Bad Parenting: Why The Ban Against Communion for Divorced and Remarried Catholics Is Unjust and 3 Ways to Fix It.



In all the debate about what should be done to help those Catholics who have divorced and remarried without the benefit of an annulment, there is one solution I have not heard debated.

Let’s Be Honest… 

I agree that it is seriously problematic to allow those who have remarried without the benefit of an annulment to receive communion for the reasons I have mentioned elsewhere.   But let’s face it, Did the vast majority of people who are on this path choose it knowingly and consciously?  Did the vast majority of people who were struggling with the pain of divorce really one day say, “Screw it.  I am going to choose to live an adulterous life in an invalid second marriage.  I don’t care if it means that I can’t take communion again!  BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Of course not.

Bad Parenting

Most people who find themselves on this path got there because of poor formation, terrible catechesis, and simple ignorance about how the Church really thinks about marriage, why it thinks that way, and the practical significance of all this high-level thinking to their actual daily lives as Christians.  Is it really just to hold them accountable for failing to live out principles that were never communicated to them–or at least were never communicated adequately to them–in the first place?  To bar these couples from communion is a bit like a neglectful parent refusing to communicate the house rules to her children only to impose a consequences after the fact.  “You shouldn’t have been playing ball in the house.  You’re grounded for two weeks and you lose your ball!”  “But mom! You never told me I couldn’t play in the house!”  “Tough.  You should have known better.”

Such lousy parenting is unbecoming of any parent, including our Spiritual Mother, the Church.  I think many of the Synod Fathers intuit this, and their sense of guilt around the poor catechesis and formation they have given the faithful drives a desire to be lenient on the back end of the process to make up for the Church’s failures to communicate on the front end of the process.  But this too is terrible parenting.  It’s the equivalent of telling a child, “Well, you shouldn’t have been playing in the house but I never told you that so I can’t give you a consequence for it.  For that matter, I can never  ask you to refrain from playing in the house in the future.”

So what can be done?

(Spiritual) Parent Effectiveness Training

To return to our parenting analogy, in the above example, the only just solution is for the parent to go to the misbehaving child and say, “Listen, I am truly sorry for not having told you what my expectations are.  Because of that, I can’t punish you for breaking the window by playing ball in the house.  In fact, I am going to clean up this mess with you.  But moving forward, I promise to do a much better job telling you what my expectations are and why.  In return,  you will need to do a really good job of listening so that if you mess up again, you’ll understand what the consequences are all about.”

In this scenario, 95% of the responsibility falls to the parent to apologize for his or her neglect, map out a plan for the future and communicate that plan along with any future consequences that might need to be imposed to maintain a peaceful and orderly home.

What does this mean to the Church’s approach to divorced and remarried persons.  I would suggest the following.

3 Steps to Bringing Our Children Home.

1.  Share Responsibility for Cleaning Up the Mess.  Allow fast-track annulments on the (newly developed) grounds of poor catechesis/inadequate formation. A valid marriage requires consent but you can’t give full consent if you don’t know what you’re consenting to.  If a couple could demonstrate that they really were not taught by their pastors, catechists, or parents how to practically understand and live the Catholic vision of love, sex and marriage and/or they had no intention of living this Catholic difference in their own marriage then they should be granted a speedy annulment of their first marriage.   Pope Benedict XVI recommended something similar to this.  Frankly, while I am not a canonist (and at the risk of irritating those who are) I imagine that this could potentially be handled similarly to “lack of form” annulments (e.g., when a Catholic gets married in a non-Catholic church without permission f the bishop) which are typically the easiest and fastest annulments to grant. All the couple would have to do is fill out a form that describes their understanding of marriage at the time of their first wedding.  It would be pretty easy to assess their capacity to live what the Church means by marriage.  Validity wouldn’t necessarily require some theologically developed answer on the part of couples.   Something along the lines of “I understood that God chose this person for me so that we could help each other be better Christians and help each other get to heaven.”  would be sufficient to establish an ability to consent to the Church’s vision of marriage.

Following this, they would need to go through a marriage catechumenate (see #3 below) in order to have their second marriage convalidated.

