Unintended Consequences from Easy Annulments

by Steve Wood

I was recently talking with a Catholic woman in her mid-twenties when the subject of annulments came up. Her immediate response was, “It’s a joke.” If you supposed that this young adult woman was a cafeteria Catholic showing up for Mass a few times a year, picking and choosing convenient moral doctrines, you assumed wrong. She is a faithful Mass attender who knows her faith and adheres to all of the Catholic moral teachings.

The Catholic Church is suffering a severe credibility crisis among faithful young adults. Nothing looms larger in the credibility crisis than the clergy sex abuse of minors and the subsequent cover-ups by episcopal leadership. Lengthy explanations and rationalizations that appear in the Catholic press and media are mostly read by older adults. Younger adults are not remotely interested in any media spin on what are grave sins and felony crimes.

Pope Francis recently called the failure to take action in response to clergy sex abuse, “sins of omission on the part of church leaders.” He called the widespread abuse of minors, “a terrible darkness in the life of the Church.” Such plain-spoken, honest, non-sugar-coated talk by the Holy Father will help restore confidence in the Church, especially with youth and young adults.

The Church needs such frank descriptions of the annulment crisis as well, especially in the United States, the world leader in annulments. In the United States the annulment process is commonly viewed as the way large numbers of Catholics divorce and remarry.

Am I saying that all annulments in the United States are somehow defective? No, I am not saying anything of the sort. There are indeed persons getting married with serious pathological disturbances causing a lack of capacity for entering a life-long commitment at the time of their wedding. There are some others who were pressured, threatened, or forced into marriages. In such situations declarations of nullity are most certainly justified.

Unfortunately, most Catholics in the United States have known people granted declarations of nullity such as the two real-life examples below:

At the urging of a devout Catholic wife, I met her Protestant husband in the hope that I might be an influence in his becoming a Catholic. To break the ice in our meeting he asked me, “What caused you to become a Catholic?” I responded that it was the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage that initially drew me towards the Catholic Church.

In response, he shook his head and told me about his Catholic friend who boasted on a fishing trip how he planned to dump his wife and marry his young girlfriend. To top it off, he bragged about getting the Catholic seal of approval for his sinful actions having been unwisely assured of an annulment beforehand.

Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, that which I cherished as a Catholic convert, was scorned by this man. Obviously, I didn’t make much headway in persuading him of the truthfulness of Catholicism. Sometime later, the husband I spoke with followed his Catholic fishing buddy’s bad example and divorced his wife and left his family heartbroken.

I encountered a second shocking situation regarding attitudes towards annulments shortly after our family entered the Catholic Church.

We considered moving to the Front Royal, Virginia area due to the presence of a strong Catholic community there. We used a nice mother-daughter realtor team to investigate properties. We mentioned to them that as new Catholics we were interested in living within driving range of the Front Royal Catholic community.

During a few private moments between looking at houses, the daughter asked me why I became a Catholic. Her curiosity was piqued regarding the reasons for my conversion when she learned that I was formerly a Protestant pastor. I mentioned that it was the Catholic teaching on marriage and family life, especially the indissolubility of marriage, which prompted my conversion. At this, her normally pleasant countenance changed.

In mid-life, her father took up with a young girlfriend. He subsequently divorced her mother, abandoning both of them to fend for themselves. When she spoke of the Catholic Church rewarding her father’s sins with an annulment, she could barely contain her emotions. To her, such annulments were not merely a joke; rather they were something corrupt, anti-family, anti-marriage, anti-Christian, and utterly despicable.

Some Church leaders are advocating making the annulment process easier at the Vatican’s Synod on the Family next fall. Part of the reasoning is that many who civilly remarry outside the Church might quit church participation altogether. I think this concern has some basis in fact. Yet I wonder if the same leaders have considered the greater harm stemming from extreme multi-generational bitterness towards Catholicism generated by easy annulments. There’s a world of difference between quiet-quitters from the Faith and perpetually angry and embittered family members profoundly harmed by easy annulments.

I am convinced that the Catholic Church says all the right things about the indissolubility of marriage. Yet, most folks both inside and outside of the Church, as well as those on the margins, will give greater weight to what the Church does with annulments when forming opinions on just how serious the Church is about indissolubility.

