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   /   2012 Issues   /   September Issue   /   Helping the divorced prepare for annulment

Rose Sweet


Helping the divorced prepare for annulment

On a late autumn afternoon, I was in my kitchen baking my annual Christmas fruitcake so it would be ready to serve to my guests during the holidays. After cooling, the cake is tightly covered and goes into the fridge where it soaks in plenty of aged Kentucky bourbon. You must wait for four weeks before serving — it's an advent of sorts.

As I took the cake out of the oven, a Catholic radio talk show was playing in the background, and I heard the plaintive voice of a caller, a young woman in tears, telling the radio host, "I joined the Catholic Church to help make my marriage stronger. Now I can't believe it! It's the church that is tearing my marriage apart!"

My ears perked up and I put the oven mitts down.

I've frequently heard this type of complaint in my 20-year ministry to separated and divorced Catholics. Most people are confused and angry at what they think the church teaches about love, sex, marriage, and divorce. What is it this time, I wondered. I kept listening as the woman shared her frustration. She'd been married five years to a baptized Catholic and they'd married outside the church. Eventually the couple figured if she converted it would help deepen their relationship.

"I went to RCIA and was received into the Church last Easter," she continued, holding back the tears. "I was so happy. I love the church and I love being Catholic! But my husband had a prior marriage, and no one told us we had to get an annulment. We thought we could get our marriage blessed, but now the Monsignor told me we have to live as brother and sister. No more marital relations? I'm confused. My husband is so angry at the church he's stopped going to Mass. No one explained anything! I thought becoming Catholic would help my marriage — now it's worse than ever. What should I do?"

My heart went out to her because I know she's not alone. Do you realize how many hundreds of thousands of people have left (and still leave) the church because of unresolved marriage issues? Out of the thousands of Catholic parishes in this country, only a few have a well-trained person on staff who understands church teaching, can explain it clearly, and will make sure couples like these are not abandoned — or blindly pushed through the process like this woman was.

One parish worker confided to me that converts who have prior marriages go through the rite of Christian initiation every year, and the annulment issue is ignored. "It takes too much time, no one wants to fill out the lengthy and invasive paperwork, it makes the people upset, and no one wants them leaving the church. So Father privately tells them they don't need an annulment and he blesses them and they go on as if there never was a prior marriage. We have an implied 'no couple left behind' policy here! But I'm worried what will happen when Father leaves and a new priest comes in or someone else finds out and reports it to the bishop."

That very thing happened to a woman I met at one of my divorce recovery groups. She had been faithfully serving as an extraordinary minister taking communion to the sick until someone found out she'd been married before her current marriage and did not have an annulment. She was abruptly told by formerly friendly parish leaders that she could no longer serve in that ministry. Her feelings were hurt, she was confused, and until she met me at the weekend event, she felt she had no one to turn to for help.

That's just not right.

Social justice demands that we feed the hungry no questions asked, but what about the divorced who are starving for the truth? They're often deeply ashamed or assume that others at church who reject them do so rightly. They're frequently left hanging, told they are not wanted, or treated as children who can't possibly understand church teaching or live up to the call to holiness we all share. It's time to deal more effectively with this silent church crisis.

Here I offer some communication techniques that will help you transmit truth in a loving, patient, and profound way and some practical tips for helping the divorced in your parish understand annulment.

Educate yourself on the truth about marriage, divorce, and annulments

Sure, a degree in canon law would be nice, but you don't need it to help the separated and divorced. May I suggest Understanding and Petitioning for Your Decree of Nullity (St. Benedict Press, 2012), which I wrote from my pastoral experience as a lay advocate. This easy read is for average laypeople who have no interest in canon law and could not care less about how to spell "magisterium." It is for readers who want to be Catholic and receive all of the graces that Christ offers through the sacraments. They don't want church talk — but they do want the truth. This book offers just that. Ask people to read it before they consider the annulment process. Become their "advocate" and talk to them about any questions they have.

Change your language

Don't refer to someone's marriage as being valid or invalid. The divorced person often resents being told that his or her union (and all that came with it) was not valid, and that can shut the person down to receiving the truth you have to offer. Instead, generously affirm that he or she did, indeed, have a valid civil marriage, valid years together, valid children born of that marriage. In fact, the church does not declare a marriage invalid; with sufficient evidence it can only declare that no valid marriage bond was created at the wedding. Words matter.

Focus on consent

Explain that the church is looking for a valid bond that was or was not created when the couple said "I do" (consent). This invisible bond is the mirror, in a sense, of how Jesus loves his bride, the church, and is only formed when both people had the intent (I really want to) and the ability (I really can) to love each other as Christ loves. If one of these two factors is missing in one or both people, despite their affection, hopes, and dreams, maybe that bond never formed.

Learn how to explain annulment as simply as possible

Jesus imparted deep theological truths through parables — and so can we. I've successfully borrowed from Blessed John Paul II's Theology of the Body to explain marriage and annulment with four descriptions of the kind of love that must be present for a valid marriage bond. (For a summary of the pope's general audiences on these topics, see These descriptions are the basis for the church's wedding vows; because a "decree of nullity" (an annulment) states that something was defective from the get-go, the grounds (impediments) for annulment also fall into these four categories.