As far as communion goes, to maintain both the integrity of the sacrament and to be as generous as possible to couples who were in this process, bishops could grant permission to couples to be admitted to communion even before the annulment process was complete based upon their own assessment and/or the pastor’s recommendation of the sincerity of the couple and the veracity  and validity of their response to the initial assessment.  The determination by a bishop or designated pastor of a “founded hope” that the annulment would be granted  would be sufficient grounds for readmission to communion.    This places the responsibility on the Church to move the process along instead of making the faithful responsible for delays in the juridical process.

2.  Formators Called to Penance.  The fact that so many couples are completely ignorant of the Catholic vision of marriage and would not be able to articulate the basic statement I wrote above is–quite simply–the fault of our spiritual “parents”: our bishops, pastors, catechists, and family life ministers.  The church should ask all people who are responsible for marriage preparation to do  penance for failing the faithful.  They should be asked to fast and engage in other mortifications in order to make reparations for their dereliction of duty and to remind themselves that they must do better in the future.  Their penance would be an act of generosity to married couples, a display of authentic mercy, and it would communicate a commitment to do a better job forming the next generation of Catholic families.  Most importantly, it would place the responsibility for the current mess squarely where it belongs.  Not on the poorly formed faithful, but the failed formators.

3.  Initiate Marriage Catechumenate.  Marriage prep as we know it should be scrapped and replaced with a marriage catechumenate.  This is one of the best ideas I have heard coming out of the synod. NCRegister explains this idea here but the short version is that a marriage catechumenate is a longer period of preparation that emphasizes the role of marriage in living a Christian life.  This would be a HUGE gift to couples and would contribute mightily to challenging the divorce culture in and outside of the Church. It would also go a long way to helping to form “intentional disciples” that is, adults who understood how to bring their faith into their homes and out into the world so that God could both open their hearts to his grace and enable Catholic couples to be an effective witness in the world.

I don’t pretend to have the final and/or best answer to the serious challenges the Synod Fathers are facing.  But I believe that the above represents a more authentic approach to merciful pastoral care than is being presented by some of the more progressive elements in the Synod.

In the meantime, if you would like to undergo your own marriage catechumenate and learn what it takes to fully and joyfully live the Catholic difference in your marriage, check out the all new, revised and expanded edition of For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage, Just Married: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage, and Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.


OUTRAGE! Divorce, Remarriage and Getting Kicked Out of the Catholic Hospital.



I had a conversation with a reporter yesterday from a prominent newspaper about the ongoing Synod on the Family.  We had a great discussion and I appreciated her time.  In particular, we talked a lot about people who felt alienated from the Church (and those who are divorced and remarried in particular).  The conversation left me in a thoughtful mood. In particular, I was left reflecting on the question, “Why, exactly, do so many people feel excluded by the Church–especially those who are divorced and remarried–and what can we do about it?”

Missing the Mission.

People’s anger at the Church is real and deserves to be met with respect and compassion.  At the same time, it appears to me that a lot of the anger and pain is caused by confusion about what Church is and what it’s meant to do.  In order to appropriately address people’s hurt, I think we, as Church, need to do a better job of communicating our mission.  What does that mean?

The Church as Hospital

Pope Francis noted that the Church is a hospital.  That sounds very affirming and it is. But what people forget is that you only need to go to the hospital if you’re sick.  At the point when you think you’re healthy, you either don’t need the hospital or you have to leave it.

The problem–in our metaphor of Church as hospital–is that, these days, a lot of people come to the hospital because they think it is a nice building with a lot of interesting equipment in it and they want to explore the various rooms. Eventually, they bump into a doctor. Mistaking them for a patient, he asks what’s wrong with them.  They become offended and exclaim,  “How dare you say there is something wrong with me?!?”  The doctor stares at the erstwhile patient and, in all innocence, says, “Well then, if you aren’t sick, then what are you doing here? You’re not just trespassing are you?”  And the person screams, “How dare you try to exclude me!”

What’s Your Diagnosis?

The Church is far from perfect, but too often people who assert that they are alienated from the Church feel that way primarily because the Church necessarily insists that to be a member you have to be willing to admit that you (1) are spiritually sick, (2) that you need a diagnosis (i.e., “sinner”),  and (3) that you must be willing to participate in the treatment.  If you aren’t willing to do those things, you really have no business taking beds and food away from the patients who are lining up in the hall waiting to be admitted.  If you’re really so healthy, what are you doing playing with the IV’s?  Go, live your life! Be happy!

