Annulments

She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.

~Evelyn Waugh~

Last week the news media erupted with the announcement from the Vatican that Pope Francis had taken steps to simplify and cheapen the process for annulments to happen within the church.  

The streamlining of the process for annulments is something which makes sense to me, although admittedly I am not much of an expert in canon law; either way, the Pope’s decision gives opportunity to address the thorny issue of annulments, and why the church is so up-tight about divorced and re-married Catholics.

The first thing to recognize is that marriage is something which not only the Catholic Church, but the overwhelming majority of human history have found to be sacred.   That word sounds odd to a lot of people today, sort of like the smell from your grandparent’s house - it seems to belong to a different time.   The family is the cradle of civilization, it is the place where we learn what it means to be human.  A broken family does not condemn a soul to a life of futility or sterility, but if you had to stack the odds in a child’s favor, you’d give them a set of parents who were wildly in love with each other and committed to the ultimate happiness of their little pack of progeny.  And apart from the cathedrals and holy sites of mankind, the simple yet profound goodness in marriage and family life should remind all of us that we are indeed more than mere animals.

The quote at the top is from the novel Brideshead Revisited, an absolute classic piece of literature, which tells a tale of adultery, of human brokenness, and of redemption.  I may be a huge nerd (no comments thank you), but that particular quotation always makes me laugh out loud.  The context comes at the beginning of the novel when Charles realizes that his love for his wife has died.   The reality is of course tragic, but Waugh’s mastery of the language cannot help but bring at least a smirk to one’s face.

Later on in the novel Julia says this about her husband:  “you know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took a year of marriage for me to see.  He simply wasn’t all there.  He wasn’t a complete human being at all…a tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.” 

These are things that happen in real life, people marry when they shouldn’t, they are often infatuated with someone (frequently because of an overly-physical relationship) and have blinded themselves to gaping holes in the character of their beloved.    All of us can sympathize with the terror of the thought that they should “punished” the rest of their lives all because of one mistake, even if it was a big one.   We all feel bad for people who have either entered into or come out of marriages they never should have been in.  Every one of us has the fear of ultimate loneliness, of making a big mistake and ending up on our own, and so we come to the church’s teaching – how could the church oppose divorce and remarriage?  Shouldn’t we admit that all of us make mistakes?  That no one wants to get divorced, but that the modern world is a tough one, and that people deserve a second or third chance.

I have to admit that on a human level these things pull at the heart strings, and much inside of me desires to just say “it’s okay – just move on”; but two things keep me from doing that.

The first and most important is the teaching of Jesus Christ: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18, c.f. Matthew 19:9)  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say divorce is wrong (although God certainly isn’t happy with divorce – see Malachi 2:16), he says divorce and remarriage is to be understood as adultery.    The teaching of the Church isn’t so much that divorce is wrong as that divorce is impossible.  If a valid marriage happens, nothing in heaven or on earth can undo a marriage.  What an annulment says is that a real marriage never occurred.

The reason why this effects a person being able to receive communion has to do with repentance.  It’s not that their sin is worse than other people’s, but if someone has contracted a second marriage without an annulment, they can’t really go to confession and say in all honesty that they will do their best to repent.   God forgives all sin, but forgiveness implies the good will effort to overcome our sin, to turn to God, divorce and remarriage creates a complex circumstance where repentance becomes very difficult, and if there are children in the second marriage, could create a new set of serious and complex problems.

If you’re in this situation, the first and most important thing I want to say to you is that God loves you, he died for your sins, and this doesn’t mean that you’re going to hell or that you’re a bad person.  The Church also loves you, and she loves you enough to tell you the truth about what Jesus teaches.  You also belong to the church, and you should be coming every Sunday to mass; you may not be able to receive communion, but we go to mass because we love God, and we owe him our worship.  In all likelihood, there are a huge number of Catholics who receive the Eucharist on Sundays who shouldn’t be – and what a witness you will be to them of humble, loving obedience, which is precisely what saved the world (Romans 5:19). 

Why did Jesus teach this?  Couldn’t he have made things easier?  Had a little more mercy?  I think at the heart of the problem is the age old assumption that what brings happiness is doing what I want.   I have had many, many people tell me over time that they simply could never live a celibate life, and as a celibate I certainly know that celibacy has its challenges.   Above any other faith tradition on earth, Catholics should know that although suffering is not something we pursue, if it is embraced in the love of God it is redemptive.   Jesus tells us over and over again throughout the Gospels: “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” (Luke 9:24 c.f. Mt. 10:38, Lk 14:27, 17:33, Jn. 12:25 etc.)   If we pursue ourselves, that’s normal and human but there’s nothing Christian about it; and while this is a hard truth, God isn’t interested as much in your comfort as in your sanctification.  A celibate life can also be a profoundly joyful one, too many of us buy the cultural assumption that romantic relationships are the only ones worth pursuing.

Perhaps the wittiest commentator on marriage, divorce and the storm of issues associated with the two, is the ever-relevant G.K. Chesterton.   Chesterton is quick to remind us that if we dispatch consequences, we also lose merit, and even worse, adventure.  “it would not be worthwhile to bet if a bet were not binding.  The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport…and the perils, rewards, punishments and fulfillments of an adventure must be real or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare.” 

Consequences are the flip side of freedom, and those who would destroy them should be careful they don’t offer a counterfeit freedom in the process.  Even on a natural level, apart from faith, there are some of us who believe that certain big promises should be binding.   With no fault divorce laws in the United States, Americans can get out of marriages easier than they can get out of cell phone contracts.  Perhaps its no wonder that fewer and fewer people desire to get married – marriage seems to have lost all its seriousness, its daring, its distinctive nature that made it something more than two people living together with an added tax break.

The Church takes a person at their word when they say “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life”, it seems today that she is about the only one.   The seriousness which she ascribes to marriage vows is not meant to be harsh towards those with broken marriages, really it is meant only to say that these vows have been, and remain something sacred.