and then reverse the annulment her husband requested from the Archdiocese of Boston. Rauch ultimately won that fight -- the Vatican reversed the annulment granted by the archdiocesan tribunal.  After Rauch Kennedy received confirmation from the Vatican, she said

When you try to defend your marriage, the army that comes after you is pretty brutal,....You're accused of being a vindictive ex-wife, an alcoholic bigot, an idiot.

....The annulment process was allowing us to cop out of taking any responsibility for the choices we made. It wasn't that God didn't bless the union. To put if off on God I didn't feel was valid.

But as the Boston Globe reported, her former husband felt strongly about joining his second wife and his children in the Communion line, and thus he persisted with his quest to secure the annulment.

Rauch Kennedy told her story in a 1997 memoir, Shattered Faith: A Woman's Struggle to Stop the Catholic Church from Annulling her Marriage, and political commentators said it contributed to the demise of her husband's political career. However, a New York Times reviewer described the book's message this way:

"Shattered Faith'' reads like sweet revenge on an ex-husband, but its real target is the Catholic Church.

Why would that be?

Sheila Rauch Kennedy, an Episcopalian who agreed to raise her children in both churches, has undertaken to change Catholic policy on divorce and remarriage, first by ventilating the anger of thousands of nullified spouses ''disappeared'' by the Code of Canon Law. At the rate of over 60,000 annulments per year -- a huge increase from 40 years ago but only a small percentage of Catholic marriages that break up -- the church in the United States has been holding a technical line against divorce but welcoming remarried Catholics back to the fold on the elaborate pretense that their first unions (12 years, with twin sons in the case of Sheila and Joe) never really happened.

So while hints that the Church might relax its norms on divorce and remarriage will be welcomed by many Catholics, there are others who will see things differently--and blame the Vicar of Christ for giving their spouses a pass.