Yes, I am very aware of the many websites, books, articles, media campaigns, and broadcasts explaining how declarations of nullity are not simply the way Catholics do divorce and remarriage. Yet most of these noble efforts lack effectiveness since most Catholics in the United States have firsthand experience of friends or family members getting undeserved easy annulments. They see Catholics divorcing and remarrying like the general public, except Catholics just need some expensive paperwork.

I am not saying this is an accurate universal portrayal of annulments, but the fact is too many easy annulments have created a distorted perception of Catholic marital teaching. Church leaders, religious media personnel, and faithfully practicing older Catholics desperately need to go outside of the narrow circle of various Catholic media outlets to discover what tens of millions of Catholics, especially young adults, are really thinking about annulments.

Equally important is to uncover why the marriage rate of young Catholic adults is plummeting. While easy annulments are not the only cause, they are certainly one of the primary reasons why thousands of young adults hold such a low view of a sacramental church wedding that they are increasingly avoiding it altogether.

Counselors divide marriages that end in divorce into two general categories: high-stress and low-stress. Divorces from high-stress marriages are characterized by such things as rampant alcoholism, drug addiction, verbal and physical abuse, and pathological psychological disturbances.

Yet, divorces from high-stress marriages are a minority of the marital breakups in the U.S. and hence only a minority of the cases that are brought before tribunals. According to Dr. Paul Amato, a sociologist at Penn State University, 55 to 60 percent of divorces occur in low-conflict/low stress marriages. Other researchers estimate that as many as 70 percent of divorces are from low-conflict marriages. Regardless of the exact percentage, Dr. Amato’s research found that children suffer the most negative effects after a divorce from a low-conflict marriage, rather than from a high-conflict marriage.

Psychologists and marital sociologists state that it is easier for children to deal with the death of a parent than it is for them to struggle with the aftermath of their parents’ divorce from a low-stress marriage. Since the majority of declarations of nullity are for divorces from low-stress marriages, we need to realize that an annulment in such a situation does absolutely nothing to heal the decades of profound pain experienced by millions of Catholic children.

I am appalled by defenders of easy annulments when they simply mention that the declaration of nullity doesn’t mean that the children from such broken marriages are in any way illegitimate. The statement is completely true, yet fails to mention that annulments do not ameliorate the decades of a child’s suffering after the divorce as seen in higher rates of: depression and psychological disturbances, substance abuse, welfare dependency, school suspension, incarceration, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock child-bearing, and rates of divorce in future marriages.

The welfare of Catholic children is the ultimate reason why it’s imperative that next fall’s Synod on the Family doesn’t make annulments any easier and thus unintentionally weakens the indissolubility of marriage.

In a low-stress marriage no one is getting black eyes, harmed, or threatened. What is experienced in low-stress marriages are the normal marital problems that all couples experience, but with a lack of the necessary skills and perseverance to navigate through the difficulties. Low-stress marriages may have unmet needs, unrealistic expectations, poor communication, or are simply going through a very difficult rough patch in their marriage.

Low-stress unhappy marriages can be healed and become very happy, especially with adequate time and with what is known as “skill-based marital education.” Rather than granting annulments following divorces from low-stress marriages the focus should be on preventing such divorces in the first place by offering widespread effective skill-based education and support.

While there are many fine exceptions, overall there is a shocking lack of pastoral and parish support for those experiencing marital difficulties. Saying to a troubled spouse, “Come see me after the divorce and I’ll help you through the annulment process,” is not support for lifelong marriage. In fact, just saying such a thing could easily be a strike against a marriage that otherwise could be healed.

It is not uncommon for a couple experiencing a painful period in their marriage to think that the pain will last for the rest of their married life. At such times they are vulnerable to overt and subtle suggestions from clergy, family, friends, and counselors to abandon the marriage. The alluring prospect of being able to start over with a new and different spouse after divorce and an easy annulment is enough for many hurting couples to choose a marital exit strategy over making the necessary sacrifices to develop a lifelong marriage.

The proposal by some Catholic leaders to increase the availability and ease of obtaining annulments will have the unintended consequence of weakening an already weak Catholic marriage culture. What Catholic marriages really need, especially in Europe and North America, is practical and effective assistance in healing hurting marriages in order to reduce the Catholic divorce rate.

In my next letter I’ll present seven practical and proven ways to reduce the Catholic divorce rate. These types of practical steps to prevent divorce and strengthen marriages are what the Synod on the Family should be focusing upon.

Editor’s Note: This is one of the longest newsletters I’ve sent you. This newsletter is intended to assist in preventing serious harm to the Catholic family from some of the ruinous proposals for the Synod on the Family in Rome next fall. Parents may want to save the citations from our past two popes regarding abuses in the annulment process in case there is a need for material to discourage a grown child from prematurely giving up on a marriage.

Prophetic Witness about Annulments from St. John Paul II & Benedict XVI

“The tendency to extend nullities instrumentally, neglecting the horizon of the objective truth, entails a structural distortion of the whole process.”

St. John Paul II Address to the Roman Rota (the supreme marriage court of the Church), 2004.

“The normal human condition in this world, also includes moderate forms of psychological difficulty. Consequently it includes the call to live in accordance with the Spirit even in the midst of tribulation and at the cost of renunciation and sacrifice. Where such an integral vision of the human being is lacking, normality on the theoretical level can easily become a myth and on the practical level, one ends up denying to the majority of people the possibility of giving valid consent.”

“Bearing in mind that only the most severe forms of psychopathology impair substantially the freedom of the individual and that psychological concepts do not always correspond with canonical, it is of fundamental importance that, on the one hand, the identification of the more serious forms and their distinction from the slight, be carried out by means of a method that is scientifically sure.”

“All possible explanations for the failure of a marriage for which a declaration of nullity is sought will have to be considered and not just the hypothesis of it being due to psychopathology … It may, in fact, be a case of people who are substantially normal but who have difficulties which could be overcome, were it not for their refusal to struggle and make sacrifices.”

St. John Paul II, Address to the Roman Rota, 1988

“The fact of a problem that continues to be very real is visible to everyone. In some cases one can, unfortunately, still sense the pressing need of which my venerable Predecessor spoke: that of preserving the ecclesial community ‘from the scandal of seeing in practice the value of Christian marriage being destroyed by the exaggerated and almost automatic multiplication of declarations of nullity, in cases of the failure of marriage, on the pretext of some immaturity or psychic weakness on the part of the contracting parties.’”

“In this regard it is opportune to recall again some distinctions that draw the demarcation line above all between ‘psychic maturity which is seen as the goal of human development’ and ‘canonical maturity which instead, is the basic minimum required for establishing the validity of marriage.’ Secondly … ‘only incapacity and not difficulty in giving consent and in realizing a true community of life and love invalidates a marriage.’”

“In this regard it seems opportune to recall that the Code of Canon Law’s norm concerning mental incapacity, and the application thereof. In order for this incapacity to be recognized, there must be a particular mental anomaly that seriously disturbs the use of reason at the time of the celebration of marriage and the use of reason or the critical and elective faculty in regard to grave decisions, particularly in freely choosing a state of life or that puts the contracting party not only under a serious difficulty but even the impossibility of sustaining the actions inherent in the obligations of marriage.

Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Rota, February 2, 2010

 Personal

This passage from the prophet Malachi is what shocked me as a Protestant pastor out of my complacency towards divorce from a lawful marriage followed by remarriage. When I finally realized that this passage could apply to me as a minister, I resigned from my pastorate and eventually became a Catholic. Even though this passage proved very disruptive in my life, I’m profoundly glad that I heard its message before judgment day.

I reproduce the passage here without comment, or suggested application. Whatever your position, vocation, or state in life, just ask the Holy Spirit to speak through Malachi’s words whatever God wishes you to hear.

“If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.

Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the LORD of hosts.

My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.”

And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the LORD was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth.

“For I hate divorce, says the LORD the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.”

You have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Every one who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.”

— Malachi 2:1-9, 13-17

This article appeared in the August 2014 edition of the Dads.org E-Newsletter.