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Does the idea of ‘compromise’ even apply to the concept of ‘annulment’?

February 17, 2014

Imprecision in speech, especially in speech concerned with law, drives me nuts. Lately, there’s been much chatter about a “compromise on annulments” or a “compromise on sacraments for the divorced and remarried”. This sort of phrasing, speaking in terms of “compromise” on these matters, is useless.

One can compromise between certain concepts such as “many” and “few” (we might settle for ‘some’), or between “fast” and “slow” (we could say ‘moderate’), or between “wealthy” and “impoverished” (we would think of ‘middle-class’). But being able to compromise between some alternatives in life does not mean that one can compromise between all alternatives in life.

There is no compromise, for example, between “moving” and “stopped”, for once one is moving at all, one is no longer stopped, one is moving. There is no compromise between being only baptized and being baptized-and-confirmed, for once a baptized person is confirmed, that one is instantly baptized-and-confirmed. And, as I said earlier, there is no compromise possible between admitting one to holy Communion and denying one holy Communion. One might abandon a given policy of admitting or withholding, I grant, but one cannot “compromise” regarding such an alternative.

So, what does this all talk about a “compromise” on annulments mean? Nothing, for annulments either exist in canon law or they don’t, and one either has a declaration of nullity, or one does not. That said, if folks want to talk about a “compromise” on the process for annulments, fine, let’s talk about it.

Alternative procedures for declaring invalid marriages null were extensively discussed in the early 1970s as part of what were called back then the “American Procedural Norms” which, despite their name, were put in place by Rome and were eventually applied to most of the world. Much of the APN made it into the 1983 Code—but some parts did not—and it will be interesting to see whether some of the discarded, process-smoothing provisions of the APN (like eliminating mandatory appeal of affirmatives) might merit reconsideration.

But there will be no “compromise” on annulments themselves, for annulments are the only way that baptized persons living in consummated, presumptively valid marriages, can be shown to have been invalidly married after all and thus free of the marriage bond which, in accord with the certain teaching of Christ, arise between such persons and lasts till the death of one spouse or the other.

Ps: One ‘compromise’ idea, that of eliminating the right of appealing marriage cases to Rome (where, granted, some marriages cases go and languish), could not be adopted without calling into question one of the most ancient privileges of all Catholics, namely, that of laying one’s case before the pope (or his delegates as the case usually is). The roots of Canon 1417.1 go very, very deep.

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