Rules Are for Schmucks: The Cruel Fiction of Annulment

One of the legitimate complaints about Pope Francis is that he talks a good game, but has actually done almost nothing in his two-and-a-half years in office to change Catholic doctrines or practices. That complaint lost a lot of validity last month, when he decreed what the Vatican calls the most radical reform in church marriage procedures in 250 years.

A “reform,” though, that just digs the church’s hole a little deeper.

You don’t have to watch too many old movies to be reminded that only a few decades ago, divorce in America was complicated, expensive, and rare. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers first starred together in The Gay Divorcee, in which Ginger hires a gigolo “co-respondent” to pretend to have an adulterous relationship with her to justify her suit for divorce (only to have Fred mistakenly turn up instead).

One of the most rational and humane changes in society in the last century was to end most of the legal nonsense surrounding divorce. There is plenty of personal anguish involved, but the government no longer piles more unnecessary pain on top of that. The civil legal process is relatively simple, with an admirable focus on two primary objectives: (1) making sure that any minor children are properly cared for, and (2) dividing property in an equitable manner. There is no doubt that courts, being comprised of and run by humans, often screw things up. But the overall framework and objectives are sound, and with the passage of time and growth of experience they will probably become even sounder.

People make mistakes. Family pressures, societal pressures, and nasty hormones combine with our natural inadequacy to make the spouse selection process rife with error. Then there are the many cases where the initial spouse selection itself can’t fairly be called a “mistake” based on everything that was known, or could have been known, at the time of marriage. But the spouses then change in different ways over time, until the point that life with each other becomes unbearable. A century ago, society’s response to that situation in all but rare cases was “too bad—you made your choice, so you’re stuck with it.” We don’t do that anymore. Now we recognize that we only get one short life to live, and there’s no point to making it more miserable than necessary.

Not the Catholic Church, though. As recently as this week, at the launch of the big Vatican synod on the family, Pope Francis was busily reiterating the church’s insistence that marriage is an “indissoluble bond.” Even Jesus didn’t go that far, at least according to the gospel of Matthew. But the church since Constantine has flatly condemned divorce and remarriage as a grave sin, always and everywhere, and no serious proposal before the current synod would change that.

Instead, the church developed a cruel fiction to provide a way out for believers—especially for rich and powerful believers—who want to leave their spouses and get on with life. The fiction is called “annulment,” and by a lawyer’s trick it preserves the “indissoluble bond” of marriage by simply deciding that the parties were never really married in the first place. Presto! They were simply living in sin all along, without realizing it.

On what grounds does the church determine that two people who think they are married were never married in the first place? Typically it decides that at least one party lacked the correct “intent” to establish a lifelong commitment. How does the church know this? The Amazing Kreskin claimed he could read the minds of the audience members seated in front of him, but I don’t think even he said he could read what was in someone’s mind at a particular moment decades ago.

The church is quite emphatic that it never annuls a marriage. It simply “confirms” that there was never any marriage in the first place, notwithstanding all the presents, photos, and tossing of rice. So anyone who doesn’t have the proper mental state while standing in front of the altar isn’t really married, even if by chance they live happily ever after. If they never have occasion to pay a learned church bureaucrat to “confirm” whether they were really married or not, I guess they won’t find out about the problem until they’re standing in front of St. Peter at the pearly gates. “Gotcha!”

One authority estimates that fully half of the Catholic marriages in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires are invalid because the persons who think they are being married don’t have the proper intent to establish a permanent relationship. Who reached this shocking conclusion? Pope Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, that’s who. St. Peter’s going to have his work cut out for him.

All this may be nutty, but does it actually hurt anybody? You bet it does. Perhaps the most notorious annulment case (well, second most notorious, after that of Henry VIII) involved the marriage of Joseph P. Kennedy II (President Kennedy’s nephew, Robert Kennedy’s son) and Sheila Rauch. They dated for nine years before getting married (so they thought) in 1979. A year after they were married, Sheila bore twin sons. But eleven years later, she filed for civil divorce, which Joseph did not contest. Her side of the story is that after he was elected to Congress and moved to Washington, DC, he changed for the worse. His side of the story is—I actually don’t know or care what his side of the story is. All that matters is that two people who had grown miserable living together were freed to move on to a second chance at happiness.

Except they weren’t. Joseph wanted to remarry three years later, without violating church law. So he sought an annulment, apparently on the usual grounds that he didn’t know what he was doing when, at the tender age of twenty-seven, he had married the woman he’d been with for nine years. With a wink and a nod, the church gave him what he wanted. Sheila erupted with fury when she was coldly informed that her twelve-year marriage had never been real, and that in the eyes of the church, that great “moral force” before whose leader statesmen bow and scrape, her sons were bastards. She vented her rage in a 1997 book called Shattered Faith. This came out right when Joseph was planning his big political leap from Congress to the governorship of Massachusetts. Public reaction to the insinuation that political influence had been used to obtain the annulment was so devastating that his leap went in the other direction altogether: he retired from politics in 1999.

In 2005, the Vatican retroactively “reversed” the annulment, eventually giving Sheila peace of mind. (It seems no one got around to telling her about it until 2007.) So what does this reversal mean for Joseph’s second marriage, which occurred (maybe) at a time when he and his bride had been assured that the first marriage was annulled?

I can’t answer that one, but I can tell you what Francis’s great “reform” is: to streamline the red tape to make these nonsensical annulments easier to get. There’s progress for you! The surge in annulments it’s likely to spark won’t affect just rich celebrities, but ordinary Catholics as well, such as those described in a thoughtful St. Louis Post-Dispatch article last year.

One more wrinkle to consider is that some apparently knowledgeable Vatican lawyers make cogent arguments that Francis lacked the proper authority to take this step. One of the reforms of Vatican II fifty years ago was that decisions like this are supposed to be made collegially by the bishops, not just dictated from the top. But Francis did it unilaterally anyway, removing part of the raison d’etre from the synod that convened this week precisely for the purpose of considering issues like proper annulment procedures.

Could he have gone further and announced a sweeping acceptance of normal modern divorce? In some ways, that might have been easier to justify under church law than what he actually did. The church still maintains the position of the first Vatican Council in 1870 that the pope is infallible on matters of faith and morals. Very few matters fall within the “faith and morals” pigeonhole, and certainly the bureaucratic procedures for granting annulments do not. But suppose the pope had announced: “I’ve sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and I’ve studied, and I know that the church has made important reversals in the past, such as switching from support to condemnation of slavery. And torture. Therefore I have now concluded that it is not immoral or sinful for two people to end a marriage by divorce.” That would seem to qualify as a “faith and morals” call he could have made by himself without violating the reforms of Vatican II.

But he didn’t. All he did was pave the way for more Kennedy-Rauch debacles in the future. This from the guy who flew across the Atlantic last month to brag: “We do not serve ideas. We serve people.”