Annulments are commonly misunderstood to be a Catholic version of a divorce. In fact, the word ‘divorce’ has no meaning in Catholic language. This is a tough teaching for many because it seems to be that the Church is just not understanding of people’s situations. Does a woman in an abusive relationship have to stay married to her husband because the Church does not “allow” her to divorce? What about a couple where one spouse is unfaithful and commits adultery? Why isn’t the Catholic Church understanding enough to allow them a divorce and later re-marriage?
It’s not that the Church “allows” or doesn’t allow divorce or re-marriage. It’s that the Church is saying there is no such thing as divorce or re-marriage. It is impossible for any two people who are validly married and joined by Christ to be divorced and so re-marriage isn’t a possibility either. The reason I think people don’t understand why the Church teaches this is because we don’t have a solid understanding of what marriage is. Christians may be familiar with Jesus’ teaching on divorce in the Gospel of Matthew where he says, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6). The Church is simply saying “This is what God has commanded. We must obey it. If God has joined two people together in marriage he commands that no man can separate them. It is impossible”. The phrase ‘let no man separate’ is confusing because it sounds like God is saying ‘don’t allow anyone to separate’ since we use the word ‘let’ interchangeably with ‘allow’. However, the language used here is similar to that of the book of Genesis where God used his Word to bind/command creation (ex: “Let there be light”). It seems, then, that Jesus is giving a stern command. He’s not saying you shouldn’t do it – he’s saying it is impossible. What Jesus says next can be devastating for someone in a second marriage, “They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:7). Those words pierce straight through the heart. Can it really be that a person on a second marriage with children and a house who go to church every Sunday is considered to be in an adulterous relationship? To really grasp hold of the answer to this question one really needs to first be familiar with the Church’s teaching on Sex and Marriage. Before we talk about the meaning of marriage we should give a short definition of adultery that we can keep in the back of our mind. We’ll bring it back up later. Adultery, put simply (even though it is not a simple thing) is unfaithfulness. Faithfulness, or fidelity, can be described as someone who is true to their word, promises or vows (see http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faithful).
A sacrament is something that reveals to us something of the spiritual world. Marriage is a sacrament which reveals to us something of the eternal marriage feast in Heaven. It is a sign that points our eyes and hearts to the heavenly marriage between Christ and His Bride – the Church. Since we are made in the image and likeness of God we are meant to image (proactively) the likeness of God in everything we do. God’s image is eternal family. The Trinity is a family in an eternal exchange of self giving love. The Father loves the Son and gives himself as a gift to him. The Son opens himself to receive the gift and then gives himself back to the father as a gift (holding nothing back, not even his body). The exchange between the two is so powerful, so real, that it is (not becomes) another person. That is how we understand the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the bond, or the love, between the Father and the Son. When God created us in his image – this is the image the Bible is talking about. Not that we look like him but that we can live like him. We have supernatural souls with the freedom to choose to love and to give ourselves as gifts. Take that image and apply it to a man and woman in marriage. The man, like the Father (whom he images as father with a lowercase ‘f’), initiates a gift of himself to his bride. The bride can choose to open herself to receive the gift of her husband and gives herself back as a gift to the man (holding nothing back, not even her body). The exchange between the two is so powerful, so real, that it can become another person in her womb. The baby can be said to be the bond, or the love, between the man and his bride. In this way man and woman in marriage have the power, and the obligation, to image God faithfully so that others may be able to come to know God through their witness. Scripture says “blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). The pure in heart are those who recognize the image of God in creation. Those who see the plan of salvation written into the bodies of man and woman (Christ as man gave up his body and Mary as woman opened herself to receive the gift) see Truth and since God is Truth – they see God. Man and woman in marriage are a sign of the Heavenly marriage but if they do not image it properly they become an anti-sign. An anti-sign leads people away from the truth because it blurs God’s image and confuses others who are seeking truth. This is the reason so many people ask the question “Can there be a God when there is so much pain and evil in the world?”. Children look up to their parents as the authority of truth. If a father is abusive – the children will likely grow up either afraid or angry at God the Father. The earthly father is meant to be a sign of the Heavenly father. If he is an anti-sign then the children will have a difficult time seeing God as a loving father because they have no idea what a loving father is. In marriage a man and woman approach the altar to exchange vows. They promise that they have come to the altar freely (of their own accord); they promise that they will give themselves totally to the other (holding nothing back); they promise to be faithful and they promise to be fruitful (open to children from God) until death do them part. The last five words are a part of the image of God which is free, total, faithful, fruitful and eternal. We are all searching for a forever kind of love. There’s a song by a guy named Ryan Huston called “Love you forever” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fArcLf9ylfo). It wouldn’t be so popular among young love craving teenage girls if it said “I’ll lend myself to you and I’ll love you for 6 months” instead of “I surrender myself to you and I’ll love you forever”. We all have a longing for a forever kind of love, an eternal love, because we were meant for God who is eternal love. At the altar two people give their word, promise, or vow (the definition of faithfulness) to love the other until death parts them. They even vow to do so in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. This is the image of God that marriage is meant to point us to – everlasting love in spite of pain, sickness, suffering or fear of death. When a man gives his life trying to protect his bride there’s a power that resonates in our hearts and confirms our deepest hopes. When a man rapes a woman our heart is full of pain and we might find it difficult to maintain that hope. When two people in marriage love each other self sacrificially, doing what is best for the other no matter the sacrifice, their children are full of the hope and love that radiates from their parents. When parents love themselves more than each other (or their children), or when parents divorce, their children may find life as very dark and hopeless.