It isn’t that people’s anger at the Church isn’t real and doesn’t deserve to be respected, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Church is really only for people who are willing to see it as the place where they get diagnosed and treated for the spiritual diseases that are preventing them from receiving the gift of eternal life.

Marriage:  Here’s Your Sign…

As I mentioned above, much of my conversation with the reporter focused, specifically, on the fact that Catholics who have remarried after divorce feel excluded from the Church.  This is a profoundly sad and painful reality.  But to understand why these couples are not admitted to communion, you need to understand that the Church thinks of marriage differently than the world does.  While the Church certainly values the earthly benefits of marriage, the Church primarily values marriage because of what it points toward.  Marriage is meant to be an icon to the world;  a physical sign of the kind of unconditional, committed love God wants to share with each of us (Eph 5:31-32).  The fact that God wants this kind of relationship with us is a mind-blowing concept.  It’s hard to get our heads around it.  We need some kind of experience–some physical sign– that shows us this sort of love is even possible.  This is where marriage comes in.  The Church intends sacramental marriage to be a sign to the world that the kind of love God wants to share with us really is possible.

A Broken Sign

When the Church says that there is something wrong with remarriage after divorce (without the benefit of an annulment) it isn’t saying that the couple can’t somehow manage to be happy together or that there is anything (necessarily) wrong with that couple’s relationship from a worldly POV.  It is,  however,  saying that that the couples’ “sign” is broken.  That is, they cannot adequately represent to the world the faithful love that Bridegroom Christ has for the his Bride, the Church.    That really isn’t a judgment against the couple.  It is a spiritual diagnosis.  Having broken communion in their marriage, the divorced and remarried Catholic (who has not sought the benefit of an annulment) now becomes a de facto sign of the broken communion that exists when we are unfaithful to the Christ, the Bridegroom.  People who have remarried after divorce without the benefit of an annulment are still very much welcome in church, but their lives now becomes a visible sign of the alienation we experience when we are unfaithful to the Bridegroom–as we often are.  This is a very painful reality but it is not a judgment on divorced and remarried couples.  Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the sign they are attempting to live through their remarriage is, in fact, seriously broken and that they are in need of healing.  The Church is eager to do whatever is possible to facilitate that healing and so she welcomes the divorce and remarried person just like she welcomes any other patient to the hospital, not with judgment, but with a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

A Painful Course of Treatment

Because it cuts right through the heart of the primary image God uses to reveal his love for the Church, remarriage after divorce (without the benefit of an annulment) is a particularly serious spiritual disorder.  Currently, there are only two treatment options; either the couple can embrace the penance of living as brother and sister unless or until they can receive a declaration of nullity for the original and still valid marriage, or the couple can embrace the penance of being that broken sign and refrain from communion.  These are painful treatments, but as any cancer patient can tell you, treatments for serious illnesses are often quite painful.  Again, the treatment is not a judgment on the couple.  It is a recognition of the seriousness of the spiritual disorder.

Asking Important Questions

I understand that a lot of people don’t get this.  They feel judged, and that’s a very serious problem.  Frankly, the Church has done a horrible job communicating these truths and this is one thing the Synod is attempting to address.   One importnat question the Synod Fathers are asking is, “Is there a way that we can continue to do our job of diagnosing and providing treatment for spiritual disorders–such as remarriage after divorce–without making people feel judged by our diagnoses?” Another question is, “Are there treatments for this disorder (of remarriage after divorce) that could work as well but be less painful?”   These are important but challenging questions, and there aren’t an easy answers to either of them–hence all the sturm und drang around the synod.   But one thing the Church cannot do is say that a spiritual sickness is actually a sign of health, and a broken sign is, actually, not broken.

To learn more about how you can experience a more joyful, loving, passionate, grace-filled marriage, please check out the brand new, revised and expanded 2nd edition or For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.

Pope Francis & Pope Emeritus Benedict Agree on Annulments

From a recent interview with Pope Francis.pope

The family is so beaten up, young people don´t get married. What´s the problem? When they finally come to get married, having already moved in together, we think it´s enough to offer them three talks to get them ready for marriage. But it´s not enough because the great majority are unaware of the meaning of a lifetime commitment. Benedict said it twice in his last year, that we should take this into account in order to grant nullity, each person´s faith at the time of getting married.

