Kennedy's Annulment Under the Microscope

Shattered Faith

by Sheila Rauch Kennedy

(New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, 238 pp. $23)

I WANTED TO like this book. I had seen Sheila Rauch Kennedy on numerous TV talk shows and, while prepared to disagree with her on certain points, I was favorably impressed with her as a person.

I was ready to forgive the inaccuracies that typically appear in any work purporting to deal with a technical field but authored by an amateur. Finally, not having the slightest professional connection with the annulment case, I could indulge my iconoclastic streak and say that anybody arguing with a Kennedy can't be all wrong.

But, try as I might, I could not warm up to Kennedy's book on the Catholic Church's annulment process, and the further I read in it, the more I concluded that Shattered Faith will never amount to more than a diary-like account of one woman's intensely felt, but ultimately skewed, perception about a controversial process which she does not understand.

In order to find the good in Kennedy's book, a fair-minded reader has to overlook alot of things, beginning with Kennedy's almost exclusive use of feminist categories to frame her experiences and comments.

She feels it highly significant, for example, that in her fight against an annulment, she was contacted by and spoke with lots of other women. I ask, what's so special about that? Women tend to talk to other women about similar experiences. My wife can come out of the check-out line at a grocery store with some other woman's life story, just because both of them happen to have squirming babies in front packs. I certainly don't see female communication as evidence of a “conspiracy of silence that had kept us all quiet and powerless,” but rather wholesome human nature asserting itself once again.

I grew tired, and eventually irritated, at Kennedy's frequent assertions that the men who use the Church's annulment process do so to dump on ex-wives. Right now, as a matrimonial judge, I've got 10 open annulment cases in trial, and three more cases on appeal. Six of my petitioners in first instance are women, and two of them in second instance are women.

Those ratios are not unusual. The annulment process attracts roughly equal numbers of male and female petitioners, and Kennedy cannot, and does not, offer substantiation for the implication that most men must be abusing the system, and their ex-wives, by filing for annulments.

Of course, all of the inevitable digs about celibate old men running canon law institutions are repeated in this work. Well, I'm neither old nor celibate, and I had to be careful that my “oh-no-not-that-one-again” groans did not wake the two-year-old who slept on my lap as I read this book.

The second thing which interested readers will have to ignore is the prevalence of straw-men arguments throughout the work. Let's take just one- namely, that the annulment process requires people to lie to God.

That's just total baloney. Canon law (cf. canon 1391) takes a pretty dim view of lying to tribunals, to say nothing of lying to God. But since we're all against lying to God, disagreeing with Kennedy's assessment that annulments require it somehow gives the impression that one is soft on lying in general—just as long as one avoids lying to God. That's what makes straw-men arguments so much fun for authors, and so maddening for readers.

But, granting that there are frequent straw-men arguments, inadequate feminist analysis, the inevitable technical inaccuracies I feared, a monolithic view of the Church, and very few new facts about the case itself, what good can be gleaned from Shattered Faith? There is some.

First, Kennedy's book shows very clearly the need for a return to genuine, independent canonical advocacy. The present system of canon lawyering is inadequate to meet modern needs. There are too few trained canon lawyers to begin with (perhaps 2,500 in all of America, compared with the 50,000-plus civil lawyers who graduate from law school every year) and nearly all canon lawyers work directly for dioceses.

The perception that such canonists cannot offer consistent, vigorous, independent service is reasonably grounded. The relatively few who do try to offer such assistance face numerous practical and professional hurdles for their efforts. And yet their presence can make all the difference in the world, not simply for the delivery of justice—which, thanks be to God, is usually accomplished anyway—but also for the sake of the public's recognition of the delivery of justice. Right now this vital need for healthy Church life is very often missing.

The second thing Kennedy's book shows is that tribunal officials, and the spokesmen the secular media usually put forward to discuss Catholic issues, are generally ill-prepared to present publicly and faithfully the complexities of a controversial process like annulments.

I tread lightly here, having done but little of that work myself, and I am aware that complex issues such as annulments do not fare well in the electronic world of two-minute attention spans. However, I am convinced that the Church's canonical system for assessing marriages is theologically sound, juridically coherent, and pastorally effective. It deserves better than it received in Kennedy's book. But—and this point is crucial—Kennedy herself deserved better than what she got from the process.

Without denying the anti-Catholicism which undergirds many of the secular attacks on the annulment process—and Kennedy, I think, has nothing to do with such attacks—I can't help but think that at least some of the unfair publicity generated by works like Shattered Faith is our own fault.

Dr. Edward Peters has doctoral degrees in canon and civil law. His book, 100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments, was published this year by Simon & Schuster and Basilica Press.