Friday, October 26, 2012

"What's the Deal with Annulments?"

Photo by Alan Light, 9/14/97
Nope, not a Seinfeld routine - but it sounds like one doesn't it?

Seriously though, what is the deal?  Why does the Church insist that Catholics go through the annulment process prior to remarriage?   A lot of people out there who sincerely love God are confused about it.  In the hope that one of them might stumble upon this post, I wanted to open up a bit about my own life and the wisdom I've come to see in the Church's practice:

I experienced an unwanted "no fault" divorce.  I never foresaw it; divorce didn't exist in my mental universe.  On the day my wife and I exchanged vows, I understood it to mean that no matter what the future held, God had forged a bond between us that nothing but death could sever.  We didn't just get married; we received the SACRAMENT of Marriage.  As two baptized Christians we vowed our love to one another and Christ effected a lifelong union between us, a manifestation of His union with the Church.  No change of feelings on our part or decree from a civil court can undo the action of Jesus Christ - that's the Sacrament of Marriage.

But we live in a culture that no longer recognizes marriage as a sacrament.  Heck, it's not even looked upon as a contract.  (Tell me what other legal-binding agreement we enter into that one of the parties can decide - for any reason - they will no longer be bound to, and the court says it's perfectly fine.)  When a contract is broken, one side pays damages, and you both go your separate ways.  But in the Sacrament of Marriage, the marriage bond continues to exists "until death do us part."  State courts may issue decrees of divorce every hour on the hour, but they are impotent to dissolve the sacramental bond, a spiritual reality.

A Christian may receive a decree of divorce, but in Jesus' eyes, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mk.10:11-12). Adultery - that's a sin that, if not repented of, will separate us from God for eternity (hell).  Any Christian who has been sacramentally married cannot remarry so long as their spouse is alive; to do so would be to turn their back on the God Who brought the marriage bond into existence.

"So what, are they supposed to remain single for the rest of their lives?"  Well yes, if they are sacramentally married, then it is the only thing a child of God can do.  Jesus' commitment to us, His Church (Bride), does not cease when we sin; and our commitment to our husband or wife does not cease with a state-issued decree of divorce.  That decree is meaningless in the eyes of God.  Our life on this earth might seem long, but it is actually oh so short, and eternity is ... well, eternity.  To bear the Cross of Christ for a short time now, to live His love for the members of His Church (our distant spouses) for the next few decades is as nothing compared to the fulfillment we are going to experience for all eternity!  That's our Faith; that's what we signed on for in Baptism, Confirmation, and every time we said "amen," before receiving Him in Communion.  It's what we committed to on the day we celebrated the Sacrament of Marriage. 

So what is an annulmentEverything I have written up until this point has pertained to the Sacrament of Marriage.  But what if the Sacrament of Marriage didn't actually take place?  What if the liturgy was celebrated but there was some defect present that kept one or both of the parties from giving their vows freely?  There are a number of factors that, if present, could have invalidated the sacrament.  

When you find yourself in a position like mine you think, "I sure thought of myself as sacramentally married.  Yet, here I am divorced, so there was clearly something wrong.  Did that happen over time, or could it have been there from the beginning?  If it was there from the beginning, was it something so serious that it would have prevented the sacrament from taking place?"  

These are huge questions and not the sort of things we should wade into on our own.  From a practical standpoint, how many of us are experts on the intricacies of what makes for a valid or invalid celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage?  But then there's the emotional aspects as well.  How many of us can look at the past and evaluate it impartially, objectively?  If we are hoping that our marriage is invalid, what are the odds that, left to ourselves, we will arrive at that conclusion?  I'd say it's somewhere around 99%.  Lets not kid ourselves; when we reflect on our lives we find plenty of examples of times we've justified some course of behavior ... only to admit later that it was just that, a justification for what we had wanted to do from the beginning!  As members of Christ's Church on earth, we have the annulment process as a safeguard against that.

It begins by meeting with a priest for a preliminary discussion to see if there are any grounds for beginning a "petition for a declaration of nullity."  I have done that, and I've got to tell you - what the priest saw as grounds for a petition and what I had imagined were two completely different things.  I told him from the beginning that my goal was to discover who I was in God's eyes - a sacramentally married man with two wonderful children, or a single man with two wonderful children?  I am committed to living however God wishes.

