The Alternative to Annulment


It is hardly surprising that the world’s response to the Catholic Church’s recent flurry of marriage activity has ranged from giddiness to apathy. On the issue of annulment in particular, there are reasons for the non-Catholic public to be disinterested. The number of annual annulments and Catholic weddings is declining. According to a recent Pew survey, only a quarter of divorced Catholics have filed for annulments. Some may wonder why the subject is newsworthy.

But for Catholics, the Church’s positions on all marriage-related issues, including annulment, are about much more than statistics. Even seemingly small changes to such positions may constitute a significant force in shaping the beliefs, behaviors and expectations of future generations of Catholic spouses. 

As reflected in the Pew data, the Church is experiencing historic tumult and change. Many Catholics today — including those who attend weekly Mass — report acceptance of “non-traditional” family structures: divorce, cohabitation and “gay marriage.” In light of what appears to be a steadily increasing and widespread rejection of the Church’s fundamental teachings on sexuality and marriage, future trends are not entirely predictable. This is why even apart from the recently announced reforms there may be reason to predict an increase in Catholic annulments in the long term, particularly if it remains the main option presented to divorced Catholics.


Weakened Support for Marriages

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a valid Catholic marriage is comprised of five elements:

— The spouses are free to marry.

— They freely exchange their consent.

— In consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children.

— They intend the good of each other.

— Their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister.

In the past, young men and women destined for marriage often had the example and support of families, friends, churches and communities in meeting and maintaining these requirements (and particularly the third one). But such broad, communal preparation for, and reinforcement of, marital commitment is rare today, even within the Church. The challenges Catholics and others face in sustaining lifelong, faithful marriage have increased dramatically over the past half century — a trend that seems unlikely to reverse itself. Today’s Tinder and Ashley Madison websites will surely become obsolete as other easier, more titillating and better-secured means of acquiring (both covert and overt) sex partners are developed for the willing masses. The breadth and scope of today’s Internet pornography epidemic may pale in comparison to what lies just a few decades away.

As temptations grow in number and variety, more and more individuals will succumb, and more and more Catholic spouses will be subject to the emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological fallout — at the time of the wedding and beyond.

Certainly better marriage preparation is one means by which the Church can help address some of these issues. Speaking to the press en route home after his U.S. visit, the Pope emphasized this need: “I think so often that to become a priest there’s a preparation for eight years, and then, it’s not definite: The Church can take the clerical state away from you. But, for something lifelong, they do four courses! Four times … something isn’t right. It’s something the synod has to deal with: how to do preparation for marriage.”

The annulment process, too, will remain one available and valid course of action for a circumscribed number of Catholics who are divorced. Responding to a question during the same press conference about “Catholic divorce,” the Pope cautioned: “Either it wasn’t a marriage, and this is nullity — it didn’t exist. And if it did, it’s indissoluble. This is clear.” There are, and always have been, cases of nullity that are clear and compelling.

But in the spirit of the New Evangelization, and in a world that desperately needs the witness of permanent marriages, now might be a good time for the Church to reconsider annulment as the de-facto next step for divorced spouses and to develop and promote an alternative path.


The Gift of Self

As a psychologist who researches spousal abandonment and the importance of marital commitment, I am acquainted with many situations of both married and divorced spouses in which there are likely grounds for annulment but an annulment is not sought. In the case of civilly divorced spouses, this truly countercultural — and extremely difficult — decision to remain committed to the spouse who divorced them often occurs notwithstanding the encouragement of clergy and Catholic family members to start the annulment process.

Most on the receiving end of an unwanted divorce — many having experienced infidelity, addictions, emotional immaturity and other pathologies — are extremely vulnerable to the prospect of “moving on” to a new life and new love which is (rightly or wrongly) associated with annulment. This makes all the sense in the world: No one who has embraced the vocation of marriage wishes to live in a state of celibacy (the lot of divorced Catholics without an annulment).

But we are reminded in a recent defense of the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality to maintain a supernatural view of the marital vow, which comes to us directly from the Bible. Much of our current culture’s obsession with, and perversion of, sexuality is grounded in an ideology that holds “the core of happiness in life is sexual happiness” and abstinence as “dangerous and absolutely deleterious to health.”

To choose to stand firm in one’s marriage having experienced the utter devastation of spousal betrayal and to live a life of fidelity in the face of abandonment are most assuredly signs of contradiction to the world.

Yet the Church, in her wisdom, provides a way forward for those who would answer this call. There are an untold (and curiously unstudied) number of still-committed, civilly divorced people in the world who are bearing a heavy burden of loneliness and sorrow with great trust, dedication and even joy. One of them, Maria Pia Campanella, reveals the inner workings of this enigmatic, and largely ignored, group in a beautiful work called The Gift of Self: A Spiritual Companion for Separated and Divorced Faithful to the Sacrament of Marriage.

These men and women view their suffering as meaningful. They remain open to the possibility that the one who left may one day convert back to God and return to the marriage. They pour their spiritual and emotional energies into forming and raising children who, they pray, will one day break the cycle of infidelity and divorce in their own marriages. They are a sign of hope to their children and to a cynical, hurting world.

But the Church’s need of an alternative to annulment is not simply a spiritual matter. On a practical level, annulments follow civil divorce, and both involve the dismantling of a family that has been in existence for many years. The negative consequences of divorce to children and societies are well established.

Annulment often means the creation of a second family long after the establishment of the first.

Children must learn to answer to, and live with, new parents and new siblings. Interestingly, there is little evidence that this situation, on average, is better for children than remaining with a single, divorced parent.

And while there are certainly exceptions, on average, second marriages are at much higher risk of divorce than first marriages. Children of divorce whose parents remarry have a significantly higher chance of getting divorced in adulthood compared to those whose parents never remarry. Of course, Catholics don’t believe a marriage following a declaration of nullity is a “second marriage,” but to my knowledge this distinction between marriages of those who have had annulments and those in second marriages has yet to be made in any substantial, quantitative analysis of marriage trends.

There is no question that many marriages are suffering and in need of attention. In light of the World Meeting of Families and the synod of bishops on the family, the Catholic Church appears to be at a crossroads of defining and proclaiming for future generations of Catholics — and non-Catholics, too — a radical, forward-looking approach to marriage.

This is a great responsibility and privilege, and we will need the help of our non-Catholic friends to be successful.

I was reminded of this when I went with a friend to see the movie War Room, an unapologetically pro-marriage project produced, written and directed by the evangelical-Protestant Kendrick brothers. The film, although perhaps overdone at times, chronicles the struggles and reconciliation of a young African American couple. The narrative highlights themes of marital fidelity and permanence and the importance and power of prayer in maintaining them. Against heavy odds, War Room reached No. 1 in the U.S. box office (especially intriguing, my friend and I observed, given the large number of people who recently learned of a spouse’s infidelity).

We need more of these films. In particular, we need the Catholic understanding of lifelong marriage represented among them. Many of us are personally aware of marriages, and families, that were restored after many years because of the commitment of a civilly divorced spouse.

Let’s tell their stories. Let’s find ways to highlight the courage and determination of these faithful for the benefit of young and old, married, single and engaged, clergy and religious.

Indeed, each one serves as a living reminder of the fidelity shown to us by God.

In the words of Pope St. John Paul, “On the part of God, the covenant is a lasting commitment; he remains faithful to his spousal love, even if the bride often shows herself to be unfaithful.”

Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and mother of five children.

Her scholarly background is in behavioral genetic research on adjustment and relationships.

She currently writes on the subjects of marriage and spousal abandonment,

especially as those issues are treated within the Catholic Church.