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February 13, 2014

Civil Divorce and Catholic Annulment

Reprinted below is a portion of a Catholic mass bulletin that I received when I went to Gettysburg (PA.) in April of 2013.  Father Bernardo Pistone, the Pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish, inserted therein the text of a speech given by then Deacon Gaurav Shroff a few months earlier, in which Deacon Shroff examined Roman Catholic teaching on religious annulment, distinguishing it from a civil divorce.  I have found this speech to be very moving, and it has helped me as a Catholic lawyer doing civil divorces to understand my role in the civil society, but also to maintain my personal religious beliefs about the sacrament of marriage.
 
I will never let my personal religious beliefs color my view of the attorney's role as an effective advocate for his client in a contested civil divorce.  To the contrary, my belief in God and Jesus Christ, as God's sacrificial lamb, gives me the strength to help people in their time of need.  
 
I cannot deny that I am a man raised in the Catholic faith, with all of the virtues and obligations of Catholicism deeply etched into my heart and soul since a very young age.  
 
I believe that this article will be helpful to my clients of the Catholic faith.   I  welcome all of my clients, regardless of their faith, to provide me with similar articles from their own minister, rabbi, imam, et. al., in the fervent hope that these writings will help them deal with the emotional trauma of divorce, and begin the healing process for them.
 
The words of Deacon Guarav Shroff, now Father Guarav Shroff :
 
The reading from Jeremiah today speaks, as the Scriptures do so often, about God's compassion and care for Israel. We like to hear this. We all desire to be loved. We all like to be reminded periodically of God's unconditional love for us. We need this.
 
But then why does it seem that sometimes the Church - supposedly the continuing presence of Christ in history - behaves in a manner that seems to lack compassion and understanding? When it comes to the question of divorce and remarriage, why is there such a legalistic attitude towards things? Why this seeming stigma against the divorced? Haven't they suffered enough? And a procedure in a Church court? Is that really necessary? Doesn't it cost thousands of dollars? Isn't it given to the rich (just think of the Kennedys, right?). We are all adults. Sometimes things don't work out. Why put such a burden on Catholics?
 
There's a lot of confusion and misunderstanding out there about what the Church teaches about marriage, about divorce and remarriage, and about what are popularly called "annulments."
 
Let's start with marriage. There is, indeed, serious confusion in our society about the nature of marriage. We have, especially over the past century, moved to a view in which marriage is purely about two individuals coming together who express their "love" for each other - however that is understood - and who wish to have this union blessed and recognized in some way. But marriage has never been just about two individuals and their wishes, in any society or in any time. There is a reason society surrounds marriage with so many rules and regulations. There is a whole section of the judiciary called Family Courts that deal with marital issues all the time. And that reason is straightforward. The love between man and woman is, by its very nature tied up with the creation of new life. It is tied up with the family, the basic unit of society. Like it or not, by its very nature marriage is an institution which is larger than the two individuals who enter into it- because it is intimately tied up with the propagation of the human race. Society has an interest in this. This is why the government is involved in the whole marriage business to begin with. This is why, when things go wrong, the decree of divorce is granted by a court. It is never up to simply just the two individuals! It's not as if the husband or the wife prints it out and hands it to his spouse. Even if a couple does not actually have kids, it is not just about them and their wishes. And if we think about it a little, none of us really believes that is, or it ought to be. We were all children at one point. We know the value of marriage, of a father and a mother - of the committed, stable love between a father and a mother in a marriage - either by the positive example we received in our own family, or by its absence.
 
At the supernatural level, in the Church's teaching, a marriage between two baptized Christians is a sacrament. That means it has been raised up to a higher spiritual reality. It now becomes an icon, an image, of the love of God Himself, of the love between Father, Son & Holy Spirit, of the love between Christ and the Church. A Christian marriage is especially indissoluble. Think about it - if Christ were to say to the Church, "I love you," today, but tomorrow, "Oh, I've changed my mind," we'd all be in trouble! Once validly entered into, the bond cannot be broken in this life. Jesus taught this very clearly and explicitly. "What God has joined let no man divide." The Church cannot simply ignore this, or pretend he didn't say it, or suggest he said something other than what he actually did. It does not matter what the world around her says, she has to preach the Gospel fully, no matter how difficult or inconvenient. And part of that is the teaching that marriage is for a lifetime. So, not only is there a societal dimension to marriage, but a spiritual one as well. And the spiritual dimension has its own demands and rules, if you will. One of the presumptions, from the Church's point of view, is that a marriage between two baptized Christians - notice I said Christians, not just Catholics - is valid - i.e. it meets all these conditions - until proven otherwise.
 
Now, I don't have to tell y'all that living out marriage is not easy! Well, this is why God gives us His help, right? This is why it is a sacrament! There is a particular grace, a particular help, the very presence of God in our lives, in our marriages, so that Christians can live the commitments of marriage. Let's go over some of these - we all know them.
 
