I had been a widower for almost two years when I met Beth. I had anticipated staying single for the rest of my life. Sharon had been a wonderful wife and mother; when she died of cancer in her early 50’s, I grieved deeply. The Lord, however, blessed me with the opportunity to find a transcendent love a second time. There was one glitch. Beth was divorced, with the judgment recorded 20 years ago. Several years after the divorce, her former husband, Jack, remarried. Beth had remained single.
According to one study published in 1993, 21 percent of married Catholics have been divorced, and another 23 percent are separated from their spouses. Many Catholics find themselves therefore in a quandary. If they wish to remarry, they must apply for and receive an annulment from the church or be permanently barred from the sacraments. Furthermore, relatively little has been written about the effects of the Catholic annulment process on the people involved. The description by Joseph A. Califano Jr. of his successful annulment petition is one of the few published accounts (Am. 11/15/04). Like him, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to return to the sacraments. Yet the annulment process, as Beth and I experienced it, created intense anguish for us both and for Beth’s former husband, her mother and especially her children.
Before we married, Beth and I talked with our pastor. He was understanding and compassionate and explained the annulment process: nothing was guaranteed, but at least there was hope that sometime in the near future, if an annulment was granted, we could return to the sacraments. We were married in a civil ceremony a little more than three years ago. Two months later, Beth submitted her annulment application.
It was my idea for Beth to apply. My parish means a great deal to me. I have been an active member there for 30 years. Mass and Communion (Sundays and weekdays) are especially important. Beth, a devout Catholic but not as close to the parish as I am, was willing to apply, but her intuition told her it would not be painless. We thought it best not to mention the annulment application to her four grown children (ages 22 to 31), none of whom were practicing Catholics. She also did not mention it to her former husband, an agnostic who had married her in the church only because his Italian father demanded it.
As part of the application process, Beth was required to write a long narrative explaining why neither she nor Jack had been emotionally ready for marriage. In part this was therapeutic. Reflecting on her life as a child and adolescent, a life of turmoil and distress, she came to realize how unprepared she had been. Yet the experience was also very painful. Deep psychological wounds were reopened as she relived the problems of her marriage and the pain of divorce.
Beth asked her mother, Millie, to be one of the witnesses who would testify in writing about Beth’s situation. Perhaps no other person knew better Beth’s tumultuous early life, which included several dysfunctional stepfathers.
Unfortunately, Millie felt that Beth’s depiction of her childhood, in which she often felt alienated and rootless, was a criticism of her. Angry, she telephoned Beth’s daughter Mary and told her about the annulment proceedings. “Do you know what your mother has done?” she said. “She is claiming that there never was a marriage between her and your father. That makes you illegitimate.” Mary told this to her siblings, who also became disturbed and upset.
Beth and I had extensive talks with her children. We explained that a Catholic annulment does not deny the love that had existed, the validity of the civil marriage or their own legitimacy. Still, they all felt very hurt.
Beth’s former husband was also contacted as part of the annulment proceedings. He too became angry and depressed. He remembered the pain of the divorce, but in his mind an annulment meant that the marriage never happened and that all the good times of his marriage to Beth were erased. Jack never responded to any of the letters sent him by the diocesan tribunal.
It took two years and 10 months until the annulment was finally granted. Beth was at various times saddened, upset and thoroughly depressed.
Had we known three years ago what we know now, Beth would not have applied for an annulment. Had I known how much pain Beth and her family would go through, I would not have asked her to apply. I realize I would have been barred from Communion for life, not just for the duration of the process. I would be able to attend Mass, but when it came time for Communion, I would have to step aside, let others advance toward the altar and return to my pew.
Our experience was not unique. Many Catholics have gone through an annulment and felt much pain. There are many others who do not bother to apply and remain on the margins of Catholic life.
I hope that someday the Catholic Church will reflect the compassion and forgiveness of Christ by developing a more understanding process to reconcile divorced and remarried Catholics with the church. Instead of requiring a long, formal annulment process, which in many cases is filled with pain, perhaps the church could allow divorced Catholics an opportunity to return to the church and the sacraments through a parish priest. Or the church could create a process similar to that used for members of the clergy who petition to set aside their ordination. As in the case of these laicized priests, a stipulation could be made that such reconciled Catholics could not serve in such church roles as lector or eucharistic minister. Such a limitation is something most divorced and remarried Catholics would be willing to accept, so long as they had the opportunity to receive the sacraments. They could take their place once again in the Communion line, with all the other communicants whose sins have been forgiven.