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Simcha FisherDecember 16, 2021
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Four weddings, but only one sacramental marriage. That was the tally by the time Rob and Shannon made their vows to each other 18 years ago.

Rob and Shannon are not their real names. The couple is not ashamed of their story, but they do not like to dwell on it, either; and it is complex enough that they have not told their own children all the details. It is a story about mistakes, pride, fear and hope, growth and grace, and love and canon law. It is a story, in short, about what makes a valid marriage in the eyes of the church, and how church leaders and structures respond when a marriage is not valid.

For such a theologically dense topic, annulments are a perennially popular topic of discussion and debate among Catholics. They are also perennially misunderstood. Many Americans speak of “getting an annulment” as if it were just the Catholic version of divorce, and many Catholics leave the church when they discover that there is more to it than that. There are persistent stories of rich or famous Catholics who supposedly bought their way out of undesirable marriages; and armchair theologians are quick to offer their pronouncement on whether or not a stranger’s marriage is valid based on a few online comments.

But the problems surrounding petitioning for decrees of nullity go deeper than rumors and misunderstandings. In 2015, Pope Francis made some reforms, aimed at lowering the costs and expediting the process. He opined in January 2021 that these efforts were being stymied by the desire for money.

But some canon lawyers believe a different kind of reform is necessary, anyway—the kind that takes place on a more personal level, where couples begin their lives together with a better understanding of what the church means by marriage, and are supported during inevitable times of struggle.

What does the church really teach about this widely misunderstood process, and how does it play out in the lives of ordinary Catholics? What does it do to their emotional and spiritual lives to encounter a doctrine that works in the space where law meets love?

Great Expectations

Before Rob got married, he knew what the church taught about the standards for a sacramental marriage, at least on an intellectual level. But he had a lot to learn about what the church expects from people who want to marry, and what those two people can reasonably expect from each other.

His first attempt at marriage was to a single mother who was living in poverty; he met her while doing charity work. She was waiting for her own decree of nullity to come through and was struggling to raise her two children alone. She and Rob had a passionate but rocky relationship. They fought constantly, and couples’ counselling just made things worse.

Rob’s partner’s inexplicable rages and hostility were a major problem; another was his motivation for wanting to commit to her in the first place. He was tormented by the thought that dating a woman who was still married in the eyes of the church was not licit. Rob was newly rededicated to his faith after years of self-described promiscuity, and he decided that if her first marriage was declared invalid, he would swoop in.

“I felt I could take care of her,” he said. “I could be this knight in shining armor and rescue her from her terrible life.”

More than one priest counseled him to “get the hell away from her,” Rob said, because of her hostility and instability caused by mental health issues; but he was determined and felt a sense of obligation. When she became free to marry, they went through with the wedding. The fighting and hostility and irrational behavior increased, and Rob’s misery intensified. But he told himself he had to stick it out. He remembers thinking, “I gotta get out of this, and I can’t. I’m married now. A Catholic doesn’t say things like that.”

He finally divorced her, he said, to preserve his own sanity. Then Rob, an engineer, decided to petition for an annulment because it seemed like the next logical, prudent thing to do.

Rob, an engineer, decided to petition for an annulment because it seemed like the next logical, prudent thing to do.

He remembers thinking: “If the church said no, I can’t remarry, I would have been O.K. I can live alone. It won’t be very nice, but I can do it.”

But the course his life took next was less lonely, more complicated and more grace-filled than that.

The annulment itself was so straightforward Rob was almost scandalized.

“It was like a rubber stamp,” he said.

In retrospect, there was a good reason it was so easy: The woman he married was, he learned, severely mentally ill, and deemed incapable of entering into a sacramentally valid marriage with anyone. Rob had kept a detailed journal of their relationship, which provided copious evidence of this. The tribunal called a few witnesses, and a short time later the case was closed. The marriage had never been valid. Rob was told he must seek counseling if he ever tried to enter into a marriage again.

The whole experience left him feeling bruised and cautious, and the idea of marrying again was not on his radar for years.

