What God hath (not) joined . . .


Never well-understood in the popular mind, and often misunderstood by Catholics, annulments are once again the center of controversy. Much of the new scrutiny on annulments can be attributed to the hype surrounding a new book, "Shattered Faith" (Pantheon, $24), a wide-ranging attack on the annulment process by Sheila Rauch Kennedy, written in part to protest the annulling of her 12-year marriage to U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II.

Last fall, the Boston archdiocesan tribunal granted a declaration of nullity to Rep. Kennedy over Mrs. Kennedy’s protest, and she has appealed that decision to Rome. But her highly publicized criticism of Church authorities and the whole concept of annulments has raised anew lingering questions, especially about American annulments, which many have come to consider, however erroneously, as "Catholic divorce."

For some straight talk on annulments Our Sunday Visitor went to two Church officials — one in an American diocesan tribunal and the other in the highest court of the Vatican. Annulments: what they are, who gets them and why, whether there are too many in America, and what all of this tells us about the state of Catholic marriage. (Continued on Page 10)




 By Ann Carey


Marriage annulments in the Church are so misunderstood that a California layman who is both a civil and a canon lawyer has written a new book to explain Church teaching on the subject.

Edward Peters, director of the Office for Canonical Affairs for the Diocese of San Diego and a collegiate judge on the diocesan marriage tribunal, is author of "100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments," to be released later this month by co-publishers Simon & Schuster and Basilica Press.

In a recent interview, Peters, who is married and the father of six children, told Our Sunday Visitor that he wrote this book to explain the issue for all the people who are involved in an annulment, including family members and friends, as well as both spouses.

Peters said he also wanted to provide clear canonical answers that include appropriate citations from the revised 1983 Code of Canon Law. The result is a 200-page book that easily can be read in one sitting, or kept on the bookshelf for quick reference.

The author explained that "a declaration of matrimonial nullity is an official determination by an ecclesiastical tribunal [court] that what appeared to be — from one or more points of view — a valid marriage was actually not one. An annulment is not a finding that the spouses never really loved each other, nor that the divorce was more one party’s fault than the other’s, nor that one party is a better Catholic than the other, etc."

Rather, a declaration of nullity is a Church "determination that one or both parties to the marriage lacked sufficient capacity for marriage, and/or that one or both parties failed to give adequately their consent to marriage as the Church understands and proclaims it, and/or, in weddings involving at least one Catholic, that the parties violated the Church’s requirements of canonical form in getting married."

Marriage annulments by the Church have become quite controversial, especially since the number of annulments worldwide has grown from about 450 in 1968 to 72,744 in 1994 (the most recent official figure, according to Our Sunday Visitor’s 1997 Catholic Almanac).

In 1994, the Church in the United States granted 54,463 annulments, or about 75 percent of the world total, and that trend appears to be continuing.

Hence, critics often refer to annulments as "Catholic divorce," and they charge the U.S. Church with granting annulments too easily.

Peters told Our Sunday Visitor that the increased numbers are due partly to the fact that divorce has become so common in the United States. But the increase also is explained by changes in canon law that allow tribunals to address more accurately the canonical impact of mental, emotional, personal, psychological, psychiatric and even chemical traumas suffered by persons attempting marriage.

Additional modifications by the Vatican have streamlined the annulment process. For example, canon law used to permit annulment petitions to be filed only in the diocese in which the wedding took place or in the diocese in which the respondent resided.

In 1970, the Vatican began to allow petitioners also to file nullity cases in the diocese in which they lived, which Peters believes had a major impact on filings for annulments, since American society is so mobile.

Another procedural change that streamlined the process was allowing a single judge to hear a case instead of requiring three judges to hear each petition, though many dioceses still use the three-judge panel. (A single judge must be a priest with a degree in canon law; three-judge panels may include a layperson, such as Peters, who has a degree in canon law.)

And a new rule that allows non-Catholics to file cases in diocesan tribunals had a big impact on the increase in annulments, for about one-quarter of all nullity cases heard in U.S. tribunals today are for marriages between two non-Catholics. (These cases arise, for instance, when a previously wed non-Catholic wishes to marry a Catholic.)

Another quarter are for marriages between one Catholic spouse and a non-Catholic; the remainder are for marriages between two Catholics.

Peters told Our Sunday Visitor that the United States accounts for a high percentage of the world’s annulments because "American tribunals function, whereas lots of tribunals around the world simply don’t have the resources to process any appreciable number of cases."

"In those places where they would otherwise have the resources," he said, "you’re usually dealing with people who don’t particularly care what their status in the Church is. In America, you have an interesting confluence of factors: You have people who are motivated to know — yes or no — what their status in the Church is . . . and you have offices with the equipment and trained personnel and infrastructure to process the cases."

Still, Peters agrees that there are too many annulments, but he claims the reason is not that tribunals are bending the rules, but rather that too many people are entering invalid marriages.

