Many questions and misconceptions surround the topic of marriage in the Catholic Church. How many of these have you heard?
“I had to get my annulment before I could get married in the Church.”
“Why is it taking so long for them to process my annulment?”
“Why is it taking so long for the Church to grant my annulment?”
“Annulments are just a Catholic divorce.”
“I heard that when you get your annulment it means your children are illegitimate.”
“I was at my Grandmother’s funeral. The priest refused to give me Communion because he knows I’m divorced. He says that divorced people are in a state of mortal sin.”
“They say that even with an annulment I can’t go to Communion.”
“My priest said we can’t have a Mass at the wedding because I got an annulment.”
“It’s real easy to get an annulment if you have money.”
“I heard that if you know the ‘higher-ups’ in the Church, annulments are easy to get.”
“I couldn’t get an annulment: I don’t have a ‘big name’ in town.”
“If you get an annulment it just means you were never married. Just tell that to my lawyer!”
“Annulments are real easy to get these days. Not like the old days when the Church took marriage seriously. Back then, you married for life. Period!”
“Annulments take years to get. They’re impossible!”
“I don’t want to dredge up all that pain. It’s behind me now.”
“Why should he/she be rewarded with an annulment? She/he’s the one that made my life hell!”
“But I did my best. Why is the Church saying it was my fault that the marriage ended?”
“If you look at it long enough, sure you’ll find something wrong. Is that reason enough for an annulment?”
“Our marriage was just fine until …”
I wonder, how many of these have I heard in my ministry as parochial vicar and pastor? As one who has ministered in tribunals fulfilling various roles? As speaker and teacher? Altogether too often, I’m afraid! It seems that anyone with an opinion, an idea, or a tidbit of information, is an “expert” in the area of nullity of marriage. Sometimes the information is accurate enough. Other times there is has a hint of accuracy about it. At other times there really isn’t all that much about it that is true. And, worse, at other times it’s just downright false.
What is especially galling is that so much of this misinformation comes from folks who ought to know better! By that, I mean people employed by the Church in myriad supportive roles, people who minister in the name of the Church as pastoral associates and lay ecclesial minister and, worst of all, the ordained who seem to have missed the study of canon law in their years of study for ordination.
What is the result of this? Well, it’s about people who feel themselves pushed away, isolated, or feeling like they are failures. But my experience of these people is that they are sincere women and men who want to do the good and to remain faithful to the Church. These are people who want to be right in the sight of God. They have approached the Church in good conscience seeking counsel and proper direction. People want to do what is asked of them, even if they don’t fully understand the “why.”
As one ordained to serve the People of God, I want to say: “I’m so sorry we have let you down. We have to do better! And I will do all I can to nudge my sisters and brothers in ministry in the right direction, even as I try to share what I know with my brothers and sisters in baptism.”
Right off the top, let’s clear up some of the misconceptions…
It’s not something that one gets.
It’s not something that is granted.
It’s not a favor.
It’s not about finding someone guilty.
So it’s not about defending yourself.
So it’s not about proving the fault of another.
It’s not about saying you were never married.
It’s not about declaring your children illegitimate.
It’s not about rewarding bad behavior.
It’s not about punishing bad behavior.
It’s not about a hard or easy process, about a long or short timeframe, about who you know or don’t know, about how much money you have, or what name you have in the community.
It’s not a Catholic divorce.
For that matter, it’s not even about “annulments”; it’s about “declarations of nullity.”
Confused? Don’t be surprised: I think most Catholics are!
There are a couple of things I would like to suggest. First, I will be teaching a Monday evening course here at Oblate School of Theology, entitled: “Christian Marriage and Canon Law.” While the course has future ministers in mind, I would certainly welcome any and all who would like to know more about what the Church has to say about marriage and how that vocation is protected in the Church’s law. It would not only be a joy to have you, your presence and experience could well prove to be valuable to those preparing for ordination!
Secondly, I’ve written a small book not meant for experts, but rather for people who are confused or wondering about the whole area. It’s called: What Every Catholic Needs to Know about Marriage, Divorce, Nullity and Remarriage. It was published by Novalis in 2016 and is available from them, or even from Amazon.com, as either a book with a soft-cover or as an ebook. I think you’ll find it very approachable and easy to read.
And who knows? Perhaps we can find a way to make this a forum for further conversation. What do you think?
For information regarding any class or degree program, please contact the Registrar’s Office: (210) 341-1366 EXT 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fr. Roger Keeler, JCD, is an assistant professor of Canon Law at Oblate School of Theology. Ordained to the ministerial priesthood for twenty-eight years; pastor for twenty-one years in both rural and urban settings; professor of Canon Law for five years (Newman Theological College, Edmonton); professor of systematics for four years (St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta, Edmonton). Fr. Keeler was elected Executive Director of the Canon Law Society of America in 2014 and served in that position until 2017.