In Love With Love

Marriage was not on Shannon’s mind, either. Like Rob, she had strayed from the faith, had a short and deeply flawed marriage and then returned to the church. When she met Rob, at first she saw him only as a friend and possible spiritual guide.

Shannon was the youngest of 10 children. Her dad died when she was a baby, and when she married her boyfriend at age 21, it was mainly a way to launch her life, she said, and to catch up with all her siblings who already had started families. She did love her boyfriend as far as she was capable.

“But I was almost more in love with the idea of marriage and starting my life,” she said.

For most of their married life together, she and her ex never fought. That was part of the problem.

“I was very much a peacemaker and a people pleaser,” she said.

For most of their married life together, she and her ex never fought. That was part of the problem.

And she did keep the peace, always putting her husband’s needs and desires above her own. But when her older brother was hospitalized after an accident, Shannon spent so much time at the hospital she felt a calling to become a nurse. So she went to school—a move her husband, who did not have a college degree, perceived as a threat. By the time she earned her degree, he was seeing someone else and wanted Shannon to move out.

Shannon had gained confidence over the years and after her divorce was successful enough to move on with her life. She was, she said, doing what she wanted, with whom she wanted. She did not attend Mass more than twice a year.

“I thought the faith was full of crap,” she said.

But for some reason, the idea of getting an annulment kept nagging at her. Finally she broke down and made some calls to start the process, telling her mother she was just sick of thinking about it.

Like Rob’s, her case was a fairly straightforward bureaucratic process—until she got to the questionnaire.

To tell this story properly, let us first clarify our terms. The fastest way to drive a canon lawyer batty is to use the phrase “get an annulment.” More accurately, a person can petition to be granted a declaration of nullity, which is an official pronouncement from the church that what seemed to be a marriage was never valid. It is not just a semantic difference; it points to something theologically real.

A typical annulment process goes like this: A petitioner contacts their diocese or diocesan marriage tribunal and sends a written testimony as to why their marriage was never valid. If a marriage tribunal decides it has jurisdiction and accepts the petition, a judge and an assessor are assigned to the case. Then the grounds for an annulment are established, and the petitioner’s former spouse is given a chance to respond and provide witnesses and testimony.

Then the petitioner fills out a questionnaire. The questionnaire probes deep, not only into the relationship between the couple and their understanding of what marriage is, but the maturity and psychological capacity of each. It examines their childhoods, how they were raised to think of marriage, what kind of examples they were shown.

"It was the cheapest therapy I’ve ever gotten."

For some petitioners, this intimate questionnaire can be humiliating, even re-traumatizing. But for Shannon, it was exhausting but illuminating and gave her a bracing dose of self-knowledge. It took her almost a month to complete.

“It was the cheapest therapy I’ve ever gotten,” Shannon said. “You really had to examine where you came from, what you witnessed growing up. Did you know what you needed to bring to this [marriage]? It really made me look at how I functioned in relation to other people, where I got my self-value and self-worth from, and what I was willing to give up in order to have something I thought was valuable.”

Once the questionnaire is complete, the tribunal contacts witnesses, and their responses are investigated and corroborated. The former spouse can and often does opt out, if he or she is not challenging the declaration of nullity or is simply choosing not to participate. But if the former partner does get involved, he or she may fill out a similar questionnaire or submit another form of deposition. The “acts,” or evidence, is then made available for both parties to read and respond to, and then the judge decides whether that evidence shows the marriage was invalid or not.

As with Rob, Shannon was notified that she must get tribunal-approved counseling before she attempted to get married again. And then it was done. Six months later, her declaration of nullity came in the mail.

“I was like, ‘This is nice, whatever,’ and just put it away,” she said.

‘A Marriage Is Built Over Time’

She did not think of it again until she met Rob, years later. She already had begun to wonder if maybe the church had something to offer after all. Despite her career, house, car, vacations and friends, her life had begun to feel empty. She contemplated the example of her mother, a widow who raised 10 children with joy and perseverance, and she prayed a rare prayer: “God, I want what she has.”

Little by little, she became more active in the faith again. Gingerly, skeptically, she waded into online Catholic dating sites. Up popped Rob.

“This is someone further down the path than I am,” she thought. “Maybe he can help guide me down the path of finding faith and a better life.”

