Metropolitan Tribunal

What about all these annulments?

Archbishop Daniel M. BuechleinI am often asked, “How is it that the Church can give so many annulments of marriage?”

The number of dissolutions of marriages is a matter of deep concern. What is happening?

First of all, the tribunal (Church court) of a diocese does not make a marriage null; rather, after careful investigation of the facts, it may declare that there is nullity. What does that mean?

It means that while there may have been a wedding, there may not have been a marriage. Especially in our culture, a wedding does not always produce a marriage. When a couple becomes engaged, they face an important question: Are we consenting to a wedding or are we consenting to a lifelong union with all that implies?

Recently our archdiocesan tribunal sponsored a workshop on the matter of marriage annulments for the pastoral leaders of our parishes. The speaker was a renowned professor of canon law, Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Frank Morrissey. He reminded us that in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI provided a framework of five steps to be used in evaluating conjugal love and its presence for a true marriage union: 1) It must be fully human, thus implying engagement of the mind (intelligence) and the will along with human capacity. 2) It must be total, generously sharing everything. 3) It must be faithful and exclusive until death. 4) It must be fruitful, that is, open and ordered to the raising up of new life. 5) It must be moral, taking into account one’s duties to God, to oneself, to society and to family.

Psychological problems can affect the validity of a marriage. A valid marriage requires full consent, that is, one must will to be married, and, in order to will marriage (not just a wedding) one must fully understand what lifelong commitment means.

And one must have the psychological capacity to enter into a lifelong commitment. Some who consent to a wedding suffer a serious lack of discretion of judgment on the essential rights and obligations to be mutually given and received by husband and wife. Examples vary. There may be a temporary inability to make a sound judgment because of drug addiction or alcoholism or deep depression. There are ways a person may lack the psychological freedom necessary for full consent to marriage for a lifetime. An example might be a young girl who is pregnant or a person who leaves home to get out of an impossible situation or a person who marries on the rebound.

Father Morrissey spoke of certain types of immaturity that can have a bearing on the fullness of consent. He gave examples: sexual abuse can be like a delayed “time bomb”; children from a single-parent household (because divorce can “breed” divorce); a husband who discovers after the birth of the first child that he can be a spouse but not a parent. These are examples that can contribute to a decree of nullity; however, they are not automatically invalidating.

The question arises about decrees of nullity of marriages of many years. Father Morrissey used an example of the old Ford car that had the motor in the rear, the Ford Pinto. It was discovered that when the Pinto was rear-ended in an accident, it would explode. If it was never in an accident it didn’t explode. He said that some marriages fell apart 40 years ago, but only now blow up because of some trauma or circumstance, something like the Pinto accident. Some marriages that never happened do not come apart if there has not been a disruptive trauma.

Perhaps more significant than anything in our contemporary culture are certain societal “mentalities” that can cause the consent at a wedding to be lacking an essential element. For example, in our “throwaway society” the prevalent divorce mentality creates an atmosphere where in the back of their minds, one or other partner at a wedding may think that “if it doesn’t work out, I can get out of this.”

Or the current contraceptive mentality can cause a partner to have in his or her mind, “I am not going to allow this marriage to ruin my career, i.e., no children.”

A recent question-and-answer session with high school students concerned me. A student said, “My mom says contraceptives are OK if you don’t want to get pregnant. Is she right?” Another said, “My mom had her tubes tied. Is that OK?”

Chances are that people who grow up in the kind of atmosphere shaped by our culture may form a personal doctrine on marriage that unwittingly accepts a lack of openness to children or doesn’t really believe marriage is for a lifetime. Those are seeds of weddings that may not produce marriages. More and more, Christian marriage is becoming countercultural. †

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