The following is an actual Mary Beth conversation:
Me: I can’t date him. He’s not Catholic and he’s divorced. In the eyes of the Church he’s still presumed to be married.
In my last article, I talked about the question of whether or not
it’s okay to date someone who doesn’t have an annulment. After all,
that annulment may be denied, which means that the person you’ve been
dating is actually already validly married and thus not so much
available for you. Now I want to talk about the reason most Catholics
don’t take that very seriously, and the attitudes we risk developing as
From where we as the laity sit, it appears to us that pretty
much everybody who applies for an annulment gets it. Thus respecting
the “possibility” that it may not be granted becomes more of a
theoretical exercise than an actual likely outcome.
I’m not a tribunal “insider”, so I don’t really know about the
actual number of unsuccessful petitions. I don’t personally know anyone
who has been denied an annulment, but since the people I know
constitute a very small percentage of actual Catholics in this world,
that doesn’t mean much.
I do know that the United States grants a lot of annulments. I
know that John Paul II thought that we grant too many of them. I don’t
know on which end of the marriage spectrum the problem lies. Are our
dioceses granting decrees of nullity to marriages that are in fact
valid? Or is it just the case that a lot of those big splashy weddings
that take up our parishes every Saturday are actually invalid?
Either way, we have a problem.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising to me, given the criterion for
a sacramental union, that many of today’s marriages would not in fact
be valid. In a society where marriage is viewed as a temporary
arrangement that lasts only as long as it suits both parties, young
Catholics at the altar are bound to have absorbed that mentality.
Combine that with all of the other factors that can make a marriage
invalid, and it’s almost inevitable that some annullable unions will
slip through the cracks.
I know that there’s a big effort within the Church to do more
in marriage preparation. Mandatory classes and waiting periods all give
engaged couples a chance to examine their relationships and their
attitudes before walking down the aisle, and probably derail a few
weddings along the way. But the problem is that, in the end, the Church
really can’t deny the sacrament to a couple who seeks it. If — after
all of that preparation — they’re still reciting vows they don’t
really mean or even comprehend, there’s not a lot anybody can do about
it except to meet them at the Tribunal once it all starts to fall
I’m very grateful for the Church’s willingness to investigate
marriages and to grant annulments where warranted. There was a time
where that wasn’t the case. Anyone who said “I do” was presumed to be
validly married. A youthful mistake, no matter how ill-advised or
ill-prepared, meant no possibility of seeking a real marriage during
the lifetime of that initial spouse. There is a real justice in the
Church’s efforts to do what she can, within the bounds of the eternal
truths of marriage, to help those people move forward.
My concern, however, is that when we see all of these
annulments happening around us, we begin to lose our sense of the
sacredness and permanence of the marital union. We start to assume that
every marriage can be annulled, and annulment really does become
“Catholic divorce” in our minds. And thus we have conversations like
the one I recounted above. “Well, yeah, he just needs to jump through
those hoops and then he’s all yours.”
It winds up creating a vicious circle. A society that doesn’t
respect marriage leads to more invalid marriages, which leads to more
annulments, which leads to more Catholics seeing marriage as
dissoluble, which leads to more Catholics who fail to take marriage
seriously, which leads to more invalid marriages . . .
The way I see it, the only solution is to guard our hearts and
our minds. We need to constantly remind ourselves that a valid
sacramental marriage is an indissoluble union – a permanent “self-gift”
of one spouse to the other. That gift can’t be “revoked” once it’s
freely and validly given. The Church doesn’t grant annulments because
somebody “deserves a second chance”. An annulment is granted for one
reason and one reason only – because evidence exists that, at the time
of the marriage, a defect existed that was serious enough to render the
marital union invalid.
We as singles need to keep that in mind in our dating lives as
well. I know it feels a little like we’re playing games, telling
ourselves “the annulment might not go through” when we’re pretty darned
certain it will. I know in many cases it’s more of a theoretical
exercise than a likely outcome. But I think the exercise itself is very
important. It’s about a lot more than the logistics of one individual
situation. It’s about our attitude towards and respect for the
institution of marriage. It’s about the example we set for those around
us – people who know we’re Catholic and are watching us to see how we
handle issues of marriage, divorce and annulment.
A valid marriage is permanent, and a marriage is presumed valid
until declared otherwise. It’s very, very important that we not allow
ourselves to lose sight of that.