And he did. They became closer; he gently encouraged her to go to confession for the first time in 20 years—and then to go to confession again when the first priest she encountered yelled at her for her sins.

“That’s not what it’s supposed to be like. Please try again,” Rob told her.

They continued talking online; they met for Mass; they spent the day together. Shannon told her mother that he might be the one. Her mother laughed, because a year ago, Shannon would not have given the time of day to a man so dedicated to his religion.

But things had changed. Shannon had changed. And now that she had started thinking of Rob as a possible husband, the inexplicable pull to do the work to get her annulment years ago suddenly made sense. Without it, Shannon would not have been pushed to examine her own life and heart so honestly and minutely; and Rob would never have gotten involved a second time with a woman whose marital status was ambiguous.

Maybe the sacrament happens at that moment, but marriage takes years to actually build.

Rob had changed, too, but he was still extremely cautious and never wanted to have to go through an annulment process again. At Shannon’s urging, he ended up going to the tribunal-approved therapist far longer than was required, which helped relieve feelings of misplaced guilt. Therapy also relieved him of some of the pride that whispered in his ear and the fear that he had gotten off too easily.

“I think going through some of life’s failures taught me not to take myself so seriously,” he said. “The church is doing its best to help people who are victims [of others’ actions or of their own sins], so I try to see it that way.”

Rob used to argue with friends who thought the church should be more stern and inflexible regarding annulments in general, but he does not bother anymore. “The church is stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to be merciful, but upholding the teachings of Christ. It does its best to do both, and that’s hard. That’s how I see the annulment process,” he said.

He has an occasional wistful desire that his past could have been more “clean,” but his present keeps him sufficiently busy. He has a solid career, and he and Shannon have both biological and adopted children together, some of whom have complex special needs. And he has found that their marriage, happy and grounded and valid though it is, does not run on automatic but needs care and attention.

“A marriage is built over time,” he said. “It doesn’t just appear that day you walk down the aisle. Maybe the sacrament happens at that moment, but marriage takes years to actually build. Over time, and with the constancy of the relationship and the things you enjoy together and struggle with, that’s what makes it solid.”

‘We’re Looking for the Truth’

Rob is correct: A solid relationship does not arrive ready-made at the altar. But what the couple brings to that altar can make the difference between a marriage that is valid and a marriage that is not, when a case is brought to a marriage tribunal.

“We’re looking for the truth for people,” said Aldean Hendrickson, director of the marriage tribunal of the Diocese of New Ulm in Minnesota. “It’s not about a hoop to jump through so they can be married again.”

The bureaucratic side exists for a reason. Marriage is “something the creator put into our nature,” Mr. Hendrickson said. But beyond the exchange of consent, there is a contract that is demonstrably either sacramentally valid or invalid. What the process is designed to examine is humanity at its most vulnerable, and how humans in a relationship respond to both sin and grace. The legal language is an attempt to sort out the objective truth of what happened both in a relationship and before it.

Petitioners may be shocked to realize how relevant these “before” issues can be. They sometimes begin the process expecting to make the case that their spouse was cruel or unfaithful. But the tribunal often begins by asking about the start of a relationship.

"Divorce looks at the end game, when everything has fallen apart. Annulment looks at the beginning."

“Divorce looks at the end game, when everything has fallen apart. Annulment looks at the beginning, at the moment of creation,” said Jacqui Rapp, a canon lawyer in Kentucky who has worked on tribunals for over 20 years. “We’re trying to determine whether there was a marriage to begin with.”

She said a professor used to teach about annulments using something called “The Pinto Theory.”

“If you had a Ford Pinto, you could drive for two weeks, or 20 years, but if you were rear impacted, it blew up,” she said. “The defect was always there from the beginning. It doesn’t matter how long you drive it; the defect was always there.”

That is what tribunals seek to determine: Whether there were fundamental and irreconcilable problems present in the relationship before and at the time of the wedding.

Sometimes those problems are obvious, but the couple never saw them (or wanted to see them) until long after the wedding. More than one petitioner said that they wished marriage preparation had included a questionnaire as detailed as the one they filled out when things had already gone horribly wrong. It asks questions that should have been asked of the couple when they were still only engaged.