A few days ago, a couple who are living together came to tell me that they were getting married. I said: “Good. Are you ready for it?” And their answer was: “Yes, now we are looking for a church which suits my dress best”, the girl said. “Yes, right now we´re in the middle of all the preparations -the invitations, souvenirs and all the rest”, the boy echoed. “There´s also the issue of the party, we cannot make up our minds because we don´t want the reception to be hosted too far from the church. And then there´s the other issue, our best man and maid of honour are divorced, same as my parents, so we can´t have both of them together”. All these issues are about the ceremony! Indeed, getting married should be celebrated, because you need courage to get married and that should be commended. However, neither of them made any comment at all on what this meant to them, the fact that it was a lifetime commitment. What do I mean? That for a great many people getting married is just a social event. The religious element doesn’t surface in the least. So how can the church step in and help? 

I really couldn’t agree more.  The Church has been assuming that the family is preparing couples for marriage, but the family is too busy fighting for its life to adequately pass on the faith.  As I have mentioned before, I think this could be a tremendous help to couples and a definite step in the right direction.  Couples who are not adequately prepared for marriage cannot and should not be held accountable for keeping promises they couldn’t begin to understand.  The present system is as unjust as jailing a 5 yo for driving a car into a crowd of people.  The responsibility for that tragedy lies not with the child behind the wheel, but with the people who put him there in the first place.

Cardinal Kasper and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea (and A Better Solution–If I Do Say So Myself)

In preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, many people of good will are floating a lot of different ideas about how the Church should approach various challenges like annulments. (To alexander-300x300read my own previous writings on the annulment issue, including my recommendations for improving the annulment process, go here, here, and here.)

Cardinal Kasper, former President for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, recently waded into the debate with his own suggestion about how to handle the annulment issue.

Before I share his proposal and offer a critique of what I understand the Cardinal to be suggesting, let me say that my post, despite my cheeky headline (with apologies to Judith Viorst), is, in no way, meant to suggest that the Cardinal or anyone else who supports his idea is anything less than a truly faithful son of the Church.  I believe he, and America magazine–which recently endorsed his proposal–truly do have the best interest of couples in mind. I also think that we all agree that the annulment process, as it is currently explained and practiced, is an unmitigated disaster and is in desperate need of significant reform.   Nevertheless, their good intentions don’t mean that Cardinal Kasper’s proposal isn’t a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, idea.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea

Here is the Cardinal’s proposal, as described by America.

 If a Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried, without a decree of nullity, “repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness?”

The Problem

First, the question of forgiveness is misleading.  OF COURSE we should never deny a person forgiveness.  Mercy absolutely needs to be generously extended in every way we can.  But mercy can’t be properly administered if we aren’t clear about the problem we’re being merciful about.  Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion errs because it considers the challenge of normalizing the second marriage as the primary problem but it ignores the real problem, which is that the first marriage is still valid and any attempt at a subsequent marriage is adultery.  Jesus himself says so (Matt 19:9).  No matter how sorry I am, I can’t repent of adultery by going home and committing more adultery–even if my adultery is “orientated and stabilized.”

Cheap Grace

America makes the point of saying that Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion does not challenge the indissolubility of marriage, but that’s exactly what it does!  How can you affirm the indissolubility of marriage by using confession to sweep the first marriage under the rug just to make nice about the second marriage?  That’s not mercy.  That’s cheap grace and it’s offensive on too many levels to count.   Cardinal Kasper’s idea–well-intentioned as it may be–does little but pay lip service to the indissolubility of marriage.

Pastoral Malpractice

Further, I would respectfully suggest that Cardinal Kasper makes the common and tragic error  of divorcing pastoral theology from soteriology.  As pastoral theologian, Andrew Purves argues, you simply can’t have an authentic pastoral theology without a healthy soteriological sensibility.   In other words, in the rush to be merciful, it is too easy to throw the call to transformation, to metanoia, under the bus.  In doing so, you do exactly what Pope Benedict counseled against in Caritas et Veritate, reducing love and mercy to mere sentimentality by fudging essential truths.