Right now I am answering a number of essay questions - questions about my family life growing up, my spouse's, our dating relationship, engagement, preparation for marriage, various aspects of our life as man and wife, and the end of the marriage.  It's not easy; you think about a lot of things, tough things, you put out of your mind twenty or thirty years ago.  I was never unfaithful to my wedding vows, but I look back and see more instances of immaturity and selfishness than I'd ever care to admit.  I'm putting it all out there on the table though, putting it before Christ and these loving shepherds and brothers and sisters He's provided to help me know His will and go forward.

When I have everything down on paper the priest I am working with will submit it to a "tribunal," a three-person panel, here in my archdiocese.  They will look at the case from every side, even contact witnesses that I have identified as knowing my wife and I before and after our wedding day.  When they reach a decision as to whether the Sacrament of Marriage was celebrated validly or invalidly they will forward their recommendation to Rome.  Mother Church will review their recommendation and contact me with their final conclusion - an objective decision that I can put my trust in.  If they conclude that I validly received the Sacrament of Marriage, then I will live Jesus' love for my wife ... at a distance.  If they conclude that the Sacrament of Marriage was not administered then I will ask the Lord to show me what He desires for my future and if the Sacrament of Marriage might be part of it.

It wouldn't be wise for me to begin dating anyone before the Church finishes her investigation.  If I am a married man, then God doesn't want me giving my heart to another.  The Church recognizes every marriage as valid, even those among non-Catholic Christians, until proven otherwise.  It's impossible to be sacramentally married to more than one person at the same time, so I am not free to pursue a relationship. I don't feel diminished by that in the least.  The Holy Trinity lives inside of me, and I receive Jesus in the Eucharist!  I have all of the saints and angels as siblings, and I'm surrounding by a loving family here on earth - most importantly by my two kids!  And then there's all the awesome friends!  If I am free to pursue marriage someday in the future then I don't want to do so in a quest to fill a need within me, but because I am bursting with a love that needs to be given away, day after day, to a special someone.

Anyway, these are the thoughts I wanted to share this evening about the Sacrament of Marriage and annulment.  If you are a Catholic who has been divorced, I want you to know that I feel your pain.  And if you have found someone that you want to give your heart to, I just want you to proceed very, very cautiously.  Without going through the annulment process, you may very well still be married - not in the eyes of the State, but of God; and His are the ones that matter.  You owe it to yourself - and this new person you have feelings for - to find out for sure.  Seek the Church's guidance.  Jesus told her shepherds, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Mt.18:18); so if Rome grants your petition for nullity you can proceed with a clear conscience, and celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage within the Church.  Otherwise, if you decide to "remarry" you will have to go outside of the Church to do so.  It will not be a Sacrament.  And if you are still sacramentally married to your first spouse, both you and your new spouse would be living in an adulterous affair.  If you truly love this new person, then you can't put his or her soul in danger.  (You can also understand why it would be inappropriate, if remarried, to receive Jesus in Communion.)   
Go through the annulment process - discover where you stand.  You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.  If God is at the center of your new relationship, and the person you are considering marrying sincerely wants what is best for the two of you, then he or she will wait.  And if not ... as hard as it may be to hear, it wasn't the relationship God wanted for you.  If you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength and commit yourself to living His will, you know He won't leave you brokenhearted; He will complete you in ways you can barely fathom.  That is our Faith.
A couple of common questions that come up with annulments are answered in a related post.


  1. I know the Church has to make distinctions to maintain order....but even if many half-marriages aren't fully the Sacrament of Marriage...they are a bit like miscarriages of it. Something that was and wasn't. Some things are black and white, and some things are grey, but white is still to be clung to and pursued regardless. Take the high road, and honor it as a Sacrament anyway. I know it is as painful as hell, but it will be worth it, at the end of all things.

    1. I appreciate the encouragement; thank you. I believe I understand your sentiment, but I feel the need to offer a word of caution. I think the "high road" in this case is seeking and then doing the will of God. The SACRAMENT of Marriage is actually black and white; it either truly was or was not ... and if it was not, then what is the Lord's will for an individual? I know people who, after the Church discovered that their first marriage was not sacramental, went on to receive the Sacrament of Marriage and it has born amazing fruit - both in terms of personal holiness and new human lives. Surely, such was God's will for them. ("You shall know a tree by its fruits," no?) Thank you for leaving the comment; I am glad that you stopped by and hope you will again (and please leave a name next time so we can get to know each other online).

      I must advise proceeding with caution when giving advice in these situations. (I have a thick skin, so no worries about me.) But it would be wrong to set up a standard which God and the Church do not and imply to someone passing through this that they should strive to live up to it. We honestly do not know what the Lord wants for them. (We don't want to fall into that error of trying to be "more Catholic than the Pope.")