But it is not always possible to say ahead of time that a marriage is not valid.

“We just don’t know. We can’t look into the future. It’s not our gift. We can’t predict grace,” Ms. Rapp said.

‘Christ Would Have Listened’

Rob and Shannon’s situation was complex in some ways—each of them needed to obtain a declaration of nullity for their previous marriage—but they also each happened to live in a diocese with a well-staffed, functional tribunal ready and able to support them in several different ways, eventually leading them into a much stronger practice of their faith. Not all petitioners are so lucky.

Kathy Hearn said the encounters she had in her diocese were so inhumane that her attempt to pursue an annulment ended up capsizing her entire relationship with the church.

Kathy's attempt to pursue an annulment ended up capsizing her entire relationship with the church.

“The diocese was in turmoil at that time,” she said. “It was literally the week before they were turning over the entire staff in the tribunal.”

Ms. Hearn said she had spent almost a year writing out her story, detailing her own immaturity and her husband’s behavior before and during the marriage. She submitted 30 pages of heartfelt narrative, describing what she thought was an open-and-shut case about a 20-year marriage that was, she says, built on infidelity, abuse and deception.

Just over a week later, she was notified that the tribunal declined to move forward with her case. In distress, she called the chancery, hoping for some explanation. Ms. Hearn said a secretary told her, “They’re canon lawyers. You don’t question this.” And that was all the answer she got.

“There’s an insane lack of compassion and charity,” she said.

She eventually hired a canon lawyer who helped her to re-start the process, but she was so demoralized by the harsh rebuff she received, she lost heart. Ms. Hearn still prays to God, but she has not been to Mass in over a year, and she is stymied by the conflicting answers she has gotten from church officials about her marriage and about her faith in general.

She said one priest told her that, if her testimony was over three pages long, the tribunal would not even read it. He told her all they wanted to hear was the type of information “they could use to grant a divorce.”

I believe Christ would have read [my testimony] with interest and not looked for the easy way out.

“It doesn’t even feel like my church anymore. I believe Christ would have listened,” she said. “I believe he would have read [my testimony] with interest and not looked for the easy way out.”

Through constant efforts of prayer, she is no longer angry toward her ex-husband. She is now dating a kind and caring man, and she believes God put him in her path. But she knows she cannot marry him in the church. She is not even sure if she would want to.

“I don’t even know [if I would want to remarry in the church]. I lived for it forever, that annulment that would set me free,” she said. “Isn’t that crazy? I don’t even know anymore.”

‘A Human Process’

For those who do want annulments, the process can be excruciatingly slow, an issue Pope Francis attempted to alleviate with his reforms.

Previously, a petitioner usually had to approach a tribunal in the diocese where the respondent lives, and if the petitioner lived in a different diocese, both tribunals had to agree that the petitioner’s tribunal could take on the case. This process was only possible if both tribunals were in the same conference of bishops, which sometimes meant a dead end for a petitioner whose ex-spouse lived in a diocese whose tribunal had different rules; and the process was nearly impossible for a migrant trying to find an ex-husband in the Philippines or the Middle East, for example. This requirement has been removed.

Another reform ruled that bishops must handle some clear-cut cases directly, rather than turning them over to the tribunal, for a faster turnaround; but Ms. Rapp said she does not know of many dioceses in the United States that are following this practice.

One change that immediately affected cases in the United States was the removal of the requirement that the decision by one tribunal to grant a declaration of nullity had to be reviewed by a second tribunal with higher authority. This created a bottleneck, sometimes causing a delay of three years or more. Now, the decision of the first tribunal is deemed adequate, streamlining the process—and making the tribunal a little more careful.

“Not that we were sloppy before, but we know this is the decision, and it’s up to us to make it right,” Mr. Hendrickson said.

No amount of reforms can guarantee absolute uniformity from one diocese to the next.

