By Francine & Byron Pirola
A Painful Reality
While every marriage begins in hope and optimism, sadly, many marriages flounder and in a number of those, one or both spouses decide to end the marriage through a civil divorce. In some of these cases, due to mental instability, violence or other serious dysfunction, the Church would support the separation of the spouses. In cases where it appears impossible for the spouses to ever re-establish a functioning relationship, a civil divorce might also be supported. None of this however, automatically assumes that an annulment would be granted.
What is an Annulment?
An annulment differs from a civil divorce (which is a legal termination of the civil marriage contract) in that it is a declaration that the essential elements that establish the Sacrament were never present either at the time of the wedding or subsequent to it. It doesn’t mean that the marriage never existed (it did) or that any children are illegitimate (they’re not, and who uses that language anymore anyway?). It simply means that the good intentions of the couple, their family and their celebrant were not sufficient to overcome the obstacles that prevented the couple from establishing a Sacramental bond.
What was the problem?
The annulment process to date has been a long (more than 12 months) and for some people, costly affair. Add to that, the shame of failure and fear that the petitioning spouse may need to interact with a hostile ex-spouse and many simply decided that seeking an annulment is not worth it, especially since there is no guarantee that it would be granted. Instead, they remarry outside the Church or re-partner without marriage, both of which precludes them from receiving the Sacraments of Communion and Reconciliation. Not surprisingly, many Catholics in this situation withdraw from parish life altogether.
How has this changed?
In the past, each annulment application required the evaluation of two tribunals, one local and the other regional. Pope Francis has both shortened the process and made it cheaper by removing the need to have a second evaluation by a regional tribunal and giving full authority to the local bishop. In the rare cases that are referred to the Vatican tribunal, he has made the process free.
What hasn’t changed is the Church’s doctrine about the indissolvability of marriage nor the grounds on which an annulment can be declared. In other words, the changes to the process do not make it more likely that couples seeking an annulment with get it; they will simply find out the result faster and it will cost them less to do so.
What many couples don’t realise is that the annulment process can be very effective in helping spouses process the pain associated with the marriage breakdown. When done well, this process assists them in understanding themselves better and can illuminate why the relationship failed to flourish. If they plan to remarry, this is a vital step in helping them to avoid similar problems in a subsequent relationship.
In all of this, it is vital that Catholics continue to safeguard the alternative – marriage as a freely given, total, permanent, faithful and fruitful union between a man and a woman. And that’s a job for all us, whether married, celibate or single.