The “instrumentum laboris,” or working document, for the fall Synod on the Family speaks to the various needs of the family in the modern world, including the need for pastoral care for those who, as Pope Francis puts it, “have had the misfortune of a failure in love.”
When it comes to divorce and annulments the church has the difficult task of, on the one hand, remaining faithful to the teachings of Jesus as to the permanency of marriage, while at the same time, remaining faithful to the reality of God’s mercy and love.
The church teaches that marriage should be faithful, lifelong and permanent (Mt 19:9). Our contemporary popes have spoken frequently about the value of a stable family. Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world,” and Pope Francis said, “Children have a right to a mother and a father.” But the prohibitions concerning divorce and remarriage reach beyond these modern-day figures and root themselves in Scripture.
Jesus taught that marriage was permanent. He said, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18). The church believes, with Jesus, that the family is the basis of society, and that the breaking up of families harms children and the world.
Elsewhere in Scripture, St. Paul reiterates Jesus’ difficult teaching on divorce and remarriage when he says, “To married people I give this command (not really I, but the Lord): A wife must not leave her husband...and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10-11). In an era in which many marriages end in divorce, this is one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus and the early church.
Still, we see how important the teaching on marriage has been from Jesus’ days of earthly ministry to our own. In the early church, there were only three sins named as mortal: murder, apostasy and adultery. Why? Because each of these sins destroyed community: murder, the human community, apostasy, the church community, and adultery, the family community. The development of the seven deadly sins came later with a theology of reconciliation or penance.
Catholics who divorce and remarry civilly but do not receive an annullment from the church are asked to make a painful sacrifice: to make a spiritual communion at Mass (as all Catholics should do) by engaging in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament during the liturgy, without receiving the Eucharist. They are asked to abstain (as all Catholics should do when they are in a state of mortal sin and have not made a Confession). One of the many problems surrounding this teaching is that many Catholics today receive Communion casually, and so someone who does not receive, tends to stand out. All people need to humbly acknowledge their sin, and prayerfully consider their own abstention.
The working document wonders if it would be possible for a divorced and remarried person to receive penance from their bishop and then Eucharist? The document asks, “If they can make a spiritual communion, why not a sacramental one?” The document also stresses that divorced and remarried persons should be welcomed and encouraged to participate in the life of the church.
Of course, these are thorny and complex moral issues about which there is ongoing debate and discussion. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that there is often an innocent party in cases of divorce. “It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law” (Canon 2386).
And the working document again and again stresses mercy saying, “Mercy is the core revelation of Jesus Christ.” The document cites Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan Woman at the Well, for instance.
Likewise, the working document stresses the uniqueness of each situation. No one knows the details of anyone else’s private trials. As such, Christians should refrain from judging one another. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian is to forgive the inexcusable in others because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
In addition, many people who marry in the Catholic Church are granted annulments because the sacrament was in some way invalid from the outset. For example: the marriage was never consummated, one or both spouses never intended to be faithful, never intended to have children, were abusive, or lied about their ability to fulfill marriages’ essential obligations. Or, one or both spouses were unable to give consent due to mental illness, immaturity or familial pressure. Annulments are freeing, as they state that the union was never a valid marriage. As such, they offer a fresh start.
The church teaches that marriage is a vocation, or calling. Only adults who have undergone a period of discernment should enter into the sacrament of marriage, and they must do so freely. No one should be pressured into marrying.
Annulments: Frustrating, but Healing
The process of obtaining an annulment can be long and frustrating, as both parties must give an exhaustive account of what happened in the relationship. These documents are sealed and completely confidential, and the former spouses do not read each other’s accounts. This protects both parties from further injury. In addition, several witnesses to the relationship are asked to give their version of events. Typically, a priest and two canon lawyers look at the forms. One lawyer argues for the validity of the marriage, the other against it. The task of the marriage tribunal is to investigate whether or not the sacrament was valid. (For one priest reflections on the annulment process, see "The Annulment Dilemma" by Msgr. Paul V. Garrity).
The process is long, in part, because the benefit of the doubt is generally given to the validity of the marriage. And many faithful Catholics have had their annulments denied. And yet, like going to Confession, the process can also be very healing. Regardless of the outcome, it can be helpful to take stock of what went wrong before moving forward. As the working document states, “In the event of the failure of a marriage everyone needs to give and receive mercy.”
One woman whose annulment took about two years to complete told me, “Going into it, it was a daunting task. The paperwork was very intense, very emotional. It brought everything back again. My ex was physically abusive and an alcoholic, so I had to revisit all of that. It was frustrating, and at times I was angry, but something kept me going. I realized that I loved being Catholic, and I didn’t want to be a cafeteria Catholic, and just pick and choose. I considered it an obedience of the Church.... After I received the annulment it was enormously freeing. I had had this albatross around my neck and it was just gone. My heart was lifted, free. That’s the best way I can describe it. My husband and I got married in the Catholic Church and that was just the most beautiful gift.”
The working document speaks about possibly streamlining the annulment process for those whose cases are relatively straightforward. Some priests and tribunals are more open to those seeking annulments than others.
As it is now, both members of the former couple are asked, separately, to answer questions about every aspect of their previous relationship. (If one member refuses to answer these questions the process can still go forward.)
Answering these questions can be a helpful, if painful, exercise. The questions ask both parties to prayerfully and systematically think through what went wrong in their previously relationship. It can be instructive, regardless of the outcome, to go through this comprehensive examination of conscience, to admit everything, even embarrassing things, to put them all down in black and white, and to take responsibility for one’s part, so as to move forward with self-knowledge and peace.
A friend having a difficult time coming to terms with the reality of a failed marriage told me he found the process very therapeutic. “It was freeing to realize that there was an impediment from the beginning, that our marriage was doomed from the start. There was nothing we could have done.”
Whatever the outcome of the process, it is good to recall what St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church, wrote in the 4th century, “The Church is a hospital, and not a courtroom, for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins.... [The Lord] relieves you from the burden of your sins. He heals your worries with thanksgiving, and sadness with joy.”
In the end, annulments are a way of helping people who have experienced failures in love to be fully reconciled to the church. People who have received an annulment are free to remarry, receive Communion or have their subsequent marriage blessed.
The document stresses that those who have not experienced failed marriages are to walk with humility and kindness beside their brothers and sisters who have, offering them support and assistance. As Pope Francis has said, “When love fails, because many times it fails, [we must] accompany those people who have had this failure in their love. Do not condemn. Walk with them—and don’t practice casuistry in their situation.”