We have a Fort Lee down here in Virginny, too, you know. I pass the exit for it every time I have to drive from Martinsville to Richmond for a meeting. Never encountered a single backup…
Last month, our humble cluster of parishes discussed the famous questions about Holy Matrimony posed by the Apostolic See in preparation for the Synod on the Family, which begins in the fall.
I said at the time that the one question that really interested me was:
Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?
If I might, I would like to spell out what I think about this. Indulge me as you will.
A Christian man and woman confer a holy sacrament on each other when they exchange vows and have sex. One of the graces of the sacrament is a bond that no human power can destroy. This bond is not anything so mysterious or incomprehensible. It is simply what the vows themselves declare: the irrevocable self-gift of body and helpful companionship. This is the self-gift that gives life and brings us all into being.
Do people mess this up? Attempt marriage in various screwball ways? Barrel ahead in a fracas of self-delusion? Do women, living in a dreamworld conceived in their own desperation, burn their way to the altar in a haze of blind willfulness? Do men shuffle to the marriage bed more aimlessly than a wheeling cicada smashing into the side of a tree? For God’s sake, these things happen hundreds of time every day.
No offense. But that is precisely why we are having this conversation. People mess up getting married; they mess it up royally. Then they wind up, some years later, wanting to marry someone else. Which, on the face of it, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, considering what you said to the other guy. “Till death do us part.”*
So the only way to have a second marriage–the only method that makes any sense requires an impartial judge to investigate the facts of the prior bond and declare that the previous attempt at marriage was sufficiently impeded by faulty execution as to be non-binding.
Now, divorce, IMHO (based on somewhat extensive experience)– divorce always involves a nightmarish mess. Anyone who hands you a joint is not your friend, and anyone who recommends divorce is not your friend. If one party threatens violence, separate for the sake of physical safety, by all means. Never divorce. It is not worth it. “By divorcing you I officially register my utter and complete disapproval of your behavior!” This motivation leads to a great deal more misery than satisfaction.
All that said, I would have to acknowledge that most of the petitioners for declarations of nullity that I have dealt with–in fact, pretty much all of them: They have had good cause to petition for it. One of the parties was a drunk or druggie on the wedding day, or had someone on the side even then, or never thought that marriage meant forever, or some other such totally unreasonable BS–which should have smelled like a pile from a mile off, but for some reason did not smell that way to this poor soul at that time.
I think that the most cumbersome aspect of the canonical process as it now stands is: the high threshold that has to be reached to establish facts. Maybe the reform we could have would be this:. We would assume that…
1. The testimony of the petitioner, if it is internally consistent, is true. If someone lies to a priest, s/he will have to answer for it on Judgment Day. In the meantime, what exactly is the good of this world that we protect by requiring documentation and witnesses?
Which brings us to
2. The good we protect is the interest of the other party–the respondent, the estranged former spouse. But: couldn’t we reasonably assume that there is no such interest to protect if a) the other party has submitted to a civil divorce, and b) there has been no personal contact for a year or more?
I think that if these assumptions could actually operate in law, we could have annulments in time for the Easter Vigil (which is generally when they are needed by). And I think the chances that we would offend the dignity of the marriage bond, or do injustice to abandoned spouses–I think the chances of that happening are really not higher than they are now.
Now, I have read a little bit on the topic, so let me add:
The idea that an annulment pertains to the internal forum of the confessional, or the idea that we sin against mercy by clearly stating that a man and woman who live together but have never been married in a church–that they should not receive Holy Communion–both of these ideas strike me as patently wrong.
At the same time, it also strikes me as wrong, disconsonant, possibly inappropriate, to insist on original certificates (no Xeroxes!) and corroborative testimony from multiple witnesses (testimony taken over the phone by a stranger) in order to verify the account of a soul who, in good faith, and with nothing to gain but the sacraments of the Church, has approached a priest with: “I was high on two cans of dumbass when I got hurriedly married back in the summer of ’69. But I want to make things right, Father.”
And if I might add one more thing. One proposal I have read would involve doing away with the “loophole” that a Catholic can get an automatic annulment if s/he married outside the Church. This is called ‘lack of form.’ (Catholic weddings are celebrated according to ‘canonical form.’)
1. This is a ‘loophole’ that actually makes perfect sense. If I am a Catholic, and I get married without ever having talked it over with a priest, I have, de facto, screwed the thing up royally. What kind of Catholic gets married without talking it over with a priest? Not one of the starting five, if I might put it that way. A backbencher of a Catholic. Or: someone hedging his or her bets. But hedging bets is precisely an impediment to marrying in Christ. Marrying in Christ means not hedging your bets. Hence, the ‘loophole’ makes all the sense in the world. A Catholic married outside the Church? No. Automatically null.
2. Anyone who would propose doing away with this provision of law either a) has never been a parish priest, or b) is a parish priest with a penchant for masochism. Not to be sacrilegious–because, as noted, the loophole makes sense–but this provision of the law serves as a solid gold coin in at least one conversation per week in my office. Yes Catholics should marry in church. To counsel otherwise before the fact would be devious and evil. But, ex post facto: My son, you attempted marriage and screwed it up royally. Thank God you did not go to a priest or deacon. Because the fact that you didn’t makes our lives easier now, my son…
* Alanis Morissette said it all when she sang: “You told me you’d hold me until you died. But you’re still alive.”