A Counter-Proposal

Nevertheless, the current situation is a real problem that needs to be solved.  Here is my counter-proposal (which I explain in somewhat more depth in the links I posted above).

1.  Stop requiring civil divorce before hearing an annulment case.  This is an administrative policy, not a requirement of canon law and frankly,  it imposes an undue burden on couples out of a   bureaucratically chickensh*t desire to kowtow to lawyers who worry–absurdly, I might add–about exposing the Church to alienation of affection lawsuits.  All this practice does is put couples in a bind and  make the Church look petty, redundant, and mean by forcing the couple to drag things up that should have been dealt with on the front end of the process.  Require couples to seek annulments first –before divorce–except in cases of documented domestic violence.  This will enable couples to get the Church’s help and counsel early on instead of forcing couples to handle things for themselves and then asking the Church to function like some kind of ex post facto spiritual “fixer.”

2.  Insist, no, require, that all couples who get civilly divorced without the benefit of #1 above to submit to the annulment process as soon as possible to remain in good standing with the Church.  Don’t say, “It’s up to you if you want to.”  Require it and explain the requirement as an attempt on the part of the Church to provide pastoral support to those who are struggling with the aftermath of divorce.    Again, failing to do so forces people to handle the worst aspects of divorce without any formal support or counsel from the Church. Requiring people to go through annulment asap after a civil divorce gives the Church every chance to find ways to support the faithful who are struggling through this painful time.  Plus, doing this prevents people from waiting until they start to date to begin looking into the process ex post facto  and ending up with the problem I described in the last sentence of point #1 above.

3.  Allow annulments for those who were demonstrably poorly formed in the faith or the Catholic understanding of marriage.  It is unjust to hold people accountable for promises they made in ignorance.  The Church requires consent for a sacrament, but you can’t consent to something you are ignorant of.  Instead we should be putting the responsibility where it belongs–on the Church and its ministers–not the poor couples who have no idea what they’re agreeing to because no one told them in the first place.  If the Church fails to properly form couples, let the failure of those marriages be on the Church not the couple.

I genuinely believe these solutions would be a vast improvement over the current process.  I thing that they would address Cardinal Kasper’s concerns about placing mercy at the center of the process while simultaneously respecting–in an authentic way–the indissolubility of marriage.

Of course, this is just my modest counter-proposal.  What do you think?  Post your thoughts in the comments below!

Annulment Q & A: 6 Common Questions About Annulments.–UPDATED

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.

As a pastoral counselor, I often work with people who are either going through divorce or who have been recently divorced.  Often these individuals have very important questions about the annulment process: What is it?  Should they seek one? What difference does it make?  The following are some of the common questions I encounter about annulments.  I hope the simple answers I provide can offer you some food for thought.

1.  What is an annulment?

An annulment–or “declaration of nullity”– states that, on the very day of the wedding, something was missing that prevented an actual marriage from taking place.  For instance, perhaps the wedding was not conducted by the proper kind of minister (e.g., a priest or deacon–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop) or in the proper setting (i.e., a Catholic church–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop), or the couple was either incapable (because of a physical, mental, or emotional barriers) or unwilling for some reason to fulfill all the responsibilities required of him or her by a Catholic marriage (e.g., to stay married for life, to be open to life, to be faithful to one’s vows).  In order to enter into a valid marriage, a couple has to know what they are doing, be able to do it, and commit to doing it freely and without reservation.  If something got in the way of any of these dynamics on the day of the wedding, then there may be reason to question the validity of the marriage.

2.  Isn’t an annulment just a “Catholic divorce?”

No.  A divorce claims to dissolve a valid marriage.  This is impossible.  Man cannot divide what God has joined.  In contrast to a divorce, an annulment says that a marriage never occurred in the first place.  Despite what some people may think, this isn’t a small or legalistic difference.  Analogously speaking, it is the difference between saying, “We’re taking away your license to practice medicine.” (Divorce) and “We just realized you never went to medical school and you shouldn’t have been given a license to practice in the first place.”  (Annulment).

Divorce claims to undo what was validly done by God–which impossible for any human.  Annulment, on the other hand,  acknowledges that a very serious condition, present on the day of the wedding, prevented the marriage from occurring in the first place.

