15 October 2014, The Tablet

Annulments can be far from merciful

by Bill Wright

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

What do you think?


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User comments (12)

Comment by: Petrus Radii
Posted: 22/10/2014 21:18:41

(Cont'd) "These are hard sayings! Who can hear them?" This is how people responded to Jesus in the Holy Gospel according to St. John, chapter 6. St. John tells us that many left our Lord from that point. The people who demand reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried, or make the insane demand for recognition of homosexuality as somehow not sinful or even praiseworthy, despite God's calling it a "sin which cries to Heaven for vengeance," are people like those who abandoned Christ in John 6. They prefer their own ways to God's.
True charity admonishes the wayward and the sinner. St. Paul tells us that no unrepentant fornicator, adulterer, sodomite, transvestite, or person who contracepts or procures an abortion (yes! the original Greek has this meaning!) will ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The True Way is narrow and full of suffering, but ends in joy. The way of those who want to excuse immorality is broad and leads to perdition.
"And Jesus turned to Peter and the other Apostles and said, 'And you, will you also leave?' And Peter answered, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of everlasting life!'"

Comment by: Petrus Radii
Posted: 22/10/2014 21:07:24

(Cont'd) If both were baptised, then a putatively sacramental marriage exists, which requires a declaration of nullity before "remarriage" or even a relationship with another woman, i.e., a declaration by the Church that, for some reason, mutual consent was never given at any time during the putative marriage. So, in fact, it is a declaration that a true marriage never existed, and Mr. W.'s wife and children had the healthier reaction to his efforts to "change his woman."
To abandon the teaching of Christ and "permit" the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried who do not have a decree of nullity and marriage in the Church would *certainly* undermine that teaching. One can NEVER bring back the lost sheep by abandoning what God commands, but that is what Mr. Wright advocates--albeit, perhaps with an insufficient understanding of true Catholic teaching. For it seems that he was very poorly or wrongly catechised by those who brought him into the Church.
Finally, one must *always* keep the absolute rights of God at the top of things. Reception of Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin, which is the current life situation which Mr. W. appears to describe, is never fruitful. He would receive the outward signs, but never any grace whatever or union with God. In fact, each such unworthy reception is a most grave sacrilege--an offence directly against God Himself--which must be separately confessed and atoned. (cont'd)

Comment by: Petrus Radii
Posted: 22/10/2014 20:53:55

Many thanks to Mr. Wright for the additional information he provides. I appreciate the time he took to clarify a few things. One may say that, in one sense, he has a good end in view (union with Jesus), but I think he is very much in error about how one achieves that end. And I read nothing which changes my understanding of his factual marital situation. One can never achieve union with God by chucking either natural morality or Christ's Own teaching on the Sacraments, which the Church preserves and transmits, over the cliff, as if they were a mere option or, worse, an obstacle to union with Christ.
It is not for us as mere humans to re-order what God Himself has revealed to the Catholic Church. The teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the teaching on the Holy Eucharist (including who may receive that Most August Sacrament and under what circumstances) CANNOT be changed, no matter how many writers or readers at the Tablet want it to be. To make the changes which Mr. Wright and others desire would be heresy and a severance from both Christ and the Catholic Church by the very fact.
The fact of having been an atheist brings up other interesting points. If only one or neither party in Mr. W.'s marriage at the time was baptised, dissolution of the merely natural (not sacramental) marriage is possible through the Pauline Privilege--but only the Holy See can do this. (cont'd)

Comment by: Bill Wright
Posted: 21/10/2014 14:31:35

It was after the divorce that my journey crossed the Tiber and I was received into the Church.
Again it was through many acts of grace that this became possible.The main undying impulse was an invitation from Jesus Christ himself when, a year before being received, I approached the priest for a blessing at Mass.
I hope this does not read like an act of attempted self-justification. Its intention is to make this plea: many people in adult life are drawn towards the Church, invited by Christ. If they have followed the mores of our time till this point, their lives will have been complicated and sinful. There is, definitively, a welcome for them with Jesus, and of course they should 'sin no more'. But if the Church refuses them Jesus Himself, there is a grave danger they will be thrown back to the wolves of the world.
They - we - need Christ and he left the Church with the responsibility of feeding the faithful with his body and blood. That was because he knew we couldn't do anything useful by ourselves. So what comes first: a perceived - but surely not actual? - undermining of his teaching on marriage, or the bringing back of lost sheep?

Comment by: Bill Wright
Posted: 21/10/2014 14:27:14

May I say, without being disingenuous at all, that I am very grateful for all the comments on this blog, including those of Petrus Radii.
I was going to leave the blog as it was, to stand or fall, but in the light of the latest, second comment by Petrus Radii I think I owe a little more information.
At the time of my first marriage I was an atheist, had been cohabiting for three years and we had a two-year-old child. My intention at the time of marriage was to stay with the child's mother until our child was old enough to cope with our separation. We had a second child. My reasoning was that when we finally separated our first child - and second - would benefit by having a sibling. I postponed my own 'self-fulfilment', as I saw it, for almost 20 years. It was largely through the many graces at this time - that may have come, as I now see it, in response to at least a degree of self-sacrifice - that I came to believe in God.
If it is possible for a marriage to 'become' valid, then this happened over this time. However, selfishly if you like, I still sought the self-fulfilment that I believed would come through a relationship with another woman. I separated, then divorced, but continued to care for my children through into adulthood - they are now happily married - and made sure their mother was provided for.
It was after the divorce that my journey crossed the Tiber and I was received into the Church.