The simplest way to lower the number of annulments, he said, is to lower the number of people who are entering invalid marriages in the first place. One way to accomplish this, he argued, is to strengthen premarriage programs.

Peters observed, for example, that the modern contraceptive mentality is "highly correlative of the startling and ultimately destructive levels of immaturity and irresponsibility which so many people try to bring to marriage today."

And he said that "heterodox," pro-contraceptive ecclesiastical premarriage programs have had a "grave anti-family/anti-marriage" effect.

"If you’ve got a premarriage program that is condoning, or at least looking the other way, on something like contraception, what you’re teaching those people is that they can enter a marriage that is not open to future life. Well, that’s a fundamental transgression of what the Church understands by Christian marriage," Peters said.

Another part of the answer is to document clearly the patterns that are emerging in annulment cases, and then use that information to warn people who are in high-risk groups — for example, couples under age 20, people from broken homes, couples engaging in premarital sex, or couples who are pregnant at the time of marriage.

Peters contends that spiritual and psychological counseling for these groups can help break the cycle of invalid marriages.


Carey is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor




 By Angela Bonilla


For more than a decade, the Vatican has expressed concern about the number of annulments granted in the United States and the reasons for them.

And recent media attention on the Church’s annulment process — precipitated by the book "Shattered Lives" by Sheila Rauch Kennedy — has raised these same concerns in the minds of many American Catholics.

Some wonder why it seems that annulments in the United States are so numerous and so easy to obtain. Are U.S. Church tribunals reflecting what has been described as America’s "divorce culture," in which marital failure seems to be the rule instead of the exception?

Is it possible, in the face of such a culture, to stand as a witness to what Pope John Paul II calls the "good news" of the indissolubility of marriage?

Msgr. Joseph Punderson, defender of the bond at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, recently spoke to Our Sunday Visitor about these questions. The Apostolic Signatura is the Church’s supreme court, which reviews annual reports from Church tribunals around the world.


Visitor: What is the purpose of a diocesan tribunal and what is the relation between a diocesan tribunal and the Apostolic Signatura?

Msgr. punderson: The diocesan tribunal is the tribunal of the bishop, part of whose ministry by divine law is to render judgment at the request of and on behalf of his people. Thus the priest who directs the operation of the tribunal is called the judicial vicar because he carries out this work in the name of the bishop.

Here in Rome, the Apostolic Signatura — a kind of department of justice for the Church — assists the diocesan bishop to exercise his responsibility for the proper administration of justice in his tribunal.

Visitor: Is there a concern that a disproportionate number of annulments are granted in the United States in comparison to other parts of the world?

Msgr. punderson: First of all, I would like to say that "granting annulments" isn’t the correct way to describe the activity of a Church tribunal, since "annulment" can mean either canceling something that exists or declaring that something never existed. Given the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, only the second meaning could be applied here.

Furthermore, the phrase "granting annulments" is misleading because it sounds like the tribunal is conceding something, as you grant a favor, permission, etc. In a marriage nullity case, the decision of a Church tribunal does not concede anything; rather, the tribunal declares that the nullity of the marriage has been proven or that it has not been proven.

Another point that needs to be noted is that in some countries of the world, especially in areas where the Church is still developing or rebuilding its structures, there are no well-functioning tribunals, or at least very few — which is a source of concern for the Apostolic Signatura. It makes no sense to compare the number of decisions given by tribunals in the United States with the scarce activity of tribunals in those parts of the world.

That said, it is true that the number of declarations of nullity given in the United States is rather high in comparison with that of some European countries which have well-functioning tribunals. There is concern over this, not so much because of the total number per se as much as because of some specific reasons.

Some tribunals issue quite a high number of decisions in relation to the number of judges and defenders of the bond, especially taking into account the lack of formal preparation on the part of some of those officials. At times, it seems impossible that a serious examination could have been made of each case.

Also of concern is that the number of decisions in favor of nullity is high in relation to the number of decisions in favor of the bond of marriage. Some tribunals never issue a formal decision in favor of the marriage bond; most issue very few. This does not mean that nearly every person who approaches a tribunal receives a declaration of nullity, but the lack or low percentage of formal negative decisions raises a number of questions about the procedure followed and the substance of the decisions.

Also, in a high percentage of cases it is decided that one or both parties were completely incapable of contracting a valid marriage. There are many reasons for which a marriage might be null, but some tribunals decide all their cases only on this basis, and many others almost exclusively on these grounds.

The psychological incapacity to give valid consent — here we are speaking mostly of those grounds usually referred to as "lack of due discretion" and "inability to assume the obligations of marriage" — should be something truly exceptional since, as the Holy Father indicated in his address to the Roman Rota in January of this year, marriage is a natural state of life open in principle to every man and woman, not for some select group.

Some appellate tribunals in the United States never overturn the decision of a lower tribunal; most rarely do. However, both the Roman Rota [the Church’s central appellate court] and the Apostolic Signatura, when examining particular decisions from tribunals in the United States, have often found that decisions were easily confirmed by an appellate tribunal despite obvious and serious flaws.