3.  After an annulment, are children considered illegitimate?

Absolutely not.  Illegitimacy is a term used in civil law–NOT church law.  It has to do with whether you can naturally inherit or not.  The Church has nothing to do with this.  All children are welcome and “legitimate”–so to speak– in the eyes of the Church. 

4.  Why does the Church make me get an annulment after I am divorced?*

Because  civil divorce is, basically, just a tax document.  It doesn’t actually change your marital status in the eyes of God and therefore, you are still married as far as God is concerned.  The state cannot speak for God , or claim to undo what God has done.  Unless something, on the day of the wedding (as explained above under questions 1&2 above), prevented God from creating  a valid marriage at your ceremony, then you are still married in the eyes of God even after a divorce.  That is also why dating or attempting to get married after a divorce without the benefit of an annulment is considered the sin of adultery.  Despite what the state may claim, you are still married in the eyes of God.

That’s why the annulment process investigates whether something was going on at the time of the wedding that would have prevented God from joining this man and this woman together in Holy Matrimony.  There are many reasons why this could have happened.  A tribunal looks at all the possibilities so that the couple can understand what may have gone  wrong and–assuming an annulment is granted–gives the man and woman a chance to correct those problems so that any future marriage (between them or with other potential spouses) would be valid in God’s eyes.

5.  If the Church doesn’t grant an annulment, does that mean I’m stuck with my spouse for life?

A valid marriage is for life.  If the Church does not find grounds for an annulment, you are still married in the eyes of God to your spouse regardless of the possible changes in your tax status or place of residence brought on by a civil divorce. 

Christians believe that marriage is holy because Jesus says it is a sign of the way God loves us (Ephesians 5:32).  The fact is, sometimes we don’t make it easy for God to love us.  We reject him.  We are unfaithful to him. We betray him and act out against him.  And yet he still loves us.   If the Church cannot find valid grounds for an annulment despite your civil divorce, then that means that God is calling you to be a visible sign of his constant love despite our best efforts to reject him.  Obviously this is not an easy call, but just as obviously, it is an important call that is close to God’s heart.  If this is God’s call in your life, not only will he give you the grace to fulfill it, he will greatly honor you for both your fidelity through trial and for the sacrifices you make in service to this very important call. 

6. Should I seek an annulment even if I’m not planning to get married again after my divorce?

Strictly speaking, whether or not to seek an annulment is entirely a decision you must make for yourself in prayer.  That said, I would encourage every divorced person to go through the annulment process.  Why?  Because it is never good to discern serious questions–like the nature of your vocation–on your own.  It is always best to enlist the Church’s help in discerning God’s answer to the big questions in your life.  Seeking an annulment doesn’t mean that you are giving up, or failing, or any of  the other negative things people think.  It means you are actively trying to hear and respond to God’s unique call in your life and you are inviting the Church to be your partner in figuring it all out.  That is as truly humble and grace-filled a response as you could possibly make to a terrible situation.   The truth is, as painful as this time in your life can be, God wants to use all of it for your good and his glory.  The more you allow him and the Church to be part of your decision, the sooner he will help you make peace with whatever his call is in your life.

Let God and his Church be a help to you in this time of pain and confusion.  He will give you the clarity and peace you seek.

If you are struggling to understand God’s plan for you after a divorce, check out a copy of The Life God Wants You to Have:  Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail  or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our Catholic tele-counseling practice.


*Divorce prior to annulment is not a requirement of canon law.  It is diocesan policy in the US and a few other countries as well.  Couples have a right to petition for an annulment without a divorce, but despite knowing many who have tried, I don’t personally know of anyone who succeeded at this.

For my thoughts on reforming the annulment process, see…

Reforming the Annulment Process–Brainstorming Solutions  and  Reforming the Annulment Process–A Continuing Conversation. (Or Why “Alienation of Affection” is a stupid reason to require divorce before annulment).

Reforming the Annulment Process–A Continuing Conversation. (Or Why “Alienation of Affection” is a stupid reason to require divorce before annulment).

I appreciated the many thoughtful responses to my brainstorming on ways to improve the annulment process.  Regarding my first suggestion; stopping the practice of requiring the couple to seek a civil divorce before filing for a declaration of nullity, a few people suggested that this needed to be in place because of the fear that the church might be sued for alienation of affection.

