Stemming the Tide of Divorces and Annulments

The default and public position of many in diocesan family life offices is to assume that if one is divorced, he or she is in need of “healing” or “moving on” by way of an annulment. This is wrong.

I recently came across an announcement for a seminar on the annulment process in the diocesan paper of a fairly large and populated American diocese. (It was not my own diocese, nor even in my own state.)

I am an attorney and have some interest in preserving marriages and preventing divorces, or at least in “running interference” on what I call the “great maw of the divorce court meat grinder” (I do not take divorce cases). 

The announcement—edited only to remove the name of the diocese and the year of the “seminar” it was promoting—was much like many one finds in diocesan newspapers and parish bulletins on a regular basis:

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Are you or someone you know divorced? Want to learn more about annulments and how to apply? The Annulment Information Seminar will be held at the Diocesan Pastoral Center on November 12 from 10am-Noon. This annual event hosted by the Tribunal of the Diocese gives anyone interested an introduction to annulments and the application process.

It is seriously wrong that the default and public position of so many in diocesan family life offices these days is to assume that if one is divorced, he or she is in need of “healing” or “moving on” by way of an annulment. And if they aren’t assuming it, they are certainly conveying that message, intentionally or not.

I have never seen any public statement in a diocesan paper or church bulletin that suggests, for instance, that maybe, just maybe, personal sin is responsible in the breakdown of a marriage and that there is a remedy for it besides the oft-proffered salve of divorce followed by an annulment. That other remedy is grace sought in prayer, the sacrament of confession, and the sacrament of marriage itself.

Nowhere, for instance, have I seen these words from the Catechism reproduced in any church bulletin or diocesan newspaper:

It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. Spouses who with God’s grace give this witness, often in very difficult conditions, deserve the gratitude and support of the ecclesial community. (CCC 1648)

Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond which remains indissoluble. (CCC 1649)

Consider, for instance, an alternative announcement in the aforementioned diocesan paper:

Are you or someone you know divorced?

Were you or that person you know responsible for that divorce, in any way? Want to learn what the Church teaches about divorce and sin? Do you know what grace is? Or what the sacraments are?

Have you read the Church’s 2,000 years of teaching on the subject, available at no cost online in the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

Did you know that, for many people, divorce has placed them in mortal sin and their souls in peril, and that many Catholics have the false impression that annulments, and not repentance and confession, are the true and only path to healing and friendship with God?

It is wrong that when marriages go awry (and they often do) that the only two speeds we see in the Church are either “let’s make this [divorce] easy for you and help you ‘feel better’ and ‘healed,’ by way of an annulment,” or alternatively, spouses are met with a kind of “tough-it out-no-matter-what” response, “even if your spouse kills you or drives you to despair and/or to a fast or slow suicide.”

The thing is, marriage is hard. It’s a lot harder than most people want to admit. It involves the Cross. But it also involves grace.

That is the truth. 

The Catechism is clear on this point, and, in fact, it devotes quite a bit to the grace(s) in matrimony:

“By reason of their state in life and of their order, [Christian spouses] have their own special gifts in the People of God.” This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.” 

Christ is the source of this grace.

“Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony.” Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love. In the joys of their love and family life he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb. (CCC 1641-1642)   

We are all sinners, and if we are married, we are to work out our salvation in marriage.

Glib answers to marriage problems, like “get a divorce and an annulment,” or “you just have to suffer,” offered by people who scarcely know the whole story of any given couple, or what really happens in most marriages, sell short the power of Christ and His grace. Glib answers to marriage problems, like “get a divorce and an annulment,” or “you just have to suffer,” offered by people who scarcely know the whole story of any given couple sell short the power of Christ and His grace.Tweet This

It is far worse when the Church’s representatives, ordained or not, offer what I have heard described as “the greased ramps of divorce and annulment” or the “tough guy” responses to persons suffering in truly difficult marriages because either one or both of the spouses is behaving badly, for whatever reason, culpable or not.

To proffer up the easy way out (or to offer no meaningful help) really does treat marriage like a fourth- or fifth-class institution and not like one of the sacraments at the service of communion, (like, though also different from, Holy Orders), raised to the dignity of a sacrament by Our Lord Himself, and with exacting standards. How many people actually have heard that “God himself is the author of marriage”? (CCC 1603).

Life, including married life, consists of both joys and great sufferings. And sometimes those sufferings are dead smack in the middle of our vocations. Whether one is John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio, Edith Stein, or like the vast majority of married persons, those sufferings are found with those with whom we are to live in intimate union.  

The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws. (CCC 1603)

There is an answer to many of the disorders in marriage and in all human relationships, and it lies in the Catholic fundamentals: renunciation of sin; confession; grace; and increases in grace by receiving the sacraments. And it is the job of every baptized Christian to learn those truths and to proclaim them—and to help others to receive that with which Christ has entrusted the Church, which is the means to peace and eternal life.

Perhaps someone could place something in a diocesan paper or parish bulletin that says:

Suffering in your marriage? Come learn how to use that suffering to your benefit and to that of your spouse.

Already divorced? Come learn if you need confession and repentance. See if you can save your soul and help save your spouse’s soul and find meaning and peace in your life and in the life hereafter.

St. Joseph and Mary, pray for us.

Author

  • Christopher J. Brennan, Esq.

    Christopher J. Brennan, Esq. is a practicing attorney in New Jersey, and has been married for 27 years to his wife, Susan, with whom he has six children. Mr. Brennan has spoken on the subject of divorce law and the practical ways Catholics can stem the tide of divorce and preserve marriage. He resides at the Jersey Shore.

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