Pope's Comments Raise Annulment Questions
DETROIT — More than 52,000 Americans ask the Church to nullify their marriages every year. That means that the United States accounts for nearly half of annulments worldwide.
With Catholic divorce rates not far behind those for the rest of society, many Catholics wonder whether marriage is still permanent or not.
Pope John Paul II addressed those concerns when he told the Roman Rota, the highest appeals court in the Catholic Church, that Catholics need to “rediscover the truth, the goodness and beauty of the institution of marriage.”
Just because a marriage fails, marriage-tribunal officials should not presume the marriage is invalid, he said in his Jan. 29 address to rota officials at the beginning of their judicial year. Tribunal officials should presume a marriage is valid “until the contrary is proven.”
Although the Pope was speaking directly to the rota, he had a broader audience in mind, according to Ed Peters, professor of canon law at the Institute for Pastoral Theology in Ypsilanti, Mich. The Pope was also addressing tribunal officials around the world and the general public.
“He is telling all three of those groups that the annulment process is one of law, not personal opinion,” Peters said. “There are thousands of judicial personnel all over the world who deal with marriage cases day in and day out. They see the tremendous suffering that failed marriages result in. They also see the tremendous opportunity to have individuals' marital situations regularized in the Church.”
In his address to the rota, John Paul also cautioned against “the tendency to increase the number of annulments through manipulation, forgetting the perspective of objective truth.”
Peters, who served as a tribunal official for eight years, said the Holy Father makes a valid point.
“There's always the temptation to have one's heart run away with one's mind on these things,” he said. “This is a gentle reminder for tribunal personnel all over the world, not just the United States. The Pope is also assuring the general Catholic population and world observers that our system is based on law and not just the personal opinions of the judges on individual cases.”
The Entire Picture
However, Father George Miller, judicial vicar for the Metropolitan Tribunal of Detroit, said the Holy Father is also calling upon canon-ists and other officials to look at the entire picture — both objective criteria necessary to a valid marriage and psychological factors at the time of the marriage.
“Since the mid-1960s, there's been a greater awareness on the part of canonists in the advances made in the human sciences,” he explained. “We want to put to use that kind of knowledge in being able to evaluate what it takes to give consent to marriage.”
“An annulment is not based only upon subjective matters. A marriage is not null just because two imperfect human beings enter into it. Every marriage is made up of two imperfect human beings,” he said.
“At the same time, we can't just look at the objective criteria, but we ask if there are significant pressures on either party to enter this marriage that eliminated or seriously impinged upon their freedom of choice,” Father Miller said.
With a new focus on the psychological disposition of those seeking annulments, there has been a drastic increase in the number of annulments worldwide. In the late '60s, there were about 400 cases in the United States as a whole. Today, most diocesan tribunals deal with at least that many.
The dramatic increase is based mainly on two factors, Peters said.
Procedural changes in canon law — including a new emphasis on psychological factors — make it easier to prove a marriage is null. Second, he said, those applying for annulments now were not often well prepared for marriage.
“We've had 30 years of abysmal catechesis, of contraception, of legalized abortion, premarital sex, and all of these things have a big impact on real live people,” he said.
Peter Donohue said this was certainly the case when he was first married as a 21-year-old Protestant in 1962. The Episcopal minister who performed the marriage ceremony had doubts about whether the marriage would last.
“The real solution is to do what the Church is clearly doing, which is forcing people to think more carefully before jumping into marriage,” he said.
When Donohue completed an RCIA program at his southeast Michigan parish 10 years ago, he knew he had one big hurdle to overcome before becoming a fully communing Catholic: He would have to have to leave his wife or have his first marriage declared invalid.
A former Episcopalian minister, Donohue (not his real name) was married in 1962 and divorced 10 years later. He then married a Catholic and, in the early 1990s, decided to convert. His son from his first marriage had become Catholic in college and then went on to become a priest, which led to Donohue's conversion.
It will take time to know whether marriage preparation at the diocesan and parish level is working, Peters said.
“It takes a long time for that to have any effect,” he explained. “But we know that it's right to strengthen marriage prep and to stress the need for personal readiness before marriage. We're just not going to have the statistical evidence to show that it's working for a decade or two.”
Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
- March 14-18, 2004