Saturday, June 30, 2007

The rules of annulment

Wedding season is in full swing. I know this because of the four giddy, gorgeously engraved save-the-date for or invitations to nuptials that have arrived in the mail in recent weeks.

One of my husband's sons got engaged earlier this month and one of my best friends from college, the guy we thought would sooner become a monk (he's an atheist) than get married, announced he's tying the knot in August with a brilliant woman who won both his heart and his mind.

One of my husband's sons got engaged earlier this month and one of my best friends from college, the guy we thought would sooner become a monk (he's an atheist) than get married, announced he's tying the knot in August with a brilliant woman who won both his heart and his mind.

My parents were married on a rainy day in Connecticut 44 years ago today; earlier this week my in-laws celebrated their 60th anniversary, and my own husband and I are busy planning for our 10th wedding anniversary in October.

These are the hopeful, joyful moments of marriage. But they're not the whole story. Half of all marriages in this country end in divorce, and that statistic varies only negligibly from one religious group to another.

The decision to end a marriage often is one full of sorrow, disappointment, anguish and even shame. It's the last resort. But sometimes it's a necessary evil.

What feels absolutely unnecessary is the religious notion of annulment. In the Catholic tradition, which does not recognize divorces between couples who have been joined together in sacramental, holy matrimony, it is possible, however, to have a marriage declared null and void.

A "Declaration of Nullity," as Catholic annulment is technically known, does not mean the marriage never happened. It just means it was never a valid union, from the beginning.

Which, it would seem, is not a great comfort to many going through the annulment process, particularly those who do not wish to have their marriage annulled in the first place.

Take Sheila Rauch Kennedy, for example. An Episcopalian, Rauch married Joseph Kennedy II, a Catholic and the godson of former President John F. Kennedy, in 1979. A year later, the couple had twin boys. And in 1991, they divorced, with Joseph Kennedy remarrying in 1993.

Sometime after the Rauch-Kennedy divorce, Joseph Kennedy sought and was granted an annulment of his marriage to Sheila Rauch. Problem was, Rauch says she had no idea. Rauch appealed the annulment to the Vatican, and earlier this month, a Roman Rota, or appeals court, ruled in her favor, reversing the annulment.

So, in the eyes of the church, Joseph Kennedy II, married to his current wife for 14 years, is still married sacramentally to Sheila Rauch. Kennedy can, in turn, appeal the appeal.

Catholic politicians Rudy Giuliani and John Kerry both have had marriages annulled.
What, I beg you, is the spiritual purpose of such theological acrobatics?

There are more than 6 million divorced Roman Catholics in the United States. According to the Vatican's 2004 Statistical Yearbook of the Church, in 2004 (which are the most current statistics) 70,235 annulments were granted worldwide and 53,885 of those were granted to Catholics in the United States. That's more than 75 percent of all annulments granted by the church.

Last year in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago -- the third largest diocese in the nation after Los Angeles and New York -- 7,800 marriages were performed, and 554 annulments were granted.

In 1996, a little more than 11,500 marriages were performed and about 750 annulments were granted. Going back 20 years, in 1986 in the Chicago archdiocese, 13,421 marriages were performed and 1,350 annulments were granted.

I'm not sure if the progression of numbers is comforting or alarming. There are fewer marriages and annulments in the Chicago archdiocese today, and the ratio of marriages to annulments has remained fairly constant. Interestingly, annulments have been granted to the same person more than once over the past 20 years in Chicago, but it is a "rare occurrence ... less than one per year," an archdiocesan spokesman said.

To an outsider, the Catholic practice of annulling marriages -- even those that have lasted 10, 20 or more years and produced multiple children -- seems at odds with the notion of divorce as a sin. Either it is or it isn't.

Some who have gone through the process call it healing. Others say it's agonizing and ostracizing.

Either allow divorced Catholics to get married again in the church, and/or come back to the Communion table as full members, or don't.

Annulment is like a theological sleight of hand.

Pastorally speaking, the coexistence of annulments with the prohibition of divorce within Catholicism "is like being stretched out between galloping horses," said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of Chicago's Catholic Theological Union.

"Some would say it's become in effect a kind of technical knockout," Senior said of annulments.

"I think it's not theologically or theoretically inconsistent . . . but how it may be applied, you wonder sometimes."

The vast majority of annulments -- something like 98 percent in the United States -- are granted on the basis of some sort of "defect of consent," which I've seen defined in innumerable ways.

But what it essentially means is that when the person or persons exchanged vows before God and witnesses, they didn't know what they were getting themselves into.

Who among us married folks -- whether it's been two, 10, 44, or 60 years since we made our vows -- can say we knew all that a married life together would entail?

Riches and poverty. Sickness and health. Better and worse.

And that, in every marriage, is unavoidable.


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The placing of an article hereupon does not necessarily imply that I agree or accept the contents of the article as being necessarily factual in theology, dogma or otherwise.

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