But it is still a human process, and no amount of reforms can guarantee absolute uniformity from one diocese to the next. Even well-staffed and well-trained tribunals vary in their understanding of what the church and a couple are trying to accomplish in an investigation. Some tribunals are more rigid and exacting; some allow for wider interpretations of the evidence. Some emphasize healing; others narrow in on ferreting out the facts.

Ms. Hearn made her case to the tribunal before any of Pope Francis’ 2015 reforms were put into effect. It is possible that, with different timing, she would have had a different experience.

But it is also not entirely clear that the reforms are as revolutionary as many reports made them out to be, at least in the United States.

“There’s some disagreement, even among canonists, about what problem [Pope Francis] was trying to solve,” Mr. Hendrickson said. Even as the 2015 reforms make some cases easier and faster, Mr. Hendrickson said there is something of a generational shift among canon lawyers underway, and that more tribunals in the United States are arguing that a faster and easier judgment is not necessarily in the best interest of the petitioner. If, in the name of mercy, a petitioner is allowed to emerge without having learned anything about themselves or about marriage, they are likely to make the same mistakes again.

“This is a ministry that has repeat customers,” Mr. Hendrickson said.

Mr. Hendrickson, who has sat on a marriage tribunal for eight years, said his own approach has changed over time.

“There’s an energy at the beginning [of one’s time on a tribunal] to help the petitioner get their happy ending. It’s become more nuanced as the years go along. I haven’t become colder, but I have a more nuanced appreciation about what challenges are in a married life,” he said.

I have a more nuanced appreciation about what challenges are in a married life.

This shift has not necessarily made him more likely to deny a petition, but it has made him more inquisitive in his interviews with parties and witnesses, he said. This is because he is “feeling the need to sort out the problems that are just problems (which are common) from the problems that are signs of fundamental invalidating flaws in the very foundation of the marriage (which are much rarer).”

But there have been shifts, too, in how well the general population of Catholics understands what marriage even means. For non-Catholics, a common ground for a decree of nullity is that, like Shannon’s first husband, they simply did not understand that marriage is permanent.

People do not even realize they harbor these mistaken beliefs about marriage, Ms. Rapp said. This is why the tribunal looks so hard at the couple’s families of origin.

“If you’re used to the rollercoaster, you choose the rollercoaster,” Ms. Rapp said. “People will pick what they know. It’s not unusual that a child of alcoholics will marry an alcoholic, and if you haven’t dealt with those issues from your past, they will come back to bite you.”

It begins to sound as if a valid marriage is almost unobtainable, an ideal state that only whole and healthy people from whole and healthy families can validly contract. But that is not so, Ms. Rapp said. In fact, every marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise.

“A couple doesn’t need to have a perfect theological understanding of marriage to be married,” Hendrickson said. “It’s a basic human act.”

And this means that a tribunal sometimes has to tell a petitioner “no.”

“There are situations I’ve judged where [I have to say,] I’m sorry, this was marriage and someone just chose to let sin enter. It was solid, the marriage preparation was solid, they knew what they were doing, and then 15 years in, he had an affair, and I can’t do anything with that. Sin isn’t grounds for nullity,” Ms. Rapp said.

Ideally, the process should be rigorous but not burdensome, illuminating but not exploitative.

Ideally, the process should be rigorous but not burdensome, illuminating but not exploitative, just but not harsh, merciful but not meaningless. Ms. Rapp said that a good canon lawyer understands that law is really theology in action.

“The process is a good process,” Ms. Rapp said. “I don’t know that humans put it into action in the best way possible. It’s a psychologically healing process if it’s done well. When it’s not done well, and people are just thrown into the machine, they come out feeling eaten up.”

But when it is done well, she calls it “a life-giving process” that can return people to the eucharistic table and to wholeness, whether they marry again or not.

“Good tribunals will help focus the question back on the petitioner and get them to evaluate what they did or didn’t do, saw or didn’t see, chose or didn’t choose, so they can make different choices in the future. That’s the goal. If someone wants to get married, or go into religious life or become a priest, we want to make sure they’re making that decision as healthy people,” she said.

And if they do want to marry again but are holding on to old hurts from past relationships, they ought to hear someone say to them, like Rob said to Sharon, “That’s not what it’s supposed to be like. Please try again.”

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