The Pope has said some rather radical things in the past few months: the most obvious was his interview with a German journalist, in which he essentially revised the Vatican’s stance on contraception (and then tried, in a fit of backpedaling, to revise his revision), but in a recent speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal that decides marriage annulments, he reiterated a somewhat problematic position.
“No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony,” he said. He went on to say that priests had a responsibility to make sure that the bride and groom intend to celebrate and live their lives together “truthfully and authentically.”
The comments seemed directed at the United States, which in 2006 had more annulments than the rest of the world combined. It’s important to note that annulments are different than divorces in that the church effectively declares that the marriage never happened. Divorce is obviously forbidden within the Catholic Church, which sees marriage as indissoluble, so annulment is one of the only recourses for such couples.
Annulments are sometimes granted because the Catholics in question were considered at the time of their marriage to be too immature to grasp what marriage really meant. Canon 1095 of the Code of Canon Law gives “grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning essential matrimonial rights and duties” as a reason for which a person would be “incapable of contracting marriage.”
Some have suggested that the high rate of annulments in the United States actually signals a higher level of Catholic piety than in other parts of the world. “In Europe, they just get a divorce, get remarried and stop going to church,” explained Jaqui Rapp, the co-author of Annulment: 100 Questions and Answers for Catholics. “And, in fact, most baptized Catholics don’t go at all. They are secularized.”
Last year, in the same annual speech, the pope told priests not to confuse “pastoral charity” with the need to uphold church law. He told them that they have a responsibility to discern whether spouses are ready to enter into a marriage.
This, however, seems profoundly off-base. I dislike the whole idea of annulments, although this is because I don’t see marriage as fundamentally indissoluble and would rather acknowledge that the commitment had been made than pretending it never happened. Statements like these indicate the extent to which the church does not seem to trust its adherents; how on earth can a priest determine what makes a lasting marriage, even for two practicing Catholics? And should these people be required to surrender their own judgment about a fundamental life decision to this figure of religious authority? And of course, there are the implications inherent in declaring that marriage is not a right – even for heterosexual couples.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.