Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness
BY DEACON JIM RUSSELL
He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt. 19:8)
Scripture tells us that “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and it doesn’t sound like Jesus was too thrilled with how Moses handled it, since “it was not so” in the beginning. But, what about annulments?
First, let’s be clear that divorce and annulment are utterly different. One erroneously says an indissoluble marriage covenant can be ended before death (divorce), and the other truthfully says that sometimes an attempt at marital consent doesn’t really “make marriage” because of some defect (annulment).
Yet, they have in common the fact that human weakness lies at the heart of both. If we were not weak and wounded creatures, we simply wouldn’t need the annulment process. But we are, so we do.
Annulments Serve the Truth of Indissolubility
It’s going to sound counterintuitive, but the Church’s annulment process exists to preserve the truth of the indissolubility of marriage. This sacred truth is so important that an explicit process to determine whether marital consent should be declared “null” is absolutely necessary. Why? To maintain the other side of that coin—those occasions when marital consent cannot be declared null.
In light of the awesome sanctity of indissolubility, the Church offers this legal process as a last resort. That is, whenever a man and woman capable of free and valid consent to marriage actually attempt to consent to marriage, every effort must be made to honor that attempt. Even in cases in which it’s obvious that an impediment to marital consent existed before the attempt, it is the desire of the Church that such an attempted union actually be realized and made into a valid marital union, through convalidation (marital consent validly “re-exchanged” before the Church’s minister), if at all possible.
The Church wants couples who are capable of a valid marriage, and whose attempt at marriage didn’t actually achieve it, to seek all appropriate avenues to make good on that attempt. This is especially important if there are children born to the attempted marital union.
Not Just “A Mere Formality”
As this might seem far from familiar, let me share the words of Pope St. John Paul II regarding a specific canon in the Code of Canon Law, regarding the duty of the tribunal judges who take on marriage cases:
Can. 1676: Before accepting a case and whenever there is hope of a favorable outcome, a judge is to use pastoral means to induce the spouses if possible to convalidate the marriage and restore conjugal living.
Of this Canon, Pope St. John Paul II says that it is “a norm which is not to be taken as a mere formality” and “is to be applied faithfully as a very important expression of pastoral concern for spouses experiencing difficulties” (January 18, 1990, Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota).
In a later address, he also says:
The attitude of the Church is, in contrast [to a “divorce mentality’], favorable to convalidating, where possible, marriages that are otherwise null…. It is true that the declaration of the nullity of a marriage, based on the truth acquired by means of a legitimate process, restores peace to the conscience, but such a declaration … must be presented and effected in an ecclesial context that is totally favorable to the indissolubility of marriage and to family founded upon it. The spouses themselves must be the first to realize that only in the loyal quest for the truth can they find their true good, without excluding a priori the possible convalidation of a union that, although it is not yet a sacramental marriage, contains elements of good, for themselves and their children, that should be carefully evaluated in conscience before reaching a different decision (January 28, 2002, Address to the Prelate Auditors, Officials and Advocates of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota).
In saying this, the Holy Father is not impugning the process that faithfully renders authentic declarations of nullity—he’s just placing that process in the appropriate pastoral context that is always to favor every attempted marriage that is still capable of being convalidated rather than abandoned, no matter what stage of divorce or the annulment process the man and woman may find themselves:
Every correct judgement of the validity or nullity of a marriage contributes to the culture of indissolubility, in the Church and in the world. It is a very important and necessary contribution: indeed, it has an immediate practical application, since it gives certainty not only to the individual persons involved, but also to all marriages and families (January 28, 2002, Address to the Prelate Auditors, Officials and Advocates of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota).
Why Is This Important to Know?
We see in the Holy Father’s words real evidence that the Church desires that couples truly do everything possible to honor their original first attempt at marital union (remarriages raise other significant questions) even when their attempted marital consent is known to be null. Even if it means convalidating an invalid marriage. Such pastoral solicitude is not only for the good of the man and woman, but it is obviously a sincere attempt to do everything possible to preserve stable family life for children who often greatly suffer after a permanently severed spousal relationship, concretized by civil divorce.
What I’ve said thus far is the proper backdrop for my headline statement that annulment is a concession to human weakness. It is human weakness that allows a man or a woman to appear to enter a valid marriage while not really doing so. That weakness requires the Church to re-examine marital consent that was previously presumed valid, to see whether it was.
What a lot of people miss, however, is this: When a divorced Catholic does receive a declaration of nullity, it may ease that person’s conscience and may permit them to “move on” in freedom from a truly irreparable relationship. But the declaration of nullity also represents yet one more opportunity to be morally certain that the attempted marriage really is irreparable.