The Varieties of Annulment Experience
“Annulments are just for the rich.” “The Church makes a great deal of money from annulments.” “Just more hypocrisy from the Catholic Church--it teaches against divorce but figures out another way to give a divorce.” “Total sham: how can the Church declare a marriage never existed when the couple even celebrated their tenth anniversary!” “We paid for the Hall and the Church couldn’t get the paperwork through in time.” “Why does the Church require me to do this--my fiance is Catholic, but I’m not.” Comments like these are reported, but sadly, those who are helped by the annulment process often are not heard. As one who has served different Marriage Tribunals as an expert witness (peritus), here are my observations.
A canon lawyer would have to explain the nuances of annulments carefully, but here is my best understanding of one ground. The Catholic Church believes that marriage is a lifetime vow, a commitment in which two individuals freely, fully, and totally give themselves to each other. After a civil divorce, a Church Tribunal can look back and if the marriage was not at this level, an annulment can be granted which frees the individual to marry in the Church. The technical language often is something like this: “Mr. Jones was unable to freely enter into/and or maintain a valid matrimonial union.” A psychologist or psychiatrist often advises the Tribunal, usually after interviewing one of the parties. Much could be written to explain the countless ways marriages don’t reach the level of total commitment.
Each of the 200+ dioceses in the United States differs in the details of how canon law is implemented regarding annulments. Pastors are the primary persons who explain the process. Volunteer advocates help the person prepare a lengthy autobiographical statement, and assist in obtaining three witness statements and a large amount of supporting paperwork. If there are psychological grounds, the person is interviewed by a psychologist or psychiatrist, or receives some kind of testing. There is a hearing in front of the Judge, who renders a decision which is then reviewed by a higher Church court.
You can imagine how each person’s experience with the annulment process will vary. So many different individuals become the face of the Church (pastor, advocate, clerical and administrative workers, psychologist, Diocesan Judge, finance department) and a person’s experience with each of these people will color their view of the process.
Re: the fee--the going rate for everything is around $1,000-1,500; for truly needy persons this is often waived or adjusted. If one counts the number of hours that go into an annulment, and compares hourly rates of divorce firms, the charge multiplies. Sadly, I have seen too many persons complain about the fee, sometimes rudely, while driving to the interview in a $40,000+ vehicle, or describing multiple vacations to Disney World or similar places in statements and interviews. Tribunal workers and judges too often experience verbal abuse on the phone, treatment they do not deserve.
The annulment process may bring spiritual growth and healing. In reflecting on a failed marriage, most of us will recognize poor judgment we displayed in choice of partner, and even denial or glossing over problems or incompatibilities that later grew to be reasons for separating. There can be regret toward ineffective or hurtful ways of dealing with a spouse, or sadness about our imperfect or broken ways of relating intimately to another. With the divorce rate for second marriages hovering in the 40%-50% range, this introspection--at least in my opinion--lowers the odds for those who have taken the annulment process seriously. One measure of the effectiveness of the process is the manner in which tribunal workers and psychologists handle sensitive information from a person’s past. Every painful detail does not need to be recounted and when meetings with the psychologist and judge are handled with empathy and compassion rather than scrupulous focus on minutiae of canon law, a healing and positive atmosphere is better maintained. The best treatment of doctors causes negative side effects; the word is iatrogenic, and this also happens during the annulment process.
Even given the best intentions and effectiveness of tribunal workers, many persons will react angrily and publicly. When two individuals go through the motions solely to be eligible for a Church wedding, when one former spouse desires to block a remarriage, or when someone brings residual and powerful anger toward the Church on other matters--negativity frequently ensues. Much of the work of those in marriage tribunals is not publicized. As greater transparency in the Church brings these dedicated people into view, I am confident that others will recognize the good work they do.
Annulments--a complicated topic, perhaps in need of a follow-up column or two. Again, comments/questions to me below or to firstname.lastname@example.org are appreciated. For those considering seeking an annulment, Terrence Tierney and Joseph Campo’s
Annulment: Do You Have a Case is an essential guide.
William Van Ornum