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.