Annulment Reform and Pastoral Challenges for Struggling Couples

While recent reforms to the annulment process may be a blessing for some, other struggling couples may find them an additional source of anxiety.

Could the annulment reforms promulgated by Pope Francis last month cause “crises of conscience” among some Catholic couples who are struggling in their marriages?

It’s a possibility, says canon lawyer Edward Peters. Shortly after the publication of the motu proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which outlined changes to the Catholic Church’s annulment process, Peters wrote on his blog “In the Light of the Law” that he is concerned about the impact of the motu proprio on what he calls “sort-of-happily married couples”—that is, those who are “more prone to self-doubts, worries, anxieties, or suspicions than are ‘happily-married’ couples.”

“I fear that some of these struggling couples, knowing their marriage would be eligible for expedited nullity processing (given the presence of one or more of the factors listed in Mitis) might yield to attitudes and actions that can, over time, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, lead to despair for their marriage,” Peters wrote.

In another post, Peters lists several factors that might qualify an annulment petition to be heard in the new fast-track process, including: the lack of faith that results in simulation of consent, brevity of married life, abortion procured to prevent procreation, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair at the time of or just after the wedding, entering marriage for reasons completely foreign to married life, and unplanned pregnancy.

If a “sort-of-happily” couple has one or more of these factors in their background, they could begin to worry that perhaps their marriage is null, says Peters. He also says he has already heard from people concerned about the validity of their marriages in light of the annulment reforms.

Catholic author and speaker Rose Sweet said couples or individuals who are struggling and have doubts about their marriages because of the motu proprio should “Fear not, and trust the Lord.”

Sweet says she hopes bishops will head off these kinds of worries at the pass, writing letters to be read at every Mass within their dioceses and making sure diocesan websites have accurate information. 

“I hope the bishops will talk about the power of grace,” she said. “[Letters on the new processes] need to be written in a pastoral way, anticipating people’s fears, and helping to address them.”

Father Michael Orsi, who has served as the Director of Family Life and on the marriage tribunal for the Diocese of Camden, said that education is the best way to assuage people’s concerns.

“The first thing that needs to be done is that pastors have to begin to talk about the motu proprio. It’s a clear change in procedure, not a change in substance,” said Orsi. “The indissolubility of marriage has not changed. The pope couldn’t change that. The pope has the right to make procedural changes as he sees fit.”

“Pastors have to preach on this,” Orsi said. “The media is confusing people. I’m not saying the media has nefarious motives, they just don’t know.”

One way to reassure struggling couples, according to Orsi, is for pastors to regularly preach from the pulpit about what the criteria for a valid marriage are: openness to children; a commitment to life-long fidelity; and no outside coercion.

Father Thomas Joseph White, who teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, and who has written about the nature of sacramental marriage, said he would tell struggling couples, “First of all, take heart: every marriage has moments that are very difficult. Every life and every vocation involves periods of difficulty. We all live in a fallen world, from which we cannot escape simply by changing families or forfeiting our commitments. In fact, in doing so, we might just augment our suffering.”

He added, “[M]eanwhile, the grace of Christ is given to us, too, in the midst of this fallen world. It is a grace that is spiritually fruitful, even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Christ gives us to live the mystery of his cross in a way that unites us more deeply with him. Even in situations that are especially tragic, such as when spousal abandonment occurs, God does not abandon the person who has received the sacrament of marriage. If we are faithful to him, he continues to offer his grace to us, to make use even of that situation to grow closer to Christ. In any marriage it is entirely normal to have to practice great spiritual patience at many moments. But if one does this with God, there is a deepening of our character and of our relationship with God and others. This is a key part of what it means to speak about marriage as a vocation to holiness.”

Father Orsi does see potential for abuse in the new annulment procedure. “Judicial vicars and bishops in their attempts to be merciful could apply loose standards,” said Orsi. “I received a call just the other day from a priest in a diocese who told me the judicial vicar there believes that, [according to] the motu proprio, as long as two people agree there is an annulment, then there should be. I’m sure someone has talked to him by now, and I’m sure that is rare.”

Father White said he sees two sets of controversies raised by the motu proprio. “One is about changes in the procedure that make it more expeditious: the removal of a second instance of judgment and the possibility of a 45-day maximum for decisions regarding special cases. Some worry this will lead to widespread laxism. It is too soon to say this is true, but given some precedents in the American Church, that is a reasonable fear,” he said.

“The second is about the way the document frames ‘marital consent’ by naming various grounds for fast-track annulments. This section of the document is probably going to require eventual clarification. Some of the things on the list are likely signs of a defective consent. Others might not be. A couple that separates soon after their marriage has no grounds for annulment simply by that fact alone. That may be a sign of defective consent, but it is not a sufficient reason to deny that consent occurred. This is one of the reasons you usually need an investigation to take place.”

Father White added that struggling couples should not worry about the new motu proprio, because the benefit of the doubt is given to marriage.  “Couples who are struggling should ordinarily have no doubt about the validity of their marriages. The law presupposes validity unless there is a grave reason to think otherwise. And normally the grounds for validity are pretty straightforward: did the couple mutually intend exclusive and life-long fidelity, with openness to having children, and without distinctive prejudice to the Catholic faith? If so, we should presume fidelity. The ‘fast track’ items on the list in the new motu proprio are mostly merely possible signs that consent was lacking, not demonstrable evidence of it.”

If an individual is struggling with worries over the validity of his or her marriage, this could be a sign to turn to a good Catholic therapist, according to Sweet. “There are a lot of unhappy marriages, because there are a lot of unhappy people,” she said. “We sometimes need to get back to working on ourselves, instead of working on our spouse.”

“If a woman is married to a chronic abuser, I might hesitate to tell the woman that, because she’s probably going to tell me to go to hell. I would first encourage her to bring her needs and desires to the Lord.  I’d ask her, ‘Who can totally satisfy you? Maybe your husband never will. Turn to the Lord, talk to a wise and holy priest, get help where you need it, and know we are praying for you.’”

She said local churches need to be field hospitals for those who are struggling, to listen to people’s problems without judging, while praying for them and encouraging them in their marriages.

“In a field hospital, we treat certain wounds, but it doesn’t mean amputation,” she said. “The medics do everything possible to avoid amputation. We can translate that to divorce.” 

She suggested that married couples who have been through hard times and struggles be tapped as witnesses to marriage in order to encourage others. “Wherever people are, let’s go there and encourage them,” she said. “You don’t have to get divorced … Our culture grooms us to expect perfection. If we don’t get our steak cooked just right, we send it back. Happiness is not always in perfection.”

Standards of perfection can also be problematic when it comes to how we present the beauty of marriage to the world. While it is important to educate the faithful about what marriage entails, it is also important not to portray marriage as something almost impossible to live out.

“We have to be careful about a Jansenist notion of marriage that sees natural marriage as increasingly impossible, something reserved to a Christian elite,” Father White said. “The natural human desire to marry, which is something both spiritual and physical, is pretty vehemently inscribed in human beings. So in fact it is going to be a part of every future society, and truth be told, the heterosexual family is the basis of civil society.”

“Currently it is pretty much only the Catholic Church and the orthodox Jewish community who retain a more traditional concept of marriage publicly,” Father White said. “That is not a source of embarrassment. That is an opportunity. While the Church may be viewed as politically incorrect, the truth is that she is offering human beings today a realistic notion of what marriage really is, and what they should aspire to in their married lives: familial commitment, the happiness of having children, and a pathway of sanctification in union with God. That is the truth, and only the truth receives grace. So that is the vision of the family that will endure in the long run.”

About Leslie Fain 16 Articles
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons.