'Til Annulment Do Us Part?

June 1999By Nancy E. Smith

Nancy E. Smith is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area.

One Hundred Answers to Your Questions on Annulments.  By Edward N. Peters. Simon and Schuster. 223 pages. $19.99.

What God Has Joined Together: The Annulment Crisis in America.  By Robert H. Vasoli. Oxford University Press. 252 pages. $25.



The medium may not be the message, but these two very different reading experiences match their very different messages. Edward Peters’s book is inviting and undemanding, with 100 colloquial questions given brief, colloquial answers. The author has “avoided technical terms as much as possible” in answering questions “derived from issues which have been posed to [him] as a canon lawyer, tribunal official, and teacher over the years.” He includes an essay subtitled “Keeping Bad News in Context” in which he argues that the public outcry about the large number of annulments in America is much too noisy because the bad news of 60,000 annulments annually is not — given the American context — so bad after all. Peters is a professional in the field, a tribunal official for the Diocese of San Diego.

Robert Vasoli’s book, by contrast, is slow going. It is densely packed, closely argued, and brings in everything from statistics to politics to theology. The difficulty of grasping all this material seems to reflect the difficulty that — so its author argues — should attend the process of annulment. Vasoli is a retired Associate Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame and not a professional in the American annulment process. He introduces himself as a victim of that process and a battler against it, whose study of it began only after he was notified that he was a “respondent in an annulment proceeding…. [His] reaction was an amalgam of shock, confusion, and helplessness” because his marriage seemed to him “so patently valid a union.” His personal story (a declaration of nullity in America reversed on appeal to Rome) thickens the charged atmosphere of his book and underlies his argument that the American annulment process is bad news indeed.

Even a psychologically well-adjusted Catholic who reads both books could come away with a case of bi-polar disorder — not that a disorder of such severity at the time of marriage would be required in order to obtain a declaration of nullity in the United States. Vasoli implies that even the slightest case of the vapors in either bride or groom at some point before the marriage would suffice for many tribunals to declare a marriage null. Vasoli does not quarrel with annulments granted for lack of canonical form (meaning that the wedding did not occur before an authorized priest and witnesses). Rather, he claims that the American tribunals’ interpretation of Canon 1095 of the Code of Canon Law has swallowed the rule on the validity of marriages. Canon 1095 provides for declarations of nullity due to “causes of a psychological nature” if these causes render a person unable to assume the “essential obligations of marriage.” Vasoli calls Canon 1095 “the loose canon.”

According to Vasoli, in interpreting this canon American tribunals have found enough play to facilitate what he regards as the uniquely American practice of permissive annulment. In support of his argument he cites a study showing that the Roman Rota, which in practice is the Church’s highest court for marital litigation, reversed 42 of 47 American declarations of nullity — and 44 of those had been granted on psychological grounds under Canon 1095. Vasoli points out that most declarations of nullity are not subjected to the process he describes as “adversarial appeal,” and, in any event, the Rota is not equipped to deal with close to 60,000 cases arising in America each year.

It may surprise Americans to learn that Rotal decisions reversing American tribunals are not binding precedent on future cases. While such decisions are models for subsequent cases, any particular decision of the Rota is binding only on the case in question. Americans are accustomed to a system of civil law in which cases decided by appellate courts bind lower courts in all future cases. Such is not the situation in the civil law system on which the Roman Rota is based. Vasoli observes that American tribunals, thus unconstrained by Rotal precedent, continue to systematically invalidate valid marriages on psychological grounds that are, he argues, specious.

Peters, the tribunal professional, says in his Introduction that he has tried to cover “almost every significant aspect of the annulment process” by answering his 100 questions as “if they had been posed by someone sitting in [his] office.” He then devotes some time at the end of his book to making the case for the legitimacy of the American Church’s annulment results. He acknowledges that annulments granted in America have risen from approximately 300 a year in the early 1960s to today’s figure of 60,000 annually, which he calls “a staggering increase.”

Like Vasoli, Peters recognizes that the U.S., which contains only five percent of the world’s Catholics, receives 80 percent of the world’s annulments. Peters explains that changes made in canon law since the 1960s have had a unique effect on American Catholics. He notes that as Church law was changing, civil law was also changing, and observes that Americans have become more litigious in both realms. He further explains America’s seemingly disproportionate share of the world’s annulments by referring to changes in the “American Procedural Norms.” The most important change, he says, is that since 1970 petitioners for annulment have been allowed to file their nullity cases in the diocese in which they currently reside, regardless of where the wedding took place and where the ex-spouse now lives.

