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Here we go again: more bad advice for tribunals

March 12, 2014

Forgive some impatience on my part if, in responding to the umpteenth criticism of annulments and tribunals, I begin by observing that it would be nice, really nice, if for a change critics themselves would show some understanding of what annulments are and what tribunals do before chastising both. Dr Richard Fitzgibbons shows little grasp of either.

For starters, Fitzgibbons’ statistical preamble to his essay is useless. I made this case in copious detail in my article (Annulments in America) which has been available on-line for 15 years. I have no patience for someone who recycles such shallow arguments without alerting his audience to qualified rebuttals of those exact claims.

Much of Fitzgibbons’ attack—pace a single sentence near the beginning, that is what Fitzgibbons’ essay amounts to—on annulments and tribunals is phrased in wimpy words such as “too often” X happens, and “some believe” Y is the case, or Z “might have been” better addressed. Good grief, is there any field of human science where such insinuations could not be cast? For that matter, of all human sciences, is there one more susceptible to “maybe”, “perhaps”, and “if” than psychology in general and marriage counseling in particular? Why level such language only at tribunals?

I’ll tell you why: because tribunals make easy targets for left and right alike in the Church. This, in at least three ways,

First, tribunals actually publish their statistics. Thus amateurs and dilettantes can easily find some tribunal stat or another, repeat it, and sound thereby informed. But, I wonder, do psychologists publish their statistics? Do marriage counselors? And even if they did, would one be able to conclude, say, that a psychologist with a 75% success rate (however that is defined) is better than a psychologist with a 55% success rate? Of course not, for “success” is dependent on far more factors than therapist skill. So again, what makes a ‘layman’ like Fitzgibbons think he can conclude anything useful about a complex technical matter in which he claims no training and based on statistics he obviously does not appreciate?

A second factor makes tribunals easy targets: they are bound by confidentiality in their work, ironically, the same kind of confidentiality that binds psychologists and marriage counselors in theirs. Tribunals cannot defend themselves against accusations of incompetence or injustice in concrete cases. Has Fitzgibbons never been reproached by a third-party for his handling of a marriage case that, based on his privileged information and technical expertise, he was very confident he handled correctly? If not, oh happy man! But if he has suffered such slings and arrows, might I suggest he consider the possibility that tribunals, too, might be privy to information—sometimes appalling information completely unknown to any but the couple, and maybe only to one party!—which information makes the canonical outcome of the matter obvious to a few but inexplicable to almost all others?

Tribunals are prone to attacks like Fitzgibbons’ for a third reason: unlike psychologists and marriage counselors, who have the option of telling a client “I’m sorry, but your attitude requires me as a professional to discontinue services”, and who in any case need never decide whether there is before them a marriage in the first place, tribunals are required to make a black-and-white decision in cases they must accept about whether the relationship before them is a marriage as proclaimed by Christ and His Church. The “out” that counselors have (basically, “Well, I did the best I could but they chose not to work out their differences”) is not available to tribunals. Tribunals are required by law to decide cases, not just treat them if they so choose.

Which brings me to the greatest flaw in Fitzgibbons’ essay and the most common flaw in such essays, namely, a gross misunderstanding of what an annulment is and what a tribunal does. Fitzgibbons’ variant on that tired theme is to imagine tribunals as some sort of canonical counseling offices to which, for example, only people who have “at least two years of effort and hard work” should be allowed access. Fitzgibbons would bar petitioners from filing cases “until there is clear knowledge as to how this person’s emotional weaknesses and conflicts contributed to the marital stress and the divorce.” Language such as this not only evidences zero knowledge of the canon law of marriage and nullity, but perpetuates the myth that annulments are “granted” to “deserving” folks, rather than upholding the Catholic and natural-law truth that annulments are to be declared between parties who meet the requirements of law. Period. Fitzgibbons actually refers to ‘legitimate annulments’ as acts of “mercy”! Folks, this is complete nonsense! What else can I say? Tribunals must render justice, according to law as best they can, to nice people and to creeps alike.

Deep breath time. Okay.

Do I think some annulments cases were decided incorrectly? Of course I do (both affirmatively and negatively, by the way, and not just in America). Do I think the annulment process could be improved? Of course I do (at every level in the Church). But suggestions to improve the tribunal process will not be found in essays that show no understanding of what annulments even are. Indeed, given the rush to repudiate tribunals unfolding in certain corners—part of a widening crisis of Catholic confidence in the Christ’s teaching on marriage itself—such suggestions aren’t just “not helpful”, they will actually make the problem worse.

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