Canon Law Clash Alert!

My headline could have also read: “Canon Law Class Alert!” We begin over at National “Catholic” Reporter, where Fr. Peter Daly begins with this bit of snarkiness:

The pope wants to know what we think.

That in and of itself qualifies as a minor miracle. In our top-down hierarchical church, the concept of the sensus fidelium has been pretty much a dead letter since the Second Vatican Council. Usually Rome talks and we listen. But now he wants to hear from us. Thank you.

It’s hardly surprising to read this sort of thinly veiled sneering in the NCReporter. And to think that Michael Sean Winters, who does something or other for the same rag, recently chastisedFr. James Schall, SJ, for being “astonishingly condescending” because Fr. Schall, in a feature essay for this site, offered a mild—as well as cogent and learned—critique of some remarks made by Pope Francis about economics and politics. (By the way, I’ve read hundreds of Schall columns, many of which I’ve edited, and the man is never “condescending.” I’ve read dozens of Winters’ posts, and they are almost all condescending. Astonishing? No, not at all.) 

But I digress. Fr. Daly continues:

In preparation for the meeting of bishops in October, Pope Francis has asked the whole church to answer 38 questions in nine broad categories, all dealing with marriage and family life. I just want to deal with just one question: annulments.

Actually, the Holy Father asked the questions of the bishops, not of “the whole church”, as if Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones are going to receive a questionnaire from the Holy Father (or even their bishop). Even a non-Catholic news service can get that simple point right.

Here is my view: It is time for us to scrap our current annulment process and look east to see what our Orthodox brothers and sisters are doing.

There are a number of admirable things about the Eastern Orthodox that Catholics could benefit from studying and learning more about. However, the Orthodox approach to divorce and re-marriage is probably not among them. Anyhow:

It is pretty clear from the Gospels that Jesus did not approve of divorce and remarriage. He says it amounts to adultery, which is pretty strong language, especially coming from Jesus. But if we are his followers, we have to at least try to deal with his teaching. Our annulment process is an attempt to take his teaching seriously and still allow people a second (or third) chance.

The problem with the process in the Roman Catholic church is that it takes what ought to be a pastoral matter and turns it into a legal one. It is complicated, often unfair, and frequently unintelligible to the participants. Some tribunals are easy. Some are hard. It can be very capricious.

Annulments come up every year in our RCIA program. We always have several couples who are divorced and remarried and want to come to the sacraments. Often, they have been divorced and remarried for years, even decades. Sometimes their own children don’t even know about the previous marriages. Until they felt the attraction to the church, it never even occurred to them that they might need a Catholic annulment. It does not make any sense to them that they need to get a marriage annulled that may have taken place 30 years ago in a Baptist church or before a justice of the peace. All the annulment process does is put a road block in their way to entering the church.

There is a loophole for Catholics. If either party in the former marriage was a Catholic and the marriage took place in a non-Catholic ceremony, the annulment is just a matter of paperwork. It is a slam dunk that goes through in a few weeks.

Read the entire piece

Then read the response posted by canon lawyer, Dr. Ed Peters on his “In the Light of the Law” blog; here is part of it:

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.

No, they shouldn’t. But it would be astonishing, frankly, if Fr. Daly and his condescending comrades in arms would go stuntless. As Peters points out, rightly, Daly’s suggestions would lead to only more confusion, increased frustration, and an erosion of true marriage and, thus, of true faith. Come to think of it, that describes what NCReporter has been doing for decades now.


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About Carl E. Olson 1108 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.