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Annulment process needs a quick end


One of the joys of freelancing is that one generally receives bushels of snail-mail and e-mail, together with voice mail, free books and invitations to speak.

Much of the mail is healthy, larded with ideas, good humor and good writing. I am secretly glad that the authors don’t write for a living or I’d be peddling Fuller brushes. True, some comes from good souls whose porch light has burned out. However, the mail is as addictive as a holy water font. I enjoy it all.

I have never counted or sorted it all, but a great deal of it has to do with marriage and annulments. It has become easier to dismantle a nuclear weapon than to erase a marriage.

Perhaps as few as 10 percent of divorced Catholics even bother to seek an annulment. It is a thorn in their side, an insult to their souls, not unlike a bankruptcy after years of hard work. Marriages, like businesses, start out with the best of intentions.

According to my colleague, John Allen, who heads NCR’s Rome bureau, annulments went from 600 in 1968 to well over 40,000 in recent years. Americans compose only 6 percent of the world’s Catholics but are granted 80 percent of the annulments. In other countries, many diocesan offices don’t even have a matrimonial tribunal. The wife gets the house; the husband gets a mistress. The church gets to keep its rigid teaching.

I paused after that thought, and Jean, my wife, and I went to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play some Franz Liszt. One of the pieces recalled Maria d’Agoult, his former mistress and the mother of his daughter, Cosima. Liszt came from a devoutly Catholic family and took four minor orders for the priesthood under the rigid Pius IX. It reminded me of the great sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who went to daily Mass with his mistress.

In Europe, the rules are the same, but the game is played differently. There, Catholics believe in strict rules as long as there is a way around them.

As recently as 1970, the church adopted 23 new norms for what is derisively termed “Catholic divorce.” The new rules were simpler and more pastoral, but petitioners still faced an invasive and exhausting process.

I checked with my trusty Code of Canon Law and quickly lost count of the laws governing every aspect of marriage except the parts that really count. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church is also sagging under the weight of finger-wagging prohibitions.

Then, I think of the calls and messages. I’m thinking of “Susan” who married a truckload of beer. After five children, he floated off with her sister-in-law. Following the divorce, the annulment process consumed two years of her time and $800 in fees while her remarried ex swilled more beer. Her case was slowed by a plodding cleric who seldom did more than one case a week, although he rarely missed a meal or a vacation.

Then “Alex” called because he thought I knew the pope. He’s not a Catholic. He was raised a Presbyterian but converted to Judaism when he married Rachel. After 20 years and two children, she took off with a married man. It was a bitter divorce. It took Alex over a year to recover with the aid of a good therapist. Now, he is dating a Roman Catholic, and they want to get married. I tried to find an answer for them. I even called the Marriage Tribunal, but they never called back. (Voice mail has been a boon to church bureaucrats. They can screen every call and decide who is in the state of grace.)

“Cedric” didn’t call for help. He just wanted to say that, in his diocese, the use of the internal forum to repair invalid marriages had been virtually banned. The internal forum, used mostly in confession and private annulments, is essentially a moral discernment, usually involving a pastoral advisor, based on the state of conscience of those in a second marriage.

Cedric’s call was a dipstick into an increasingly conservative church. Now, given a chance to offer a pastoral or legal response, authorities call their canonist or civil lawyer. In 2001, John Paul II addressed the Roman Rota, the second highest and most active court of the Holy See, which serves as the court of the third instance for most marriage cases and which has been the source of important developments in matrimonial jurisprudence. The pope urged them to avoid loose declarations of nullity based on wiggly interpretations of the provisions, especially those dealing with incapacity of consent.

The call reminded me of a pastoral priest, not an episcopal candidate, who handed a couple an annulment petition and asked them to complete it. The questionnaire permitted them to review their earlier marriage and to reflect on their mistakes in judgment. It was therapeutic. Then, they returned it to the priest who simply stored it in his bureau drawer.

Each week he would inquire about their practice and involvement in the parish. Finally, he informed them that their petition had been approved. He married them over the Easter Sunday weekend. The petition never left his underwear drawer.

“They ought to just close the place [marriage tribunal] down,” one pastor told me a few years ago. “After eight years of seminary training, if we can’t decide such cases, there is something terribly wrong with the system.”

With barely enough priests around to staff a Solemn High Mass, we shouldn’t be wasting time examining the spoors of bad marriages. It doesn’t really heal; it isn’t cost effective. It’s bad for business. A few in-depth conversations with a sensitive priest or layperson should do the trick.

I am thinking of a couple who wanted to marry. However, there was an impediment that would have taken ages to unravel. So, they went before a judge. However, they knew that his mother would be heartbroken because of the absence of a priest. So, they called on an actor friend and carefully prepared a script. The actor, all vested, carried it off beautifully, and the mother was ecstatic.

The couple lived happily ever after.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he makes CDs of Christian bird calls. You can e-mail your annulment petition to him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002