I actually addressed this issue, briefly,  in the original post as I’ve heard this argument before.  I’d like to address it in a little more detail now.

I will say that, in all humility, I am neither a canonist nor a civil lawyer, so I appreciate that I am not writing in any authoritative manner, but having been around this issue, and discussed it with bishops, canonists, and attorneys at one point or another, I have some insights that I think might contribute to the conversation.

1.  While it is true that some states do still have alienation of affection laws on the books, they are rarely enforced these days.  That said, it can still happen (so adulterers beware).

2.  That said, the alienation of affection that can occur from one’s spouse taking a lover strikes me as a very different matter than a spouse refusing to sleep with one’s mate because a marriage has been found invalid by a tribunal.  Specifically, in this case, the Church is acting like a counselor who says, “Your marriage isn’t healthy.”  That doesn’t cause two people to stop sleeping together.  It may, but it may not.  If the Church were to say that a marriage was invalid, that would not automatically cause the couple to stop sleeping together.  As far as I know, a therapist has never been sued for alienation of affection.  Why would the Church if, in its consultative capacity, it told a couple that their marriage was invalid.  That’s simply a finding of fact, not a command.

3.  You might say, “Well, if the Church finds the marriage invalid, then sleeping together would be a sin and that’s where the alienation of affection occurs.”  That strikes me as silly.  All the Church would have to do to defend itself is show the pre-marital sex rates  (or abortion rates, or adultery rates, or divorce rates, or contraception rates, etc, etc, ) for practicing Catholics.  The simple fact is that the Church making a statement about something compels… absolutely no one to do anything they don’t already want to do.

4.  Finally, the constitutional issues at play in trying to sue the Church for alienation of affection are mind boggling.  I really have a hard time, even in this current Church-hostile culture, imagining that such a suit would pass muster.

At the end of the day, using alienation of affection as an excuse for the Church to not do its job of guiding the faithful through their marital difficulties seems unconscionably cowardly to me.  Seeking legal counsel is one thing. “Pastoring by Lawyer” is, as the scandal has taught us,  quite another.


Reforming the Annulment Process–Brainstorming Solutions.

Deacon Greg Kandra links an article that encourages overhauling the annulment process.   I think most people would agree that the annulment process is in need of serious improvement.  In fact, one of the factors influencing Pope Francis’ call for an Extraordinary Synod on the Family next November was his concern about the way the Church handles divorce and annulment.  Many of the questions in the survey the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops had to do with seeking input on how to improve the handling of annulments.


But while most people agree that the current way of doing things isn’t working, there is little agreement on what to do about it.  Unfortunately, many people are proposing ideas that have already been determined by the Church as unworkable.  For instance, in the article linked by Deacon Greg, the author, Fr. Peter Daly, suggests two ideas that the Vatican has already overruled.  The first is letting the local pastor handle the annulment.   He argues…

If I were pope, I would leave the decision about annulments and reception of the sacraments entirely up to the parish priest. It should be resolved in the internal forum of the confessional. The emphasis should be on mercy, not law. End of story. Move on.

The Problem with the Internal Forum

The problem is that this option, the so-called “pastoral provision” was already outlawed by the Vatican.  The original idea behind the pastoral provision was to allow people to confess the second marriage and allow the pastor to absolve the penitent of the sin of adultery in the second marriage.  But that really doesn’t make any sense at all.  To receive absolution for something, one has to resolve to try to not do it again.  How do I  confess a second marriage and receive absolution for it if I fully intend to continue sleeping with my second partner when I go home?  It appears to me that the internal forum option not only destroys the integrity of the annulment process, but the integrity of confession as well.  There are additional problems with using an internal forum solution–whether confession or some other process overseen by the pastor–to resolve marriage issues.  For example; marriage isn’t a private institution.  Its a social one.  You can’t deal with a public issue in a secret, private forum without causing more problems.   Another reason I think the internal forum option would cause annulment to lose any integrity at all is that pastors would be under tremendous pressure to grant every petition that came across their desk.  There needs to be some kind of oversight to protect both the pastor from undue pressure and the integrity of the sacrament.