It is in view of such factors that the Apostolic Signatura has for many years expressed its concern over the high number of declarations of nullity given in the United States, as you can see from the remarks made by some prefects of the Apostolic Signatura, such as by Cardinal [Angelo]Felici in the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 1980, Cardinal [Aurelio] Sabattani at the Synod of Bishops on Penance and Reconciliation in 1983, and by Cardinal [Achille] Silvestrini to the American archbishops at their meeting with the Holy Father in 1989.

I repeat that this concern arises from more specific doubts about the way some decisions are made and about their substance, not so much the total number in itself. In fact, the difficulties just mentioned are not found exclusively in the United States.

You also have to remember that the bishops of the United States have made an extraordinary effort to have and maintain functioning tribunals, so that those who wish to ask for a judgment about their marriage may be able to do so.

At any rate, even if every declaration of nullity is well-founded, the high number of invalid marriages is still reason for concern and for greater efforts to prevent so many invalid marriages.

Visitor: Why do you think the number of annulments in the United States has skyrocketed compared to 30 years ago?

Msgr. punderson: There are a number of reasons, but let me take perhaps the most significant. In recent years, there have been greater efforts made to inform people of their right to submit the question of their marriage to the tribunal for its judgment.

In addition, there have been so many more judgments in favor of the invalidity of marriage itself, and this has encouraged more people to approach the tribunal for a decision.

There has also been the development in the understanding of the capacity, or the incapacity, to give valid marriage consent, reflected in the gradual refinement of the jurisprudence of the Roman Rota in this area over the years.

Unfortunately, some part of the increase in the number of affirmative decisions on the grounds of psychological incapacity for marriage — especially those usually described as "lack of due discretion" and "inability to assume the obligations of marriage" — is the result of a misunderstanding of this development and a mistaken application of some of the jurisprudence of the Roman Rota.

Pope John Paul II, aware of some widespread misuse of these grounds, in his addresses to the Roman Rota in 1987 and 1988, offered some clear directions to tribunals about the proper way to judge such cases.

He emphasized, for example, that the possibility of such incapacity can only be considered when the person involved suffers from some serious anomaly; that the psychological concept of maturity as the goal of human development must not be confused with the canonical concept of that minimum maturity required for a person to be able to give valid consent to marriage; that the judge must weigh the report of psychological experts from the perspective of canon law and Christian anthropology; that the decision about the nullity of the marriage is to be made by the judge, not by the expert.

In addition to these misunderstandings about the psychological incapacity for marriage, there have developed some misconceptions of the task of the Church tribunal, whose work should be the impartial search for the truth, and whose effectiveness should be measured only on that basis. The ministry of the tribunal, after all, is truly pastoral only when it is faithful to its nature as a ministry of justice and truth.

Visitor: How do you respond to the challenge that "the Catholic Church should just approve divorce, because de facto that’s what she’s already doing"?

Msgr. punderson: First of all, the Church cannot abandon her teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, since it comes from Christ himself. And it is true that there are invalid marriages and members of the Church should be able to present such questions to the Church for an objective judgment.

The challenge facing all the tribunals of the Church, and not only those in the United States, is to carry out their work in truth and charity, in conformity with the doctrine and law of the Church.

However, all the recent media attention focused on the work of tribunals may reflect a distorted impression that all the Church has to offer divorced persons is the possibility of a declaration of nullity, which obviously is a possibility only for those whose marriage is indeed invalid.

We should take advantage of all this attention to give more emphasis to and to make better known the Church’s total pastoral care for marriage and the family, including such elements as the preparation of couples for marriage, support for married couples, as well as pastoral care for all the separated and divorced.


Bonilla writes from Rome


  How the annulment process works


The annulment process usually follows this order, according to Edward Peters, author of the new book "100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments":

* A person seeking an annulment visits a priest, or a priest may discover in the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) process that a candidate has a marriage case that needs to be addressed.

* The parish priest helps the petitioner fill in the paperwork and file a formal petition for the diocesan tribunal to hear the case.

* Once the paperwork is filed, the tribunal contacts the other spouse (called the respondent) and explains the respondent’s rights. The tribunal likewise contacts potential witnesses and helps acquire the necessary documents, such as baptismal certificates.

* A tribunal official called the defender of the bond studies the case and makes certain that all evidence in favor of the marriage bond is presented.

* The diocesan tribunal reaches a decision as to whether the marriage met the requirements for a valid marriage in the Church. Since the validity of marriage is already presumed, it is actually the nullity of marriage that must be proved.

* If an annulment is declared, the decision is automatically reviewed by a tribunal in another diocese, designated by the Vatican as an appeal tribunal. The respondent retains the right to appeal the decision, usually to the appeal tribunal, and may appeal the case to Rome, but Rome does not automatically hear all appeals. — Ann Carey


Copyright Our Sunday Visitor, 1997; from the 7-6-97 edition






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