Most people don’t fully understand marriage, or its purpose, before attempting to enter into one. It is understandable if two people need to separate because of physical or verbal abuse or because they realize that they didn’t fully intend to enter into a marriage from the beginning. However, if a marriage took place “what God has joined, let no man separate”. We can think of an analogy of melting of two identical white candles into the same bowl. Once they had merged together it would be impossible to separate one from the other. The same goes with two glasses of water. Pour them both into one larger glass and you would not be able to determine what water came from what glass. If the definition of faithfulness means to be true to one’s word, promises, or vows, and adultery is a form of unfaithfulness then a man or woman cannot “remarry” without being unfaithful to their original vows (unless the original spouse died). One cannot make vows which last forever (i.e. ‘till death do us part’) with one person and then later make the same vows “I promise to be faithful to you and only you forever – till death do us part”. If I promise someone I will give him all my money and then I promise someone else I will give him all my money – I can’t be telling the truth to both of them. If I gave one half and the other half then I would be lying to one. If I gave the first person all my money then I wouldn’t have anything left to give the second person so I would be lying to him. This is what the Church is saying in plain simple words – not “we will not allow you to give all your money to another person” but that “you have already given all your money to someone – you have nothing left to give so it impossible to pledge it to another”. The Church doesn’t condemn people to hell if they get divorced and remarry. First off, the idea of a divorce doesn’t exist so a “civil divorce” is not a sin. Physical separation is not a sin if there is good reason (physical abuse is a good reason, ‘he always leaves the toilet seat up’ is not a good reason). Pledging yourself to love another exclusively and forever (for the second time) is an anti-sign and one that cuts at the most important and powerful sign of God’s love that we have here on earth. Sexual love has the power to reveal God’s love to people or to scandalize them. This is why the pure of heart, those who seek out purity, find God in every part of their lives and those who pursue lust have a hard time even believing God exists. When people “divorce” and “remarry” they scandalize others and deliver blows to their faith (especially children). This is why it is such a serious sin or anti-sign. The world will rise or fall depending on the sexual morality of the time. The Church attempts to get her people to recognize the severity of their situations by denying them the Eucharist. This is not to say “you are too sinful to receive communion like us Holy guys” but to deliver a severe wakeup call as if saying “my child you are in grave danger and if I deliver the Eucharist to you – you will be in an infinitely worse state than you already are”. St. Paul says that he who eats and drinks the Body and Blood of Christ, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not discern the body (meaning if he is not properly disposed or in a state of grace). The Eucharist is a sacrament similar to marriage. In fact, it is the fulfillment of marriage. When we receive the Eucharist we are saying “I believe in Jesus, I accept his gift and I offer myself fully as a gift to Him. I am sorry for my sin and pledge to avoid all sin that will separate me from Jesus and I promise to be in full communion with his Church. I will be obedient to her teachings and to Jesus forever”. If one is not in full communion with the Church and does not intend to say this then they are speaking a lie with their body. They would speak a lie against the body of Christ – a sacrilege. If the Eucharist is the ultimate fulfillment of marriage which is a sign of Heaven then the corruption of entering into communion through the Eucharist is the ultimate anti-sign. This is why the Church is so firm in this teaching. If this is true then it would be unloving for the Church to allow her children to drink the poison and commit spiritual suicide.
So what then is an annulment? I’ll let Christopher West answer by quoting from his book titled Good News about Sex and Marriage.
There’s a great deal of confusion today about annulments. An annulment (properly referred to as a “declaration of nullity”) is not a “Catholic version of divorce”. A divorce declares you were once married and now you are no longer. A declaration of nullity is an official statement by the Church that a valid marriage never existed in the first place. The Church is consistent with her own teaching on the permanence of marriage and in granting declarations of nullity. Valid, consummated, sacramental marriages can never be dissolved under any circumstance. But if it turns out that, despite all appearances, a couple was never validly married, then their marriage has no binding force.
Why are so many annulments granted today? It’s not outside the realm of possibility that at times the system is abused. On the other hand, the number of annulments granted today may well be an accurate reflection of the number of couples who do not enter marriage validly. First of all, tribunals in the United States report that one-fourth to one-third of annulments are granted due to “lack of form”. This means that large numbers of baptized Catholics are getting married outside the Catholic Church. If they do this without a dispensation their marriage is null from the start.
Furthermore, people born in the latter half of the twentieth century have been raised in a culture that not only has lost a support structure for marriage but also very loudly, incessantly, and convincingly promotes values that are antithetical to marriage. The effects of this culture on people’s ability to enter marriage validly should not be underestimated (West, 2004).
This is a very difficult subject for many people because it can have serious consequences and call for great sacrifices. As Catholics we must lovingly share this message of truth with others and we must at the same time be willing to go to great lengths to love and support them as they wrestle with these things in their heart. For anyone who is confronting these issues – my prayers and support are with you.
West, C. (2004). Good news about sex & marriage. (2nd ed., p. 50). Cincinnati: Servant Books.