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Reform of the annulment process should not mean dumping it, let alone abandoning Christ’s teaching on marriage

January 15, 2014

Fr. Peter Daly’s essay against the annulment process (and indeed, against the heart of Church teaching on the permanence of marriage) is mostly a repackaging of common historical errors, irrelevant platitudes, and bad theology. But before responding to some of those (but only to some, for there are too many to address) let me acknowledge one thing Daly has right.

Canonical form, says Daly, “rewards people who were disobedient to the [C]hurch years ago and got married outside the [C]hurch.” I would prefer that Daly admit that canonical form served an important pastoral purpose for some centuries and that he alert readers to some important issues to be considered before jettisoning form, but basically, Daly is right about this aspect of canonical form. That said, though, I differ with almost everything else Daly wrote.

First, Daly’s sarcasm is off-putting. “The pope wants to know what we think. That in and of itself qualifies as a minor miracle.” How can anyone say something like that about Pope Francis? Daly maintains his petulant tone, describing, for example, the annulment process as a “roadblock” that basically means “No grace for you!” Childish.

More substantively, Daly seems not to understand several crucial aspects of Church teaching on marriage, asserting, for example, that “The problem with the [annulment] process in the Roman Catholic [C]hurch is that it takes what ought to be a pastoral matter and turns it into a legal one.”

The annulment process does not do that.

Marriage itself, and the annulment process concerned with it, is (in part) a legal matter because of Christ’s own actions. Jesus did not invent a new human relationship and call it ‘marriage'; rather, He took an existing, partly juridicized, institution and, respecting its character, restored marriage to its natural stability and raised it for the baptized to the level of sacrament. Thus, to whatever extent marriage is, and has always been, a juridic relationship, so the annulment process is, and will always be, in part a juridic process. Complaints about the juridic aspects of marriage and annulments are ultimately complaints about Christ’s economy of salvation.

A curious comment occurs part-way thru Daly’s essay: “Over the years, I have had several couples get infuriated with me or with the [C]hurch and just walk away in anger … Sometimes, I have just taken the pastoral route. For instance, I’ve had couples in their late 70s and 80s who were married decades ago. They can hardly remember their first marriage, let alone dredge up the records. Or I’ve had people who are terminally ill and want to come into the church. There is no time or energy to get an annulment.”

What does that phrase, “I have just taken the pastoral route”, mean?

Daly doesn’t say, but my surmise is that Daly, though loath to admit it, simply took it upon himself to officiate at some weddings of people whom he believed were previously married, this, during the lifetime of their original spouses. If, I say if, this is what Daly means, then he (and those involved) need to know that such rites are gravely illicit (Canon 1085 § 2), possibly invalid (Canon 1085 § 1), potentially sacrilegious (Canon 1379), and would represent a repeated abuse of ecclesiastical power or function (Canon 1389). Catholics should have nothing to do with such stunts.

Back to annulments, Daly seems to be calling not for the reform of the annulment process but rather for its abandonment. For example, he writes Let divorced and remarried people make a good confession and offer sincere contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. Then let them start again.”

Umm, start again…with what? With holding oneself out as married to someone other than one’s true spouse? Is that what ‘starting over’ post-confession means? For that matter, confess what, exactly? One’s first marriage? Why? Was it a sin? Or one’s second marriage, which, however one has no intention of leaving? And what is one to be ‘sincerely contrite’ for? Getting married the first time or for (pretending to) being married the second? What a mishmash this proposal is!

Daly’s position is confusing but I think it boils down to: Divorce and remarriage is not the worst sin one can commit, and don’t make a habit of it, but, well, whatever you guys decide is fine. I for one think that would be pastorally disastrous advice to give people living in contradiction to Christ’s words on marriage. Moreover, I think that Daly’s offering such terrible advice as part of his call for reform in the annulment process only sets back the case for true reform by linking in people’s minds genuine reform with destructive approaches to marriage problems. + + +

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