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Inside the Painful, Messy World of Annulments

Cadaver Synod painting

Public Domain

William Van Ornum - published on 04/25/14

A psychologist with 25 years of experience working in the annulment process explains why it can be so hard.

A mysterious phone call between the Vatican and South America has resounded around the world. Does Pope Francis’ response to a divorced woman indicate that he is open to changing the marriage annulment process? Some speculate that even the most devoted bishops and cardinals would opt for this to happen should the Pope bring it up. But none of us really know what the future holds, do we?

I would like to add some of my first-hand experiences as a psychologist who has been involved in the annulment process with four dioceses for over more than 25 years. I have interviewed over 1500 persons seeking annulments and have participated in actual tribunal interviews where the Tribunal Judge is also present. I am credentialed as a Peritus (Psychological Expert)  and I’m allowed to offer expert testimony to the Supreme Court of the Catholic Church – the Roman Rota.

Most of what I read about annulments in the press is negative – very negative. I think I am aware of and understand many of the arguments concerning the harmfulness of the annulment process to those seeking annulments in the Church at large. Here are some of these: rich people can purchase annulments; influential people can purchase annulments; both of these can have their annulments done more quickly; the annulment process is extremely expensive; the annulment process is traumatic when petitioners must recount extremely personal experiences; annulments take an incredibly long time, sometimes up to two years; there seems to be hypocrisy because many divorced people who are remarried simply go to communion and don’t apply for an annulment.

My own understanding of the theology of marriage runs like this: marriage is an incredibly sacred and serious endeavor, it is a pact that two people make and a pledge that they will be together through sickness and health until death do them part. All of this follows the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels that marriage is indissoluble.

Historically, for hundreds of years there have been different grounds for annulments. The basic idea is that a valid marriage never took place, or that one of the persons was incapable for maintaining a valid marriage. (This is a way to still acknowledge Christ’s injunction while at the same time affirming that some marriages are so flawed that they really never were marriages. Very creative, and as some might add, laden with casuistry!) Reasons for annulments in the distant past included kidnapping and forced marriage; serious lies about important things such as finances or health; even impotence which was not known about when the marriage took place.

During World War II many young people married before one of them was sent to fight in the war. This happened in many different countries.  When the war was over and they began to live together, many discovered that they really had no idea of the person whom they had married and that it was a decision made under great pressure because of the war. Being being part of the “greatest generation” meant that they would stick things out despite all these problems.

During the 1960s there was a re-imagining of many theological issues. Many of the wartime marriages had led to divorce and many people were seeking to re-enter the sacraments. One of the rather vague (at the time) canon law reasons for an annulment was called “psychological grounds.” This required an extremely intensive interview by a psychologist or psychiatrist which would conclude that the person asking for the annulment did not have the psychological capacity to enter into a valid marriage or to maintain this marriage. The way canon law was written, and the manner in which mental health professionals conceived psychological problems, combined to make getting an annulment extremely difficult.

In 1978 a young priest (with whom I have worked and admire greatly) wrote his doctoral dissertation, in Rome, on a way to link Canon Law with the new psychiatric classification book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III (DSM III).  This new psychiatric manual offered over 200 different diagnoses as opposed to the 50 or 60 that were in the previous manual. Some of these diagnoses would obviously show that a person did not have the requisite freedom of the will to enter into a valid marriage or to maintain a truly loving and Christian marriage. The 1983 version of Canon Law solidified this in greater detail.

Here were some psychological conditions that could now be classified and that would meet the Church’s criteria that a valid marriage never existed: growing up in an extremely troubled family where there were no role models of a loving and caring marriage; being the kind of dependent person who could not function without being in a relationship which made this person latch onto just about anyone; severely naïve or immature people who could not adequately discern that the person they were going to marry was an alcoholic, or an abuser; or someone who was extremely selfish. (The psychologists call this narcissism.)

From  the 1980s, until a few years into the new century, this way of linking canon law with psychiatric diagnoses concerning annulments brought many people back into the Church. In the last 10 years there seem to be fewer annulments. There is speculation about why this is occurring, but no real answer.

