by the Rev. Mark Connolly
I would like to share some thoughts with you on the subject of annulment, one which needs a great deal of clarification. Everyone knows that a marriage involves hardships as well as joys and beauties. Couples must learn to cope with those hardships. Serious illness and sickness of a mental and emotional kind very often unite a couple, rather than divide them. Everyone knows, too, that a valid marriage in the sight of God and the Church, is one in which a spiritually, morally and emotionally mature couple pledge their lives to Christ through the Church. So where does that leave us with the subject of annulment?
First of all, what is an annulment? An annulment, in the Catholic Church, is a declaration by a competent ecclesiastical tribunal that a marriage in question was invalid in the true sense of the word. There are many different reasons for annulment, such as immaturity or lack of true marital commitment. Any priest who has done work with a marital tribunal knows that this can be one heartbreak case after another. In gathering testimony from various couples you often wonder how they could possibly stay together. Oftentimes, a tribunal is a place for healing badly damaged lives and giving people a second chance.
Years ago, I am sure most Catholics had the feeling, and a true one, that it was quite difficult to get an annulment. There was no doubt about it. The common complaint was that the Church made it look difficult to get an annulment. Now we, in the field, wonder if we should make it more difficult for people to get married in the Catholic Church. Lest you ask why, last year the statistics from New York State alone showed that of the individuals who in the last five years got married who were male (21) and female (20), over eight out of ten of those marriages collapsed within those five years. Just over a month ago New York and California led the nation in that one out of every two marriages failed. (These eight out of ten marriages apply not only to Catholics, but to Protestants and to Jewish people as well. So it is not just a Catholic problem.)
In the Brooklyn Diocese where I worked, twelve annulments were given in 1967; last year over one thousand. What are the reasons why more annulments are given today than thirty years ago? Well, today, because of all the help and aid we get from the behavioral sciences, we are made aware of the fact that certain people who think they are ready for marriage are not. Many people, especially in the younger categories, because of the pressures of society, the unresolved forces within their personalities, force themselves to believe they can make a decision to get married. They are blind to their own immaturity level. Their judgmental capacity is far below their intellectual ability. You can interview a young man who is a Rhodes Scholar and discover that he has the emotional IQ of someone in the seventh grade.
On the spiritual side of the ledger, how can we allow young people who might be spiritually immature to get married in the Catholic Church? What we have discovered today is that we have a lot of baptized unbelievers. When infants are baptized, because of the lack of education concerning Christ and the Church, the lack of proper education of a religious kind, they have no idea of what intimacy with Christ is all about. They really go through the motions, but simply lack faith. Now if you believe that Christ instituted the sacrament of marriage to give grace, and these individuals now know nothing about Christ or about faith, why go through the travesty of marriage?
Another valid reason for annulment is lack of freedom. Today, over 60% of married teenage girls were pregnant at the time of marriage. Those girls were lacking the freedom to enter into a marriage covenant or contract. In order to be validly married, one must be totally free. Therefore, because these girls lacked freedom, their marriages are null and void.
One more example is that often during a courtship, a young man and woman will appear as two different people. Now what we are finding in marriages of several years is not just the infidelity that we used to hear so much about, but a tremendous increase in homosexuality. Suppose a wife were to suddenly find out that her husband has latent, repressed homosexual tendencies, and vice-a-versa. Is it right that she/he be kept, because of their lack of knowledge at the time of the wedding, in a marriage that is long since emotionally dead?
Radical behavioral changes often indicate that certain personality characteristics were being repressed. Have you ever seen the pleasant person at a party gradually become, after a few drinks, the quarrelsome, boisterous troublemaker? We all know that the alcohol caused him to lose control. His defenses were broken down and the depression factors became more operative. All of us have seen this.
Today because we are a more informed Church, reasons have to be given that must be honored. People have said that the annulment process is nothing but a rubber-stamp policy. I am afraid I would have to disagree. Every annulment is the result of a long process of testimony, witnesses and physiological appraisals. It might take a few months to get an annulment, but it does not mean that it is just a rubber-stamp. What most Catholics do not seem to realize is that there are just as many validly married Protestant couples seeking to have their marriages dispensed by the Church if there are sufficient reasons for an annulment. That also applies to Jewish people. The law of God and Christ that marriage is a love relationship between two people, a symbol of the love that Christ had for His Church, summed up in the word "covenant", and that it is a contract with God, made in the house of God, cannot be taken lightly. It can only be annulled by those who have the power of God. The Church has that power.
A rubber-stamp, no. Before any annulment procedure gets to the Tribunal, it is analyzed on its merits. Not everyone who applies for an annulment gets one. If the case can stand on its merits, it is sent to the Tribunal. Last year in Brooklyn, over 15,000 couples got married. In that same year, over 1800 people applied for annulments and over 700 were granted.
People always ask how much it is going to cost. What it costs the Diocese is what it costs you and no one is turned away because of a lack of money. If, for example, you were appealing for an annulment outside the Diocese of Brooklyn, the cost is about $850. Compare that to a divorce cost. The money that is spent on an annulment goes for the physiological and secretarial costs connected with the annulment. One year Brooklyn went over $80,000 in the hole because of people who couldn't afford annulments.
An annulment, no matter how you look at it, is a cry for help in a marriage that for various reasons went wrong. It does not point the finger of guilt at one party. It is done to heal those who have been wounded by their relationship with each other. It is the Church in our day saying to a couple, "Go in peace and may the Peace of Christ be always with you through this annulment."