On Tuesday, Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to the United States. I hope you can follow his trip and his speeches during this week. Just before leaving on this trip, Pope Francis announced some changes in the marriage annulment process. With these changes, he made it clear he wasn't changing any of the Church's teaching about marriage, he was simply trying to provide couples with quicker justice in getting their lives on to the next step. I'm certain this will receive a lot of media coverage and thought it might be a good time to explain some of how this works.
As I suspect is true in many of your families, I have close relatives who have been married in the Catholic Church, and some who have been married elsewhere, and some who have never gotten married. And I have some relatives who have been with the person they first married, and some who have been through divorce and remarriage. So while I am not an expert, I do come with lots of family experience.
DIVORCE VS. ANNULMENT
The Catholic Church believes that any couple that follows the norms of whatever religious or secular authority they belong to is validly married. For example, a Catholic marrying a Catholic before a priest or deacon, in a church, with two witnesses, is presumed to be validly married. Same for two Christians or Jews or Muslims following their religious traditions, or any person without religious affiliation who follows the civil laws of where they live. All those are considered valid marriages to the Church. Further, when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic, if dispensations are requested and granted, those marriages also are considered valid.
The difference between a divorce* (which declares a valid marriage dissolved) and an annulment is that in the latter, regardless of what it may have looked like at the time, a valid marriage bond never existed; therefore the Catholic Church can declare the marriage null. In the eyes of the Church, couples that are civilly divorced are still considered validly married. The civil divorce decree has no standing in the Church. (Although the Church will never start an annulment proceeding until the civil divorce is finalized.)
By the way, all of this has no effect on the relation of any children the couple may have. This is also true in civil law (at least in this country), that the legitimacy of children is not called into question when a couple divorces or has their marriage annulled.
When asking for an annulment, usually a Catholic who is already divorced comes to talk with a priest, deacon or other minister because they have found another person with whom they hope to spend the rest of their lives. And they would like to enter into a sacramental marriage. Is it possible?
TYPES OF ANNULMENTS
There are two types of annulments that are usual in the Church, Defect of Form and Formal Case. Defect of Form simply implies that one or both parties didn't follow the norms or rules to which they are held responsible. For a Catholic, the rules include marrying another Catholic, in a church, before a priest or deacon, with two witnesses. So if, for example, a Catholic married a Christian from another denomination, but never received the required dispensation, that is not considered a valid marriage. In any of these types of cases, the applicant for the annulment collects the various necessary documents that establish the facts (e.g. baptismal certificate(s), marriage certificate, civil divorce decree, witness affidavits stating the marriage was never blessed in the Catholic Church), and the Matrimonial Tribunal** reviews the documents, agrees with the facts and makes the declaration that the marriage in question was never valid because the couple did not meet the established requirements. This is a relatively quick process.
In a Formal Case annulment, the couple followed all the requirements when they were married and the marriage bond is assumed to be valid. But after a civil divorce has been granted, one or both parties request an annulment. In this case, the process is usually more involved because is the intent of the spouse(s) at the time of their marriage needs to be ascertained. Sometimes, this isn't obvious. Intent focusses around four tenets that are the basic foundations of our sacramental understanding of marriage: that the couple enter into the marriage 1) fully aware that it is life-long, 2) in faithfulness to each other, 3) open to having children and 4) without force of any kind. Couples would have discussed these tenets
with the priest/deacon who prepared them for the sacrament, and they also would have answered some formal questions relating to the tenets and sworn to their truthfulness. They also make these statements publicly when they express their marriage vows to each other on their wedding day.
The Formal annulment process collects testimony from the couple, from willing family members and friends, from professionals in counseling (if available), and from others who may have something to offer about the relationship before and during the couple's marriage. What the Matrimonial Tribunal is looking for is evidence that one or both spouses never intended to be true to at least one of those four promises.
For instance, perhaps the couple told the priest or deacon preparing them that they were open to having children, but always maintained to their family and friends they never wanted to have children. Because being open to having children is intrinsic to the marriage bond, anyone (or couple) who refuses to be open to that possibility has not entered into a valid marriage. Or perhaps the "life-long" was more than they had an interest in; perhaps the idea of fidelity was more than one or both thought possible; or perhaps there was a situation where one or both felt entering into the marriage was the only way to solve a bigger problem. In these cases, they are also withholding necessary assent to one of the basic tenets of Catholic marriage.
Sometimes the intent to be true to the promises isn't clear to anyone - including the spouses - until they have already been married for some time. Sometimes it only becomes clear after the marriage that one or both lacked the capacity (or maturity) to make such a commitment. Perhaps the signs of the incapacity to make the commitment were only vaguely present before and early on in the marriage - for example, if one or both were suffering from an addiction disorder. In this case, consent was lacking due to duplicity (one or both knew they didn't believe in the Catholic understanding of marriage) or ignorance. But for whatever the reason, the normal requirements of consenting to the tenets of Catholic marriage were not present.
If that is established, then it can be determined that the marriage was never valid (i.e. can be declared null), no matter what it looked like to everyone at the time.
So it is not just a matter of semantics. What the Church is saying is that, upon examination, it is clear there never was a valid marriage in this particular situation. That is an annulment.
COUNSELING AFTER AN ANNULMENT
When an annulment is granted, the judges of the Matrimonial Tribunal might add a requirement at the end of the decision that one or both of the parties seek counseling before entering into another marriage. In fact, in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the entire process of the formal annulment case is considered a time for healing. What the petitioner is requested to do is to answer a lengthy questionnaire which tracks the relationship from its beginning through to its ending. For most people, this is a difficult process, but one that also provides great insight and wisdom for the rest of their lives. Counseling is almost always of benefit when someone goes through a divorce and annulment.
Among the Pope's recommendations is that there be no fee for the annulment process. This would mean that dioceses would assume the cost of the process. Here in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the fee has been to cover most of the cost of the process - the secretaries and office staff and the cost of operating the Matrimonial Tribunal. I have always been caught off-guard when people claim it is a process for the wealthy, or that if you pay enough you can always get what you want. In my 36 years of priesthood, that has never been my experience. And I have never had a situation when the petitioner said they couldn't afford the fee and that having any effect on the case moving forward.
The other change that will affect everyone in the process is that Pope Francis has dropped the requirement that any positive decision (in other words - to declare a marriage null) be appealed to a second court. From the time this takes effect on December 8th, the original decision will also be the final decision. This alone should chop off some months from the current process.
WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR MARRIAGE BLESSED?
Recently, as we do every year, we sent a letter to every parish school and religious education program family - and also sent it out to our email list - inquiring if any member(s) of the families needed to receive formation to receive a sacrament they may have missed, or if anyone was seeking information on annulments. If you have been thinking about getting your marriage blessed in the Church, or are in need of an annulment before getting your current marriage blessed, please feel free to contact me or Fr. Wojciech and we would be happy to help you get the process started.