Applying for an annulment involves a great deal of paperwork and bureaucracy. This obviously makes things occur very slowly. I have never seen a person turned away from an annulment because of financial hardship. In these cases the diocese has absorbed the cost – and there is a great deal of clerical and secretarial labor involved here so that things cost more than they might appear to someone not aware of the entire process.

The two most integral parts of the annulment process are the statement made by the petitioner and the interview by the mental health expert. The way the petitioner’s statement occurs varies according to diocese. In the situations I was involved with, the petitioner was encouraged to write a lengthy and journal-like report on their upbringing, personality of everyone in the family, dating history, what the attraction was to their ex-spouse, what the wedding day was like, and then details about what happened in the marriage.

Most articles I have seen in both the popular and the Catholic press describe this as being extremely intrusive and even traumatic to people going through it. Yes, this can be the case and no doubt it occurs more often than any caring person would like. Yet, I observed many persons who embraced this assignment, took it very seriously, discovered blind spots in their personality, and obtained insights which would make them much better prepared to find an appropriate marital partner and to keep a truly loving and Catholic marriage going.

The psychological interview can be extremely upsetting for many people and many simply don’t apply for an annulment because of this requirement. When people contacted me to set up an appointment, I always tried to let them know I would do everything I could to not intrude while at the same time getting the information that would allow the Church to decide if their marriage was invalid.

I believe that many people found this process helpful. Yet at the same time the intrusiveness of the process can cause many emotional pain. Some people even leave the church because the whole process does not make sense to them. How many people have been psychologically hurt because of the annulment process? In the words of Rudy Giuliani, when he was describing another event, the answer is “more than we can bear.”

The vast majority of priests with whom I worked  were among the brightest in the priesthood as well as being extremely compassionate. They had sought out complicated master’s and doctoral degrees that could only be granted by Pontifical universities. These degrees allow them to sort out the complexities of canon law so that people could receive an annulment. While some of these priests were assigned to do this, others sought it out on their own because they simply wanted to help people come back to the Church.

During the 1990s I used to visit John Cardinal O’Connor to talk about different topics related to psychology and developmental disabilities. Cardinal O’Connor was extremely interested in these topics because he himself had a master’s degree in psychology. After one meeting, when I was thinking about another criticism of annulments – that they are given out too freely – I asked Cardinal O’Connor what he thought. He responded by saying that  the Church needed  to provide any and all resources to a divorced person that would help them to free themselves to go back to the sacraments. I took this to be a very liberal and affirming outlook. Cardinal O’Connor is greatly missed.

I remember one priest involved in annulments – if I can ever figure out how to do this I will nominate him to be a saint. His name was Fr. Bill Murphy and he was a Franciscan friar of the atonement. His ministry, supported by his religious order, was to work with the Separated, Divorced, and Remarried (SDRC) groups  which were fairly common in the Church at the time. He taught himself canon law and offered his services freely and fully to help people complete their annulment statements and see the psychologist. He served as their advocate through the entire process. I suspect that he helped bring hundreds if not more people back into the Church as well as closer to God.

The annulment process is not a sacrament. It has no basis either in the Old Testament or the New Testament. I would like to think that there are other ways to follow Christ’s injunction about the sacredness of marriage while at the same time acknowledging that it is simply humanly impossible for lasting marriages to occur because of many different factors related to human frailty. In other words, there’s got to be a better way.

Interestingly, the writings of Pope John Paul II offer some affirmation of the psychological approach. This great Pope noted many times the deleterious effect of modern culture on personality development, particularly in Western countries. This obviously affects personal freedom, attenuating it or even making it disappear – another important concern of this Pope. Here I see the psychological grounds and Pope John Paul II to saying similar if not the same thing. Yet John Paul II also wrote a letter reminding canon lawyers to make sure all canon law regulations were followed scrupulously. The topic of annulments obviously creates ambivalence, even for popes.

How will the Church balance the need to affirm Christ’s command concerning the indissolubility marriage while at the same time preventing what may truly (and tragically) be called “collateral damage” or “friendly fire.” The Hippocratic oath may be relevant here: Do No Harm. (This should be a requirement for any Church procedure, yes?) The solution to this quandary is above my pay grade but I hope Pope Francis in a collegial manner can figure out a better procedure and move it expeditiously through the many bureaucratic hurdles that must be faced.

William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

CatholicismMarriageSacramentsSynod on the Family
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