1. Jesus's love for his Bride is free of fear, agendas, and manipulation. A valid marriage bond is created when both people are physically, mentally, and emotionally mature enough and free to enter into marriage. If they are otherwise impaired, addicted, gravely fearful, coerced, or have selfish or deceitful agendas, a valid bond may not have been created.

2. Jesus's love for his Bride is full for all of life, in every way; nothing is held back. A valid bond is created when both intend to and are able to give completely to each other. If there is an open door for divorce or a withholding of anything important, then a valid bond may not have been created.

3. Jesus's love for his Bride is faithful; it never subjects her to any harm. Infidelity is not just sexual; it can be any way that a spouse intends to or permits injustice to befall the beloved. No valid bond is created when at least one spouse willfully chooses to allow this in marriage.

4. Jesus's love for his Bride is fruitful; he fills her with life and love. Spouses who willfully and permanently intend to be closed to the gift of children can't image the same open, trusting, and fruitful relationship between Jesus and his bride. Such a refusal, no matter the reason, mars the mirror image of the divine marriage. Spouses who close themselves off from each other in this way may be depriving each other of a valid marriage bond.

Use analogies and debunk the myths

The same way Jesus offered analogies, you can offer simple examples as ways to begin to understand what the church looks for in her investigation.

Explain the overall process

Just as attorneys must dig for the fullness of truth in a civil case, so too does the church need to dig deeply for the truth of what was happening in the minds and hearts of the couple up to and on their wedding day. Because marriage is both a private and public matter, the church requires good witnesses as well.

Explain an "impediment" to valid consent

The wealthy groom who insists that his bride sign a pre-nup so he can protect his financial assets in the event of a future divorce has not said "I do" at the altar. He has said "I hope, but if we divorce, I do not." That's not the way Jesus loves us, so no valid marriage bond can be formed.

Debunk the myths

  • If a marriage is annulled, the children of the marriage do not become illegitimate. That word came from civil property laws in the Middle Ages to protect inheritance rights. To the church, no child is illegitimate.
  • Having a long marriage does not mean you can't get an annulment. Some people stay for decades in terribly abusive situations out of fear. The annulment process looks primarily at what was happening in the couple's minds and hearts before, on, and just after the wedding day.
  • Annulment doesn't cost an arm and a leg. No one is turned away if they can't pay the nominal cost ($200 to $400 average in the United States) to cover clerical services.
  • Annulment doesn't take forever. The average time in the United States is one to two years — mostly because of slow response from witnesses.
  • You don't become excommunicated, and you can still receive communion if you're in the state of grace. Only those who remarry civilly without getting an annulment put themselves outside of "full communion" with the church. They are still Catholic, but until they can rectify their situation, they're asked to refrain from communion because reception of the Eucharist professes communion with the church and her teachings, which has been broken.

Honor protests

If people protest that your examples do not apply to them because they know they had a valid marriage (something I hear frequently), assure them gently that they may be right. However, try this analogy: A person may feel perfectly well but still have an illness and not know it. We don't know for sure until we seek the professional expertise of well-trained doctors and then trust their wisdom when they deliver the news. The annulment process is the same. Suggest there may be something new for them to learn that is actually a blessing, and ask them to trust the Divine Physician and his team (the church).

Help people wait

Advent perfectly illustrates the waiting that some divorced people will have to endure as they attempt to obtain a decree of nullity. Just as the Israelites waited in hope for thousands of years for the coming of the Messiah, and just as every child waits anxiously each year for Christmas morning, Catholic Christians wait in hope and preparation for the arrival of Love in the flesh. Likewise, those whose marriage is being assessed for the possibility of annulment will do lots of waiting. Wait with them and remind them that they are not alone.

I was civilly divorced (with church annulment) and single for nearly 15 years when I met my high school sweetheart at our 40-year reunion. Sparks still flew, and we spent time becoming reacquainted. He'd been married and civilly divorced, but — like so many Catholics — he'd never considered annulment. He admitted he'd had no interest in it and said his pastor had never explained it or even mentioned it to him. I began to explain in clear, simple analogies the truths that our church teaches about marriage. He got it. He had more than one cause for an invalid bond, and he decided he wanted the full package of graces that came with a valid marriage — with me. He agreed to go to his pastor to begin the process. And then we waited.

Call the divorced to a higher place of holiness

The divorced don't need to be placated. They need the truth, whatever that may be. They need to see and hear the hope they have for authentic happiness, which we as ministers know can only come from holiness. How we see ourselves as men and women — how we understand the gift of our sexuality and where it brings the greatest happiness, security, and joy — are vital.

Whether they know it or not, divorced people crave the divine life and love that only Christ can fully satisfy. Not only does he come to us at Christmas, but he continually sends us his Holy Spirit, who like that aged Kentucky bourbon will soak our lives in his truth and intoxicate us with his love. God has asked us to help him serve up the fullness of his truth to anyone who's hungry for it — including, and maybe most especially, the divorced. ML

Rose Sweet is an author, a speaker, and a frequent guest on Catholic radio and television. Her work on divorce, annulment, and remarriage includes The Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide, a powerful 12-show DVD series featuring other Catholic family experts. Her passion is to help the divorced find the Love that never fails. She can be reached at