The Problem with the  “Eastern Option”

The second option Fr. Daly proposes is following the Orthodox tradition of simply giving people a pass on the first divorce.  Orthodox Christians essentially get one “get out of marriage free card.”  2nd or 3rd marri

ages require permission from the bishop, but first divorces are merely accepted.  I have read the Orthodox justifications for this position, but honestly, they strike me as lacking coherence.  Regardless, the Vatican has also ruled, several times now, that this option is not consistent with the Catholic understanding of marriage.  For the indissolubility of marriage to mean anything, it needs to be indissoluble.  There can be certain conditions where the person does not intend to enter into marriage as the Church defines it or is incapable of entering into marriage as the Church defines it, but those are exceptions.  They can’t be the rule.  Making them the rule undermines the integrity of the entire Catholic theology of marriage.  Clearly this is non-starter.


That people keep returning to these two failed options strikes me as a stunning lack of creativity.  So what can we do?  I don’t have any comprehensive answers to the question, but in my response to the Vatican survey, I did make some suggestions.

Possible Improvements

1.  Stop Requiring Divorce First.

Currently, people who seek annulments are required to have a civil divorce first.  This is not a matter of canon law, btw. It’s just a policy.   I have asked several canonists why this stipulation exists.  They have told me that, in the first place, it is a way to certify that there is no chance of reconciliation.  Of course this is silly.  I have helped plenty of couples reconcile after civil divorce.  It’s more common than you might think.  Second, I have been told that requiring divorce first prevents the Church from being sued for “alienation of affection or loss of consort”  (i.e, one spouse filing a legal suit alleging that the Church forced the other spouse to stop having sex with him or her).  Really?  Does anyone sue for that?   What court would touch loss of consort for religious reasons with a 10 foot pole?  There are so many constitutional issues wrapped up in that  I can hardly think it would be worth it.

In my opinion, requiring married couples to divorce before seeking an annulment sends the message that the civil authority is the one that counts, not the Church.  That’s a terrible message to send.  Second, it puts Catholics in a terrible bind.  The Church forces the couple to get a divorce before it will rule on the validity of the marriage.  What if the church then finds the marriage valid despite the divorce?  How cruel is that?  This policy puts the Church in the position of finding a reason, any reason, to grant the declaration of nullity so the couple can be spared living in limbo, and it puts other couples who honestly don’t have legitimate grounds for an annulment in the position of being civilly estranged but morally bound to their spouse.  How does this not make the Church complicit in leading people into temptation of contracting an invalid second marriage?

Instead, I propose that the Church require couples to seek a declaration of nullity before seeking a civil divorce–except in cases of physical abuse.  That would allow the Church to adopt a pastoral position.  The Church could counsel the couple on the reasons that it appears that the marriage is valid and make recommendations for healing it.  Or it could state that yes, this is a marriage that is definitely invalid and the couple could proceed to divorce. It would make the annulment process a process of discernment which could be more pastoral than juridical but still have integrity and weight.

2.  Allow Lack of Informed Consent/Formation as a Criteria for Annulment.

Pope Benedict actually floated this idea himself.  The Church currently states that one needs to have free will and be able to give full consent to contract a valid marriage.  The problem is, you can’t freely give full consent if you don’t fully understand what you are choosing or believe in the Catholic vision of marriage. How many people get married in the Church with the express intent to live the Church’s vision of marriage and family life and to be their spouse’s best hope–second only to the saving work of Jesus Christ–of getting each other to heaven?  That, in a nutshell, is what the Church is asking couples who get married in the Church to do.  How many couples either understand that or have been formed to the degree that they are capable of living that out?

If the Church doesn’t do a good job of forming the couples it marries in the first place, it is unjust to hold those couples responsible for the Church’s (or the couple’s parents’) failure.  This option would both challenge the Church (and Catholic parents) to do a better job forming couples on the front end, but it would also recognize the fact that ignorance or incapability are legitimate impediments to free will and full consent.


No doubt there are many other ideas that could work, but I think these two options would do a great deal to make annulments more pastoral and logical while still respecting the integrity of the sacrament and the Catholic theology of marriage.
What do you think?  How could the Church do a better job to make the annulment process more pastoral while still respecting out theology of marriage?  Post your ideas as a comment.  I look forward to your feedback.

For help living the Catholic vision of marriage, check out For Better…FOREVER!  A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage,   Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage, and Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-blowing, Infallible Loving.