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Dishonest and delusional: the Catholic approach to divorce.


FOR MOST PEOPLE, DIVORCE IS deeply unsettling. It is the realization that a dream has failed. There is concern for the upbringing of children; the bitterness of blame for your former spouse as well as self-blame; a drop in the standard of living to support two households. In America, this happens to 50 percent of us, including Catholics.

But for us Catholics who look forward to continuing our vocation of marriage with another created in God's image and likeness--there is an extra burden. We have to prove to a church marriage tribunal that our first marriage was not sacramental--that it was not valid in God's eyes--even though it was valid in the eyes of the state.

Just as we thought we were putting the trauma of our divorce behind us, we must revisit our marriage to respond in great depth to detailed, highly personal questions about our upbringing, our parents' emotional states, as well as the emotional states of our former spouse and his/her parents. This is the re-opening of old wounds on a path that is fraught with peril.


For the celibate males who make up the rules of the tribunal process, annulments are granted because of incompatibility, desertion, cruelty, indifference, adultery or even brutality. Marriages are made in Heaven and cannot be dissolved on Earth--except by death, or the pope.

The main criterion that makes a couple eligible for an annulment, according to the tribunal, is proof that you or your former spouse had an impediment, that is, some prior circumstance that barred you from marrying. The Code of Canon Law spells out these impediments.

In my mind, there are valid impediments, and there are specious impediments. Valid impediments include being a bigamist, or being mentally or physically incapacitated. Specious impediments include reasons drawn from "psychological immaturity." Was there something flawed in your family or in your spouse's family that made either of you incapable of making a mature commitment?

If such an impediment can be found, then you might have grounds for an annulment.

But wait. What if your new fiance/e is also divorced? Even if he/she is Protestant, they must go through the same intrusive, highly personal questions to prove they were originally unable to have made a mature commitment. Most Protestants have too much integrity to demean themselves that way. That is one of the reasons Protestants are Protestants.

And there is no guarantee that after jumping through all these hoops your annulment will be granted. After responding to all the questions in writing, your testimony is forwarded to the tribunal which, if there are no complications and the tribunal is efficient (not always the case) your application or your fiance/e's application could be denied. You can appeal. Or your former spouse could appeal the process.

Meanwhile, you and you future spouse are growing older--and of course you are not living together as doing so without being married would bar you from Communion. Moreover, your children and/or your fiance/e's children are being brought up in a single parent household.

The complications don't stop there.

The main one is integrity. My first wife and I were married 17 years and had four children. There were some good times and some not-so-good ones. But I would never say the marriage was not blessed, that it was "not sacramental."

The second one is a simple question from one of my children: "Dad, if you get an annulment, that means you and Mom were not married in God's eyes, right? Well, does that not also mean that I am a bastard in God's eyes?" I have never heard a priest or canon lawyer give a convincing response to that question. (Their explanations are about as convincing as the pope telling us that it is alright to prevent conception through "natural family planning" but not through contraception.)

For these reasons alone I would never recommend an annulment.

Well, then, what can you do to remarry, to keep your integrity and to receive the sacraments?

Option I: Search for a Catholic church that doesn't know you and don't tell the priest that you are remarried without an annulment--the Catholic version of "don't ask, don't tell."

Option 2: Some priests recommend the "internal forum." This forum occurs when the official annulment process would prove too excruciating, but there is personal realization that your first marriage was not sacramental.

Many priests recognize this, others don't. You could be eligible for Communion with one and not eligible with another. Moreover, you could be barred from being a Communion minister or a religious education teacher. You could be fired from a teaching position in a Catholic school.

All the while, in the back of your mind--even if you receive an annulment--you know that your original marriage was indeed sacramental but simply failed. The annulment process is a charade to allow those who are male and celibate to put in place a process that appears to be compassionate but makes you a co-conspirator in hypocrisy.

These are some of the factors that have caused 30 million Catholics to walk out of the church in recent years.

There are more honorable alternatives.

The Catholic church has a 12-century tradition of allowing divorce and remarriage, during the time when priests, bishops and popes were themselves married and prior to the imposition of mandatory celibacy. Today, Catholic priests who have left the clerical state to marry, Catholic priests who have joined (or have been ordained in) the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, Roman Catholic Women Priests and the Orthodox Church all have valid ordinations and apostolic succession--and all welcome the remarried to Communion--as do Protestant churches that serve Communion.

If you read books on the annulment process by priests, bishops and canon lawyers, they continually make the point that the institutional church is compassionate and the annulment process is helpful to the laity. Do not be caught up in this delusional, self-congratulatory rhetoric.

The only long-range solution to the problem is for the institutional church to listen to the needs of the laity. When this happens, divorce and remarriage will be accepted again.

CHARLIE DAVIs is Vice-Chancellor for External Affairs of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
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Author:Davis, Charlie
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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