He also cites America’s religiosity as a reason for the tens of thousands of annulment cases filed annually. According to him, the rest of the world’s Catholics do not trouble themselves to seek annulments; they are not as concerned about the demands of their religion as Americans are. He even argues that what looks like disproportion may not be. After all, he says, “Americans make up 6% of the world’s population, but they account for 100% of the men on the moon. So what? America functions. Much of the rest of the world does not.”

But his attempt at defense cannot satisfactorily account for the vast numbers of annulments granted on psychological grounds. The sheer volume of annulments in the U.S., Vasoli reports, was called in 1993 a “grave scandal” by the head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. Both authors note that there is a widely held view, both inside and outside the Church, that annulments in America have become nothing other than Catholic divorces.

The fact that many of us know several people whose marriages have been declared null suggests that the Church is either improperly granting too many annulments or is imprudently performing too many marriages. If Peters is right that American diocesan tribunals are basically doing their work properly in interpreting Canon 1095, then logic requires that the Church must develop tougher psychological screening processes for those seeking marriage. This, however, could make it difficult for any of us to marry the person we choose when we choose to do so.

Whether a reader shares Peters’s calm or Vasoli’s alarm, the question is inescapable: How can so many marriages — tens of thousands annually that were initially approved and blessed by the Church — be invalid? The numbers cast doubt on the Church’s constant teaching upholding the indissolubility of marriage. And what message does widespread and easy annulment send to those experiencing difficulty in marriage? Does it suggest that they need not persevere?

Peters argues that while the situation is bad, it is not the fault of tribunals. Vasoli reaches a different and grimmer conclusion: “The damage inflicted on Christian marriage by the American tribunal system’s gamesmanship with marital consent is incalculable.”

Both books are well worth reading. Peters’s is informative; he includes important documents from the Vatican in appendices; his brief concluding essay is thought-provoking; and he reminds us that “each annulment represents…a personal human tragedy.” But Vasoli writes in order to avert a tragedy of a different sort, the “profanation” of the integrity of the doctrine of the indissolubility of Christian marriage by the American tribunal system, where “disinclination to annul has been transmuted into almost irresistible inclination.” “In their rush to annul,” he says, “American tribunals have lost sight of the doctrinal forest for the pastoral trees.”

Must the institutional Church and the individual Catholic be at cross-purposes? The question brings to mind, in fact, the Cross and its purposes. It reminds us that if a Christian life is the Way of the Cross, a Christian marriage is part of that Way. Perhaps this seeming conflict between Catholic institution and Catholic individual can only be resolved when the figure of the crucified Christ is kept in mind by couples in troubled marriages as well as by their spiritual shepherds. The faithful are capable of heroic, Christlike fidelity in difficult circumstances with God’s grace. Those truly devoted to the call of Christ as preached by His Church will adjust their ways of living to His word, knowing that His word cannot be adjusted to suit their ways of living.

The very titles of these two books encapsulate their differences. Peters’s title is detached and impartial; Vasoli’s title echoes the words of Christ, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mk. 10:9). When the Jews said that Moses had allowed them divorce, Christ replied that Moses had done so because of their hardness of heart. Might we adapt Christ’s words to suggest to American Catholics that their tribunals are allowing them such easy annulments because of their faintness of heart?

Canon 1095 is not the problem. Vasoli makes a convincing case that the false pastoralism of our shepherds in interpreting it loosely is the problem. When the tribunals consider the psychological causes that can render a marriage null, they must consider also that the permanence of the institution of marriage is at stake and, with it, the foundation of civilization.



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As a current respondent whose annulment is in process and under review in the Rota and having read both books in this article, I have to say in retrospect, of the two, Professor Vasoli's book turned out to be more prophetic as to the way my annulment was handled in my diocese. I read both books immediately after I recieved the first notification from my Diocesan Tribunal of the initiation of annulment procedings to bring myself up to speed on the process.

I was aghast at Vasoli's experience and somewhat hopeful after the Peter's book. Unfortunately, my experience mirrored Vasoli's. Aghast or not, thank goodness I read that book because it gave me the heads-up on procedures or lack of same that were less than rigorously implemented by my diocese. It allowed me to challenge diocesan methods as they were happening rather than getting the bum's rush and discovering I had not taken advantage of my privlidges under canon law.

It has been nearly eight years since the beginning of the annulment with no resolution yet forthcoming. I have been declared a "contentious" respondent because I have opposed the declaration of nullity, avering that our marriage was and is legitimate and still binding.

After a recent re-reading of the Peter's book it occurs to me that Mr. Peter's is more concerned with legitimizing his own intimate role in the American annulment process than in exposing the truth of the annulment process in America.

I would suggest you read the Peter's book to know how the process should work and the Vasoli book to understand how it actually works based on my anecdotal evidence.



Posted by: mikronaut
June 05, 2008 04:32 PM EDT
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