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Inside the Painful, Messy World of Annulments

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William Van Ornum - published on 04/25/14

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.”

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CatholicismMarriageSacramentsSynod on the Family

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