If a recent Vatican conference is any indication, some Church leaders would like to see annulments harder to come by.
It is an issue that arises regularly, given statistics that show the United States — home to about 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population — accounts for about two-thirds of annulments granted each year by Church tribunals globally.
Some observers and Church leaders believe that Canon Law — especially Canon 1095, which invalidates marriages for lack of discretion or due reason and causes of a psychic nature — has been interpreted so broadly that virtually anyone can be granted an annulment for almost any reason.
“Some have called Canon 1095 a loose cannon, and in a way it is,” said Msgr. Ronald P. Simeone, the judicial vicar of the marriage tribunal for the Diocese of Providence, R.I. “What that shows is that we have to be more careful and diligent in sticking to the truth of the law, and not easing the way for a pastoral decision that may not comport with the truth of the case.”
Grounds for annulment
Msgr. Simeone told Our Sunday Visitor that the April 26-27 conference, which focused primarily on Canon 1095, was a “good sign” of a Church that holds itself accountable.
“These discussions, especially on this topic, are constantly going on all the time in the Church,” Msgr. Simeone said. “But instead of any considerations of dropping the canon, I think what may be needed is more precision in applying the canon’s grounds when considering a nullity of marriage.”
There are more than a dozen possible grounds for a nullity of marriage, but Canon 1095 accounts for about two-thirds of all granted annulments, according to Church officials who attribute the canon to the steep rise in annulments over the past 40 years. In 1968, there were 338 annulments granted in the United States. In the early 1990s, the annual number peaked to more than 60,000.
During the conference, which was sponsored by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, an Opus Dei institution, Bishop Antoni Stankiewicz, the dean of the Roman Rota, told those assembled that it was necessary that interpretations of Canon 1095 avoid an “anthropological pessimism,” according to a May 1 report by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.
Many argue that the canon’s common interpretations — in which people increasingly are granted annulments because they supposedly lacked the maturity, understanding, self-knowledge or mental capacity to enter into a marriage — would seem to suggest that it is almost impossible for the average person to enter into a valid marriage.
“We must reaffirm the innate human capacity to marry,” Bishop Stankiewicz said, according to Allen’s report.
A false notion of marriage, even a divorce mentality, seems to have taken hold of many priest and lay canon lawyers who adjudicate annulment cases, observers said.
Msgr. Simeone said his and other marriage tribunals are conscious of the criticisms.
“When we have an investigation and work toward an adjudication of a case, we’re looking to answer very specific questions,” Msgr. Simeone said. “We look to see if the parties did not have proper understanding or lacked insight into what they were entering. I assume that every tribunal is looking for the same thing, the truth.”
However, he conceded the process is not infallible.
“Like any type of justice, ours is not a perfect system either. You have human beings making decisions,” he said. “Every case is decided by one to three judges, and it all depends on how carefully they follow Church law in determining how the Church interprets what was a valid or invalid marriage.”
Msgr. Simeone said the rise in annulments has coincided with a willingness to reconcile people with the Church.
“There is this temptation to be pastoral, but we can’t do that at the expense of the truth,” Msgr. Simeone said. “Being pastoral is not the main purpose of what the process is supposed to be about. If we do that, it is to our detriment since the spouse, the couple’s neighbors and their relatives will all know what the truth is.”
Better pastoral approach
Msgr. Gerard P. O’Connor, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., told OSV that there are probably other grounds for annulments other than those outlined in Canon 1095 that would “make more sense.”
However, besides issues of interpretations of canon law, Msgr. O’Connor said there are other dimensions of examining the reasons for the disproportionate numbers of annulments in the United States.
In Europe, there still exists a sort of taboo with divorce and annulments that is not present in the United States, Msgr. O’Connor said.
“In America, we have a better pastoral approach. We understand people want to remain part of the Church and be active in Church life. I tell anybody who has been divorced about the possibility of an annulment,” said Msgr. O’Connor, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet, Mass. He said he has guided several parishioners through the process, and has presided at more marriage convalidations this year than new weddings.
“It’s always been fruitful to work with people, especially when they work with the process. It’s always a beautiful thing to get them back sacramentally into the Church,” Msgr. O’Connor told OSV.
Julie Gamull, a resident of Atlanta, Ga., remarried in 2008 after receiving an annulment from her first marriage. Gamull went through the process for nine months in 2007. She met with her parish priest at least twice, filled out lengthy paperwork, and had to find three witnesses willing to provide statements about her first marriage.
“Perhaps in other dioceses, annulments may seem to be too easily given, but I don’t share that view in my experience with seeking an annulment in my archdiocese,” Gamull said.
Brian Fraga writes from Texas.