August 15, 2018 // Diocese

The annulment process –— an act of mercy

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a short, monthly series on marriage annulment in the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

The annulment process upholds and protects the sacred nature of the married state. Perhaps this concept may come as a surprise to some, for a common misconception is that an annulment is just a “Catholic divorce.” So, the idea that an annulment actually protects the marriage state is one that could appear counterintuitive to the work of the tribunal.

Isn’t it true that persons seeking a decree of nulity are those who approach the tribunal? How then, is it true that the annulment process protects the sanctity and permanence of the sacrament of marriage?

On the one hand, the Church has a keen interest — nay, a sacred duty — to uphold the teaching of Christ on marriage. The indissolubility of marriage is not an invention of the Church. Christ Himself established the inherent indissoluble nature of marriage when He established marriage as a sacrament, saying: “What God has joined let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6). Christ, the God-Man, is the author of marriage. He, in His ineffable wisdom, decreed that a consummated, sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power. Death alone dissolves such a union. The Church does not have the authority to amend or alter the nature of marriage because only God, as the author of the institution of marriage, has the authority to direct what can and cannot happen to it. A follower of Christ, therefore, could not deny this teaching on marriage and simultaneously remain a faithful follower of Him.

On the other hand, what about those persons whose marriage was shipwrecked perhaps through no fault of their own? I am not speaking now about those with valid marriages that may have fallen apart. I am speaking about marriages that can be proved invalid, but have not been declared invalid. For example’s sake, let’s consider those persons who are laboring within an invalid marriage. At the tribunal, we encounter a lot of horrific situations. Oftentimes these situations are out of the control of the persons coming to us for aid and can be heart-wrenching. We encounter people who have undergone physical abuse, sexual abuse and excessive use of drugs or alcohol prior to the marriage and enduring throughout the marriage. These situations usually affect their ability to freely discern marriage.

For the sake of clarity, I wish to provide some specific examples. One example could be a young teenage woman who perhaps was sexually and physically abused throughout childhood and who chose marriage in order to escape a difficult family life. Another situation includes that of a person whose spouse is laboring under extreme mental disorders prior to and throughout the marriage. The spouse’s mental disorder could lead to the experience of verbal, physical and sexual abuse toward the other. Again, such situations are investigated throughout the annulment process to see how those circumstances affected the person’s ability to place consent. There are also cases where one of the parties did not have the correct intention for entering marriage. For example, if a person excluded the right by a positive act of the will to be open to children or the right to remain faithful to one’s spouse, such a marriage would not be considered valid.

Please note: Not all marriages that contain these circumstances are automatically invalid. Many marriages survive and flourish despite similar difficulties. The parties’ openness and receptivity to grace received through frequent participation in the sacraments can often be a source of much grace in these situations.

Obviously, what I have laid out is a tension faced by the Catholic Church. The tension exists primarily in that the Church cannot alter the teaching of Christ. And yet putative marriages do exist, marriages that were initially thought to be valid but which in fact are not valid due to these or other like circumstances. What options do those parties have who are in a sacramentally invalid marital union?

The annulment process provides a way to navigate the tension by protecting the sacrament of marriage on the one hand while still providing relief to those who may have legitimate reasons to believe their marriage invalid. It is not within the purview of this article to describe the history of the annulment process, but throughout the centuries, many learned theologians have studied and developed the constitutive parts of marriage and have determined which elements, when missing, produce an invalid marital contract and thus an absence of any marital covenant. When a party demonstrates in the annulment process that their former marriage was missing a constitutive element, the judge is in a position to declare the invalidity of the marriage.

So, the requirement that such parties must prove their former marriage is invalid reinforces the indissoluble nature of a sacramental marriage. It is analogical to the legal maxim “innocent until proven guilty.” Innocence is the norm. Once accused, the accuser must prove that the person is guilty. A marriage is valid until proven otherwise. Validity is the norm. Once the sacramental marriage bond is accused of invalidity, the petitioner must prove that the sacramental marriage bond did not successfully come into existence.  