Comment by: Margaret Callinan
Posted: 20/10/2014 15:40:37

While Mr Wright might be quite capable of defending himself, why should he have to? He (like “Dumpy”) graciously shared his experience in order that others might think about possible consequences of the annulment process that are not usually spoken of. Who is Petrus Radii to act as judge and jury, let alone hide behind a pseudonym to do so? If you are convinced of the rightness of your position and attitude, why not write under your own name?

Comment by: Petrus Radii
Posted: 19/10/2014 21:33:34

I am quite confident that Mr. Wright is capable of defending himself. If I have made an error of fact regarding whether he has a declaration of nullity (not "annulment") or is married in the Church, let him say so. If not, then it is not "bile" to speak the truth about his moral situation. "Deacon Paul" needs to review theology and canon law on marriage. On one hand, it is true that marriage validity depends on the intention of the will (not thoughts of the intellect) when vows are exchanged. But a spouse who withholds consent at the wedding can still give that consent at a later time and, so long as the other spouse has not withdrawn consent, the marriage becomes valid from the point of mutual consent. "Marriage breakdown", even from a case of adultery, does not mean there was no mutual consent. "Doubts" (used ambiguously by the ostensible deacon) alone do not invalidate. It is the "yes" of the will which determines. "Pressure" from others also does not invalidate, unless the coercion was great enough to make a person go against his own, unchanged will against the marriage--and even then, later consent validates, as above. Immaturity does NOT invalidate. Lack of instruction also does not invalidate, as anyone reaching puberty is assumed to know the nature and duties of marriage--but the lack is then the fault of parents and priests. It must determine the will, not remain solely in the intellect. The "deacon" would have annulled all six of Henry VIII's marriages, it seems.

Comment by: Jane
Posted: 19/10/2014 12:56:05

I am glad that I am not the only one to find the posting by Petrus Radii upsetting. I complained but the post seems to have been allowed to stay. All the correspondents are unknown to me. I have had no participation in any annulment process but found the blog interesting and the comments (except the comment by Petrius) interesting.

Comment by: Deacon Paul
Posted: 19/10/2014 11:52:11

Baring the obvious lack of charity there is also a serious technical error in Petrus Radii's rant. Nullity depends entirely on the state of intention of the two spouses at the time of the exchange of marriage vows. It matters not if the marriage remains childless or produces a dozen bouncing babies. There is a "presumption of the bond" which means that many marriages, which might pass the test of nullity at the time of the marriage but are not trsted by marriage breakdown are presumed to be valid.
If we took this logic to the same extreme as Petrus Radii then hundreds of good catholics are living in sin if they were immature, had doubts at the time of their wedding, got married under pressure from family (especially in the case of having been pregnant) or were not fully instructed on the natures and duty of marriage.

Comment by: singer312
Posted: 18/10/2014 13:38:05

I am sorry to read the bile poured out by Petrus Radii. Such a hide-bound, intolerant attitude adds nothing to the search for a compassionate, intelligent solution to what remains a huge problem for many otherwise loyal Catholics. A problem I might add which I can't help feeling is caused by centuries of male, supposedly celibate, dominated Church leadership.

Comment by: Dumpy
Posted: 17/10/2014 10:46:23

My husband and I literally picked up the pieces of lives destroyed by the annulment process 50 years ago. A cousin, a devout Catholic, loved a woman who had been married in a Catholic church to a man who deserted her after the honeymoon. She applied for an annulment, and they waited and waited. Health problems led doctors to advise her to have a hysterectomy. They wanted a family. Still they waited. Finally, in despair, after much prayer and anguish, they married in a civil ceremony. Her Catholic family rejected her and her new husband.

A son was born, at great risk to mother and child; following Catholic birth control edicts, twins were conceived and died in utero. This left the mother with heart and kidney problems. Another child was conceived and born in great jeopardy, but survived. The mother's health declined rapidly, as did the father's. Finally, after 10 years, the annulment was granted, too late in every sense for this small family.

Both parents died young, leaving two traumatised and orphaned children. My husband and I, woefully ignorant of the problems involved, became their foster parents, struggling with no help from the church to cope with our own family and these two extra children.

And this is a merciful and positive process? At times I wonder why I still belong to this church.

Comment by: Petrus Radii
Posted: 16/10/2014 03:04:11

To put it in the most polite fashion possible, Mr. Wright's article is highly disingenuous. To desire, as he does, to have decisions about the Sacraments made, based upon emotions rather than reason and the teaching of Christ, is not Catholic. It is not even the desire of a mature adult. Although he makes deliberate omissions of fact and of law, it would appear that he did *not* seek, let alone obtain, a decree of nullity for his marriage while non-Catholic, for which there is a presumption of validity--validity testified to by multiple children and his spouse. No grounds for nullity are presented. The woman he claims is now his "wife" (apparently "married" outside the Church) is in that case actually his concubine, and they are living in grave sin--heading for hell, if they do not repent and separate. It is a sacrilege for them to receive Holy Communion or any other "Sacrament of the living" in such unrepentant mortal sin. It is a far worse sacrilege for any person to extend them Holy Communion while they are public sinners. Far from "mercy", Mr. Wright and his concubine "eat and drink condemnation unto themselves," as St. Paul wrote. The Tablet cannot be called Catholic, given its departure from Catholic teaching and practice. It is, in fact, anti-Catholic when publishing this sort of heretical claptrap.

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