The Idler: Annulments

On the pope’s orders, the Vatican has recently revised canon law interpretations on annulments for the first time since 1936. A lot had happened since then. I am no canon lawyer, so I won’t choose between the headlines that said, “Vatican acts to speed annulments,” and those that said, “Vatican moves to stem annulments.” My own impression in the reading is that nothing has changed in principle. The pope wants the rules interpreted everywhere in the same way, which is for the good. But rules are of little use when people won’t follow them.

“It is better to marry than to burn,” St. Paul said in a remark often lost on modern readers for its frank avowal that natural marriage, and likewise, hellfire, exist. One reason why annulments are so high today is because such valid marriages are so rare.

Marriage is a discipline, and perhaps the hardest part is the romantic discipline. No matter how many squawling children, no matter how big the mortgage, a man and a woman must remember they are lovers—with not only the frustrations, but also all the laughter of lovers at the things that will get in their way. In the state of nature, marriage was ordained for the procreation of children. But in God’s proclamation, it was for Adam and Eve, for a man and a woman, to be each other’s company.

At least under modern conditions, which leave most dynastic considerations aside, a difficult task becomes impossible when the marriage wasn’t founded in romantic love. In the past, perhaps, too much was said for romantic love, and now too much is said against it—people being always eager to condemn the sin to which they are not tempted.

Ideals of chivalry are not simply a moment from our medieval past. The whole idea of chivalry is unmistakably Christian, and the whole idea of Christianity unmistakably chivalrous. The idea of courtship exists in every culture, but it takes on a uniquely chivalrous aspect in a Christianized mind. It is sadly missing from our present mall culture.

Read the Church’s traditional marriage liturgy: There is nothing so romantic this side of the Song of Solomon.

Even the old dynastic marriages, though not especially Christian, required at least the appearance of Christian courtship. And it’s the absence of anything resembling this courtship—as distinct from animal mating rituals—that makes marriage so cold today. Courtship seizes upon the gift of mere attraction and guides it into true love, whereas the mating rituals of our mall culture have lost even their efficacy in the production of offspring. But then courtship requires an ardent male and a cautious female. Where to find either after “gender roles” have been judicially challenged?

A perfectly valid marriage must start in a perfectly valid way: as a man and a woman who must be together because they can’t be apart. The rules are all valid, too, and I’m not challenging the rules: only saying that, in the absence of true love, the rules get empty.

Only some present marriages are man and woman; probably most are now really “two persons.” For 40 years, perhaps, we’ve been living in the Age of Gay Marriage. The distinction between couples who have married and couples merely living together has almost faded away. The marriage license has been allowed to become an expedient or a decoration. It is seldom any more the grandest declaration of “us against the world.”

To my mind, the ambition of the Church in a time like this should be not only to hold the line on annulments, but to make marriages much harder to obtain. The applicants should have to go through great hurdles to be married in a Catholic Church—enough to split them apart or fuse them together.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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