Catholic annulments: Commonplace and unpopular among both conservatives and liberals

Posted: Friday, November 07, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) Traditionalists, progressives, even loyal Roman Catholic insiders have unkind things to say about the annulment process. Yet church leaders say their method of dissolving marriages now used by tens of thousands of Americans each year is better than any alternative.

From one flank, conservative critics say annulments have become far too easy to get, undermining the church's long-held disapproval of divorce. From the other flank, reformers say divorced, remarried Catholics should be welcomed back into full church participation without having to divulge intimate details of their lives and declare that their previous marriage was invalid from the start.

''We're in the unenviable position of being able to make everybody angry at us,'' said the Rev. Patrick Lagges, the judicial vicar who heads the Archdiocese of Chicago's marriage tribunal.

As recently as 1968, marriage tribunals in the United States granted fewer than 400 annulments a year, generally limiting them to extreme cases. Now, according to Vatican figures, about 50,000 annulments are granted annually by U.S. tribunals more than two-thirds of all annulments worldwide and less than 10 percent of annulment applications are denied.

The church hierarchy in the United States makes few public pronouncements about annulments, and details of the process remain a mystery to many Catholics. Annulments usually make news only when a prominent politician or celebrity seeks one for example, former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., or Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a current presidential candidate.

Kennedy's 1993 request for annulment of his 12-year marriage to Sheila Rauch Kennedy so angered her that she filed an appeal to Rome which is still pending and wrote a book, ''Shattered Faith,'' that assails the annulment process.

''What irritates me are the lies you're supposed to tell so the annulment can be granted,'' Rauch Kennedy said in a telephone interview. ''There is no face-to-face confrontation with your accuser.''

Inspired by ''Shattered Faith,'' another Boston woman, Jan Leary, formed a support and advocacy group called Save Our Sacrament to work for reform of the annulment procedure.

Leary, who also appealed to the Vatican after her ex-husband sought an annulment, says the process is skewed in favor of the petitioner seeking the annulment and against the respondent.

''They say it's a healing process, but it's only healing for the petitioner,'' she said.

An annulment declares that a marriage never really existed in the eyes of the Catholic church because some essential ingredient was missing. In the past, they generally were granted only in limited, specific circumstances if one spouse had not been baptized, for example, or was impotent.

More recently, however, marriage tribunals particularly in the United States have taken abstract psychological factors into consideration. Ex-spouses can obtain an annulment by attesting they failed at the outset to understand the commitments of marriage.

Robert Vasoli, a retired University of Notre Dame sociology professor, challenged an annulment sought by his ex-wife, researching the process and becoming a vocal critic of it.

''The annulment issue is more scandalous than the priests' sex scandal,'' he said. ''With divorce, there's at least recognition that the couple was married. With annulment, they say there was never a marriage in that respect it's more dishonest.''

Church officials acknowledge that skepticism of annulments is deep-rooted. Lagges, the Chicago priest, says most Catholics hear about it ''only through rumor and gossip.''

Along with other defenders of the process, Lagges says modern-day annulments do not imply that children of an annulled marriage are illegitimate, nor do they imply that the annulled marriage never existed.

''When an annulment is granted, we're not saying that nothing was there,'' Lagges said. ''We're just saying it wasn't what the church means by marriage.''

Conservative critics contend that Pope John Paul II is deeply displeased with the multitude of U.S. annulments. He has frequently spoken out about the sanctity of marriage and against the increasing number of divorces. Lagges, on the other hand, believes the Vatican understands the need for a flexible, forgiving approach in an era when millions of Catholics, like other Americans, marry more than once.

''If Rome doesn't like something, they tell you not to do it,'' Lagges said. ''We send our reports every year with the statistics. It's not like we're operating in secret.''

The Chicago marriage tribunal considers about 1,000 applications for annulments each year, and grants more than 90 percent of them. Most cases are completed within eight months, while others take several years. Tribunals require completion of detailed questionnaires and often seek testimony from psychologists and relatives.

''Some people say it's a terrible thing, but most of the people I talk to say it's something that helped them to put their life back together again, to reflect on what went wrong and why it went wrong,'' Lagges said.

For many lay Catholics, annulments generate mixed emotions.

''Catholics are very ambivalent they see the need for them but feel there are too many,'' said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League. ''There's hardly a Catholic family that doesn't have someone in it who's divorced. You don't want to have them thrown out of the church.''

Michael Lawler, a professor of Catholic theology at Creighton University and former marriage tribunal judge, suggested the church could consider encouraging a pastoral alternative to the formal annulment process.

''The process would devolve down to the parish level, where a priest could counsel the couple, help them make a judgment whether their marriage can be retrieved,'' he said. ''If the marriage is dead, the couple and the priest make that judgment, and they are free to stay in the church.''

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