Thus, the annulment process upholds and protects the sacredness of marriage. By way of contrast and to further develop this notion of the annulment process, I would like to point out that our Christian brothers and sisters of non-Catholic denominations do not provide an annulment process to their members. Generally speaking, their doctrine allows divorce and remarriage whether the former marriage was valid or not. Clearly then, these denominations do not hold the absolute indissolubility of a consummated, sacramental marriage. If marriage is dissoluble, then there is no place for the annulment process. In the Catholic Church, we have the annulment process because of her theology on marriage; namely, that a consummated, sacramental marriage is absolutely indissoluble by human power.

Now, imagine a scenario where the Church did not provide her members access to the marriage nullity process. A person within an invalid marriage would have no way to have it formally declared so. As a result, those persons laboring under an invalid marriage would have to respect their marital consent to their former spouse for the rest of their earthly lives. This would prove difficult for many persons. It is no surprise though that a Church founded by a merciful God provides a solution to this difficulty. She gives her members access to the annulment process.

So, a second comment follows from the first; namely, that the annulment process is an act of mercy. The term “mercy” is used loosely in common parlance. Thus, a theological definition of the term mercy would be helpful. St. Thomas Aquinas defines mercy “as being, so to speak, sorrowful at heart [miserum cor]; being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy” (Summa Theologica, Prima Pars 21:3 corpus). Having worked on numerous cases in the tribunal, I can tell you that I have experienced many times misery or “sorrow at heart,” especially when I hear particularly tragic circumstances. I know my colleagues have expressed the same feelings. The sorrow that we feel is often at the tragic events that transpired throughout the entirety of our clients lives or up to the time that their marriage failed. These persons come to us seeking to know whether their marriage, which has fallen apart, was a true (or valid) marriage. Their reasons for seeking an annulment are varied. Some want to know if they can enter another marital union in the Church. Others seek answers as to how and why their marriage fell apart. Others seek merely to know whether they had a valid marital union or not. Whatever the personal circumstances, the Church has “sorrow at heart” knowing the circumstances that some are in and providing a means for them to explore the validity or invalidity of the marriage.

The argument could be made that the annulment process does not appear to be an act of mercy. The annulment process has often been described as a tedious, painful, and a cold, juridical process.  Christians who come to the tribunal seeking an annulment often are suffering from the residual pain of divorce, are struggling to accustom themselves to life alone and perhaps see themselves as outcasts or second-rate citizens within their parish communities. Adding a difficult annulment process on top of their other sufferings could appear cold.

The annulment process is unarguably difficult. In fact, at face value there is nothing about the annulment process that is enjoyable. Why then does the Church even offer such a process? Why would the Church, founded by a loving and gracious God, provide such a process to those persons who have had the tragic and heart-wrenching experience of a broken marriage?

In order to answer these objections a further distinction to the term “mercy” must be provided. Justice by necessity precedes mercy. Mercy mitigates a just duty or punishment owed to another. St. Thomas Aquinas describes how mercy and justice co-exist within God. St. Thomas states that  “God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than justice; thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully” (Summa Theologica, Prima Pars 21:3, ad 2). Thus, God’s mercy does not and could not violate His justice. God finds a way to satisfy justice while at the same time bestowing mercy upon His creatures. One example of God’s justice tempered with mercy is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Man had offended an infinite God. In justice the debt owed to God from this sin needed to be infinite in nature. In mercy, God sent His son so that justice would tended to. The human race was given a second chance.   

In an analogous way, the Church provides the annulment process. In justice, the Church must protect and uphold the teaching given us by Christ on the sacrament of marriage. In mercy, the Church provides the annulment process to allow those who are weighted down by a sacramentally invalid marital union to have it declared so.

Before closing, I would like to offer ways for those going through the annulment process  to reap spiritual fruit. First and foremost, foster a deep prayer life. Pray for yourself, for your former spouse, for those of us working in the tribunal and for the judge who will be adjudicating your case. Pray daily and pray often. Second, foster an abandonment to the holy will of God. He does not leave those who are faithful to Him. I have seen petitioners who have used the process as a means of growing in trust for God. Good things always came to them. Third, take the length of the process to read and deepen your knowledge of the Catholic faith. We love that which we know. If you take the time to study the Catholic faith you will more than likely come to appreciate the Church and what she is attempting to do for you. Her primary mission, after all, is mentioned in the final canon in the code of canon law: “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law of the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes” (Canon 1752). This mission is deeply rooted within the marriage nullity process.

Anne Therese Stephens, JCL, is a canon lawyer in the diocesan tribunal.

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