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Article 96 – Marriage and Annulment

Lack of Catechesis

I have had some very interesting phone calls recently concerning marriage. One person asked me to write about annulment as there is a perception in some quarters that it is just a form of Catholic divorce. Another person has asked me to write about consent, or rather the lack of it, and the important need for priests to make sure that the proper consent is there, before a marriage takes place. Many years ago, this second person ended up in what can only be called an arranged marriage. She didn’t really want to marry the man in question, but she says that she was pressured into it by family and that there was also a priest involved.

The Catholic Voice has also received a comment that I and The Lumen Fidei Institute, are somehow trying to go back to the ‘old Ireland’, whatever that is.

A Good Catholic must Know what the Catholic Church Teaches

These comments show clearly the need for proper catechesis and for proper and intelligent debate on matters of the Catholic faith. It is impossible to be a good Catholic unless you know what the Catholic Church teaches and unless you know what being a good Catholic means. Take for example the comment that we are trying to go back to the old Ireland. First off, it is impossible to go back in time, so the comment makes no sense and adds nothing to any debate that we might have. Even if one could go back in time, to which time and to which ‘old Ireland’ are we referring? Are we talking about the famine times? Are we talking about the Penal times? Most likely the commentator is referring to a perceived time when the Catholic Church ruled people’s lives with a rod of iron here in Ireland. The main problem with such a perception is precisely that it is simply a perception, and that it is based largely on media spin and not on the truth.

More Examples of False Thinking

Another example of this kind of thinking was given by Cardinal Schonborn when he visited Ireland in July of this year. At one point during one of his talks he said, “in the past the Church too often focused on sexual sins to the detriment of the wellbeing of abandoned spouses and the children of both valid and ‘irregular’ unions”. This point was also made by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin during the press launch for next year’s World Meeting of Families, which was held in Knock on 21st August. Archbishop Martin said that in the past the Church focused too much on the sinfulness of human sexuality rather than on the joys of human sexuality. He also spoke of a time when the Catholic Church focused too much on rules and regulations.

I will be married for twenty-nine years this November. During that time, I do not recall ever having heard an Irish priest speak publicly about the sinfulness of human sexuality or about the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church in this regard. In fact, my experience has been quite the opposite. At our ‘Catholic’ pre-marriage course we were shown all the different forms of contraception and, one of the lay course facilitators, a man by the name of Jim, speaking about human sexuality told us that once we were married, ‘anything goes’.

Cardinals and Archbishops Stuck in the Past

It seems to me that the Cardinal and the Archbishop are the ones who are stuck in the past, or in a memory of a past that certainly no longer exists and has not existed for quite some time. That they proceed to try to teach Catholics based on these assumptions from a past that no longer exists, if it ever existed at all, is very damaging to the faithful. We have lived for quite some time now in an era where Church teaching is given the most liberal interpretation possible and where, as Jim said, ‘anything goes’. What are the fruits of these liberal interpretations of Catholic Church teaching?

Let’s Look at Some of the Effects of ‘Liberal’ Catholicism

We have virtually no vocations to priesthood and religious life. Our young people in the age bracket of eighteen to twenty-four years are abandoning the faith at a rate of over eighty percent. Here in Ireland, one point two million people, most of them baptised Catholics, voted for ‘same-sex marriage’ contrary to Catholic Church teaching in 2015. Many Catholics are abandoning their marriages and forming new adulterous unions. Our young people, in the main, prefer to live together rather than to get married, and if they do get married, they wait until they are in their thirties. The suicide rate is increasing especially amongst the young. These are just some of the side effects of liberal Catholicism. I know that there are other factors at play, but Christ founded the Catholic Church in order that we might be able to live life to the full and the Catholic Church has the power to transform society.

In a time of poor catechesis, a bishop speaking about not focusing too much on rules and regulations is in danger of giving people the impression that the rules and regulations are not that important. The impression is also given that the rules and regulations are restricting people’s happiness when in fact the exact opposite is the case. Let us look for a moment at some other aspects of life apart from religion in order to be able to see this point more clearly.

The Importance of Rules and Regulations

Two men sit down for an enjoyable game of chess! Following the rules of the game of chess is what makes the game enjoyable. Without the rules, you cannot even play chess. The same is true of the 2017 all-Ireland football final. If the rules and regulations were not followed, what ensued would have been complete chaos and we would not know who had won the game. In medicine, if the doctors and nurses in the operating theatre do not follow the rules and regulations of good operating theatre practice, patients may die. The rules and regulations for driving on our roads are there to protect people from injury, harm, and possible death. You would not go to a family whose child has been seriously injured in a car accident and speak of the guards enforcing the rules too severely, so why do it in the case where more and more people are failing to live up to the commitments they made in their marriages. It is not the rules and the regulations that are wrong, the problem is that people are not following the rules and regulations and then, when things go wrong on account of this, those in charge begin to blame the rules.

When next the Archbishop’s car breaks down, I would like him to ask the mechanic to concentrate on the joys of driving, rather than on the rules and regulations of car mechanics, to fix the problem. He could also try telling the mechanic that he believes that there was once a time in Ireland, when mechanics focused too much on the things that go wrong with cars, rather than on the joys of driving. We’ll see how he gets on. I imagine he could be off the road for quite a while and in the same way, this current trend in certain circles of the hierarchy, to minimise the importance of the rules and regulations, will not help to resolve the current marriage and family crisis.

