In its discussions this week and last, the Synod on the Family has been looking at the marriage annulment process as it currently operates, in the context of possibly making it easier for divorced and remarried couples to receive communion. One rallying cry for those who want a change to current practice is “show them mercy”. One way this might be done, the thinking seems to go, is to make annulments easier.
May I offer a personal experience of the annulment process, with the aim of suggesting that there are more issues to consider here than is always recognised.
Like many people who wish to be received into the Church in adult life, my earlier personal history was packed with what I learned came under the not-so-protective umbrella term of “irregular” situations. Most relevant for my chances or otherwise in the Church was the fact that my civil marriage had ended in divorce. Had I been Catholic when I entered into such a marriage, it would not have been recognised and so no annulment would have been necessary. But the Church recognises civil marriages of non-Catholics, so I was told an annulment would be necessary before I could be received into the Church.
"My wife and I would be able to receive Communion, at the price of lifelong bitterness or estrangement from my earlier family"
This judgment was overturned, because I was not then in an “irregular situation”, and I was received and so able to receive Communion.
The problems started when, at Mass one day, I met a woman who I wanted to marry and who wanted to be my wife.
This was impossible unless I bit the annulment bullet, so I did.
What had been excellent relations with my grown-up children from that earlier marriage, and good relations with my ex-wife, were turned upside down. The bitterness, anger and resentment that they all now felt towards me, and their hatred of the Catholic Church for insisting on it, persist for some of them to this day, many years later. What could have been an easy relationship with my new family is distant and suspicious.
I – and my children – were told at the time that “annulment” did not mean the earlier marriage was being somehow nullified as if it never existed. I tried to say that it was just a technical term that the Catholic Church used in its esoteric canon law. These approaches, unsurprisingly, didn’t wash. None of them is stupid, and that’s the problem for the Church.
I know perfectly well what my intentions were when I married their mother, and I know perfectly well that – had I pursued the process to destruction – the annulment would have to have been granted.
But at what cost? My wife and I would be able to receive Communion, at the price of lifelong bitterness or estrangement from my earlier family.
Thankfully, I know many excellent and thoroughly Catholic priests who have acted with compassion and common sense. And my wife and I receive the Lord as we both believe he invited us to do.
My own distress is for all those who are called, as I was, but turned away and prevented from finding a way through to Jesus. They are hungry. They need feeding. They would probably accept crumbs from under the table. But they are not even offered those.
To refuse Communion to struggling Catholics is surely anti-Christian. And in the light of this, the preoccupation with annulments at the synod is something of a side issue.
The writer is a lay Catholic in the diocese of Westminster