As expected, Pope Francis' annulment reforms seem to be both sensible and doctrinally sound. The first unofficial English translation of the two Apostolic Letters can be found here. CNN sums up the three main changes this way:
• Eliminating a second review by a cleric before a marriage can be nullified.
• Giving bishops the ability to fast-track and grant the annulments themselves in certain circumstances -- for example, when spousal abuse or an extramarital affair has occurred.
• The process should be free, except for a nominal fee for administrative costs, and should be completed within 45 days.
That second point, as it's reported by CNN, is the one that will probably cause the most concern in Catholic circles. I suspect that it refers not to abuse or adultery that happen after a valid marriage has been contracted, but to abuse or affairs that are happening before and during the very beginning of the marriage -- which could certainly signal that one party never had any intention of fulfilling his vows. That is the point of annulments: they don't say, "This marriage is no longer any good, so you two can now split up." They say, "This was never a real marriage. You two are now free to go about your business as single people."
A good many Catholics have pointed out that we wouldn't need so many annulments if the marriage preparation process were better. We'd all be better off if the Church did more to make it clear, long before the wedding day, what marriage really means, and if it did more to warn people away from trying to marry people who can't or won't be truly married. It's a good thing to help people get out of bad situations, but it would be even better to help them avoid getting into bad situations in the first place.
And so parishes across the country have been stepping up the premarital counseling process, doing their best to make sure that the couple to be wed are more or less compatible, have more or less the same goals, and more or less understand what they are getting into.
But preparation has its limits. A starry-eyed couple in love can receive the greatest marriage preparation in the world, and it won't necessarily make their path smooth and easy. Before marriage, we tend to think, "We won't have that problem, because we love each other," or "This problem won't slow us down, because love conquers all." Or we may intellectually understand that marriage is for life and requires hard work and self sacrifice, but emotionally, we're still immature enough to tune out all the words of wisdom from our experienced elders, because we're caught up in plans for the dress, the reception, the wedding night.
Once the dust settles from annulment reform, another great work of mercy from the Church would be to introduce something my brother-in-law Bill Herreid has called "Post-Cana Counseling." He says:
I believe that there is a serious lack of support for young Catholic couples who have just gotten onto the real battlefield of married life. Most marriages end in the first 10 years. They need support during this time. Not just the support of one Saturday morning before their wedding and not just the support of a marriage encounter for couples in seriously troubled relationships. I mean support for couples who are honestly trying their best, but who just lack the experience to put things into perspective and make small changes as necessary.
Marriage Encounter weekends are designed for just this purpose. Marriage Encounter is not intended for marriages in trouble, necessarily, but just for anyone who wants to enrich and renew their commitment to each other. But they can't help everyone. I remember desperately wanting and needing just such an opportunity as a young married woman, but we couldn't afford even the modest, subsidized fee; and even if we could have paid, we had no one who could babysit our several small children; and my husband worked most weekends, anyway. It simply couldn't work for us. Even less-elaborate strategies for marriage-building were beyond our reach, it seemed. People told us "Be sure to carve out time for each other!" and "Just build date night into the budget!" but for many years, there was no time, and, frankly, there was no budget.
So what would help? One thing that was missing was the companionship of other couples in Catholic marriages -- couples who had been through what we were going through, and had come out the other side stronger and happier.
How can we offer that to each other, to strengthen marriages which are valid but in need of support? The first step would be to let couples know that struggle isn't a sign that the marriage is doomed and should be abandoned. Many people simply don't hear this message: they hear instead (from their more secular friends) that divorce is a reasonable option, or (from their more rigid religious friends) that they should just put their heads down and suffer.
I believe that even a small, regular notice in the bulletin could ease some of the strain -- something acknowledging that even good marriages aren't always easy, and reminding married couples to pray together every day. There are many beautiful prayers specifically for married couples. Here are a few beautiful prayers for husband and wife from our Orthodox brothers.
Parish resources are already pulled in a thousand directions, but could older, more experienced couples volunteer to chat with younger couples on demand, or have a once-a-week check-in call? They wouldn't necessarily need special training; they would just have to be sympathetic types who had a basic understanding of Church doctrine. For many young couples, their main problem is that they simply don't have any Catholic friends or family, and no one will know what they're talking about if they are struggling with family planning, or educational choices, or how to maintain a family prayer life. What's missing is not classes or seminars or programs, but direct human contact with people who understand.
I can anticipate some of the flaws in this idea. What if you get matched with a couple who's snooty and self-righteous, and ends up making you feel even worse? What if your older couple secretly believes that adultery saved their marriage, and passes that idea along?
Well, what other ideas do we have? I'm loathe to call for yet another official church-sponsored program, which, in my experience, tend to cast such a wide net that they don't offer much to people who are already solid on the basics. Does your church offer anything for couples who are already married and who need help staying that way? If you've been through a rough period early in your marriage, what helped you stay the course?