The Past is not Contagious

There is nothing to be gained from painting a bleak and dismal picture of the past and then saying that we must avoid the past as if it were contagious like the plague. History is a great teacher, but we must learn not just from the mistakes of the past, but also from the successes of the past. In the past, we had many vocations to priesthood and the religious life. Should we avoid trying to replicate this in our day, simply because it was done in the past? In the past far fewer children were born outside of wedlock? Should we avoid trying to replicate this in our day, again simply because it was done in the past?

Our Human Nature is Fallen

On closer analysis, it is easy to see that sentiments which claim that we are trying to go back to the Ireland of the past, or which claim that there was a time when the Church concentrated too much on sin and on rules and regulations, are not based in the reality of our fallen human nature, but are based on a false and sentimental understanding of human nature and, they are also based on a false understanding of the problems that we are currently faced with.

Our Lord Himself spoke about the rules and regulations of the law in St Matthew chapter 5.

“So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled. He therefore that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But he that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:16-20)

The False Dichotomy

This is not to say that it is impossible to be too focused on the law, but rather that we should not create a false dichotomy which separates love from the law and the law from love. Our Lord emphasises the demands of true love in St John’s Gospel. “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) St Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, also speaks of the law. At first glance, it might seem as if St Paul is dismissing the law when he says, “Because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before him. For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20) But St Paul clarifies his position at the end of this chapter when he says, “Do we, then, destroy the law through faith? God forbid: but we establish the law.” (Romans 20:31)

Love of God Must be Our Motivation

In the introduction to his beautiful soliloquy on love, St Paul tells us, “If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

In St John’s Gospel quoted above Our Lord tells us, “If you love Me, keep my commandments” He did not say “Keep my commandments and you will love Me” Our motivation for keeping the law must be love of God and not love of the law itself. This love of God will in turn lead to a deep love of our neighbour which in turn will help us to encourage our neighbours to love God so that they in their turn will keep the commandments out of love for God. Love of God leads us to keep the law.

So What is an Annulment?

This leads me nicely into a very brief summation of what an annulment is. I am not a canon lawyer and I don’t want to get into a history of some of the complications and theological arguments over marriage, but I understand what an annulment is. Our sloppy use of language in modern times has led to the phrase being used that some Catholics ‘get’ an annulment. The danger with this phrasing is that it creates the impression that the couple in question are getting something done to their marriage which makes it void. The correct terminology is that a declaration of nullity was made. This means that after careful examination, it was found that the marriage never took place because there was an impediment at the time the vows were made. To understand this, we need to look at the form and matter of the sacrament of Matrimony.

Marriage – Form and Matter of the Sacrament

In my last article, I explained that all sacraments must have both form and matter to be valid, and I looked at the form and matter for the sacrament of confession. For the sacrament of matrimony, the form is when the man and the woman say to each other, “I do”, by which both spouses indicate their mutual consent to the marriage covenant. The matter of the sacrament is the mutual consent and covenant to live together as husband and wife and the consummation of the marriage.

In an earlier article, I gave the example of a woman going through the marriage ceremony because her mother had been kidnapped and because she was told that her mother would be killed if she did not marry the man in question. In this case, it is clear, that no marriage has taken place because consent was lacking. But not all cases are as clear as this one.

The Annulment Process

Another factor that we must consider is the annulment process. This has recently been changed, but I want to look at the process as it was before the changes. A case for annulment was submitted to a tribunal of enquiry which examined the case in detail. Nullity had to be proven on specific grounds and sworn testimony was taken from anyone involved or who knew the parties to the marriage well, at the time of the marriage. There was an independent defender of the bond whose job it was to defend the validity of the marriage and in cases where it was found that the marriage did not take place, the case was then sent for a mandatory appeal to a second tribunal for examination.

Marriage Must be Protected

There were many people who for various reasons argued for a streamlining of the whole process to avoid delays, some saying that such delays were an injustice in themselves, and finally the process was streamlined. However, the point I would make is that the whole process of having a declaration of nullity made was designed to protect marriage. Any failures on the part of the process were likely to come down in favour of the marriage, rather than in favour of the declaration of nullity. This was for the simple reason that marriage is so important and anything that could possibly cause damage to marriage was to be carefully avoided.

Humans Make Mistakes

Tribunals are staffed by humans. Humans can make mistakes and so, despite the rigour of the process it is possible that a wrong decision could be made in some cases. Some marriages could be declared null which were in fact marriages, and some null marriages could be declared marriages. Some people may have lied to the tribunal in order to be given the declaration of nullity. Modern psychology may have influenced our understanding of what constitutes consent and this understanding may be flawed.

But in my opinion, the biggest problem in this regard is modern man’s drift away from intellectual discourse and decision making which is based on sound reason, to a discourse and decision-making process which is based on emotion and sentimentality. One example of this was when some people described the annulment reform as an act of mercy. This is to completely misunderstand the annulment process. As Dr Edward Peters, a lay canon lawyer who worked on the marriage tribunals said, “every phase of the current annulment process is required by natural law to serve the ends of justice and, as Pope St. John Paul II repeatedly reminded us, the annulment process is about justice, not mercy, not charity, not warm fuzzy feelings, but justice.

My own worry is that the current reform, which I believe has weakened the process, will lead to more injustice, in that many marriages which are valid will be declared null in a false rush to perceived mercy for those in difficult situations. Thus, we could end up with Catholic divorce after all.

© John Lacken 2017

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Author: John Lacken
‘Legio Sanctae Familiae’ – The Legion of the Holy Family
E-Mail: john@truedevotions.ie
Mob: +353 (0)85-1208779
Website: www.truedevotions.ie

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