Null and Void


Yesterday, I looked at some of the Church’s pastoral responses to the problems faced by married couples. My focus is on the clergy, but let me say that the laity plays a very large role here too. We who are married have an obligation to defend marriage. We face it all the time in our families, and, while we aren’t out to start any family feuds, neither do we have to stand idly by when people close to us make bad choices. I know that my father had something to say to a relative who had strayed and I think it is appropriate to speak up to encourage reconciliation and to offer support toward that goal.

I have a friend who was completely blindsided by an adulterous husband. She came home to a voicemail saying he would not be returning. She turned to her in-laws for support and indeed they were appalled, but three months later, they sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with him and his girlfriend. She who had been so thoughtful and attentive to them was cast aside like something that had stayed a little too long in the fridge. Her husband had had time to prepare for this event, but she of course took months to process what had happened to her. She was still in love with a man who she came to realize she did not really know, but the divorce juggernaut had been launched, and as a year passed, she found she was divorced. Whether she objected or not was of little consequence. Such is the justice of no-fault divorce. If we truly believe that marriage is indissoluble, then we must have the integrity to stand up.

As for the Church, the teaching on the permanence of the marriage is firm, but it does not always appear that way. The Church allows for a “Declaration of Nullity,” popularly known as an annulment, which is poorly understood by most laypeople. This is a process by which a marriage is determined to have not met the criteria for validity at the time vows were exchanged. It has nothing to do with how successful or happy the marriage may have been over the years, nor whether children have been born of the union. It looks to the moment the vows were exchanged and determines whether either or both of the parties gave free and full consent and whether they were in fact free to consent. For example, if one of the spouses withheld information from the other, such as their being unwilling to have children, or their lack of intention to be faithful, or perhaps they were under financial or family pressure… These kinds of issues are evaluated by a tribunal and it may be decided that the marriage was not valid. This in no way affects the “legitimacy of children,” by the way. It is a canonical procedure which is sought by one or both of the parties for the purpose of determining whether they are free to remarry.

These tribunals provide a legitimate and necessary work for the Church, however, in my opinion, there are flaws in the system. When couples divorce, they often have little or no input from the Church. Some couples may work with their pastor, but more often than not, they make up their own minds to separate and divorce. In fact, before the annulment process can begin, the couple must be divorced. You can imagine then, that for pastoral reasons, the tribunal is biased towards annulment since the parties have been living apart for some time, and chances are, at least one of them has entered into a new relationship, even a civil marriage. And an abandoned spouse, arguing that the marriage is in fact valid seems just… sad. You can’t turn back the clock… And so the annulment process becomes a validation of no-fault divorce, which is absolutely a crime against the family.

I’ll return to the subject of marital breakdown next week. It’s a huge issue for society at large and for the Church in particular. While looking over some of the problems the Church has in dealing with it, I hope to conclude with positive suggestions. I invite your comments in that regard.

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