 
  • Mutual fidelity and love - among all the possible women, I choose this one and cleave to her, and give myself to her completely, totally, entirely, body and soul - to her, and no one else!

  • An openness to life - being willing to accept children as gifts from God, to regard the gift of sexuality as a participation in the very act of creation, of bringing forth new human life!

  • And indissolubility - if my marriage reflects and witnesses to the love between Christ and the Church, I cannot enter it with an escape clause. I am not giving myself wholly and completely to my spouse if I say, "Well, if things don't work out, I'll just leave." This is not what the marriage vows call us to.




Now, as we know all too well, we are weak and we are sinful. And sometimes - well, in nearly one out of two marriages in the US, it seems! - things don't go as we hoped on our wedding day, as we dreamed. If a Catholic gets a civil divorce, this does not mean that he or she is excommunicated, or barred from being in Church, or receiving Holy Communion. Let me repeat that. You may have heard otherwise. What you heard was wrong. If a priest told you that, I am sorry. But it is wrong. Being divorced is not something that "gets you in trouble with the Church." You are a Catholic Christian, a valued member of the Church.
 
What happens if a Christian is divorced and then gets remarried in a civil ceremony? Well, the first marriage, in the Church's eyes still exists. The individuals might think that is not the case. The State might not think that. But, remember, marriage between Christians is a spiritual reality that is larger than the individuals. The Church cannot ignore this. If such a Christian wishes to remarry in the Catholic Church, and get the Church's blessing and the help of God that comes with that, then it must be shown that the first marriage was invalid.
 
Those who are in this state, of being divorced and remarried outside the Church - according to Church teaching, are still members of the Church. Please remember that - they are not "bad Catholics" or have been cast out. However, the Church says, they should not present themselves for Holy Communion. This is not a punishment. It is a sign that something still needs to be worked through ... there is, objectively speaking, what the Church calls an irregularity. It does not mean they are evil, or second class citizens or what have you, and the Church is clear that her pastoral care should be there to welcome and help folks work through marriage issues.
 
This is what the Tribunal, the Church department that deals with Church law or canon law, helps investigate. Marriage law is complicated, but basically, what the Tribunal investigates is whether, at the point when the couple came together to form the marriage, there was something essential missing, that made the marriage invalid. The various grounds on which an annulment can be sought are complicated, and I won't try and explain them here. But you can visit the Diocese of Harrisburg's Tribunal webpage. A link is provided in the column in this weeks' bulletin, to learn more. They have a fantastic FAQ section up there.
 
If the Tribunal determines that the previous marriage was invalid, then it issues a "declaration of nullity" and the individual is free to marry again in the Catholic Church. This is what is called an "annulment."
Let's clear up some myths.
 
If an annulment is granted, it does not mean the previous marriage "didn't exist." The sacramental bond may not have been there, but the marriage wasn't false, or evil, or non-existent, or anything like that.
 
If an annulment is granted, it does not mean the children of that marriage are illegitimate. Not true. An annulment does not cost thousands of dollars. It may cost between 80 bucks and $550 in the Diocese of Harrisburg, depending on the kind of case. That is half the actual cost to the Tribunal. And there is financial help available.
 
An annulment does take some time, but that depends on the case, from a few weeks, to 12-18 months. This can be frustrating. This can be painful. But following God's law, especially when it is difficult, is a sure sign of our love for God and His Church. Such obedience, however difficult, God will bless abundantly, and it will bear much fruit.
 
The annulment process does not involve revealing intimate details of one's marriage in a court room, as if you were on Judge Judy. It is a compassionate and friendly atmosphere and you have an advocate to help you.
 
Your former spouse cannot automatically block the process. The rights of both partners of the bond are respected by the court.
 
There is a lot more that can be said about the annulment process. Look at the link in the bulletin. Talk to Fr. Pistone if you have any serious questions, or if you want to explore the process for your own marriage. And, if you didn't like anything you heard, blame Fr. Pistone. He asked me to do this homily.
 
More importantly, the process can help you bring a sense of closure to a previous perhaps chapter in your life. It can, even more importantly, help you get your marriage blessed by the Church, along with the help of the sacramental graces, and the graces of the Eucharist, that come with that. Jesus wants to be a part of your marriage in this way. The Church is here to help, to heal. She continues always to proclaim the compassion of Christ. But she always does this in the light of truth. It would be easy to go with the times. But love that is really love, does not ignore truth. The truth of the indissolubility of marriage comes directly from the Gospel, from the lips of Jesus Christ himself, and the Church would betray her Master if she ignored this.
 
Just remember: if you are divorced - this is your home! You belong here! The Church is here to help you heal. If you are remarried outside the Church - this is your home! You belong here! The Church is here to help you heal, and regularize the situation. But you need to make the first move!
 
Actually, it does not matter what the issue is, or whether you agree with the Church or not - this is your home! You belong here! We really need to stop thinking as if "I'm a 'good Catholic' and 'she is a bad Catholic' and 'they are better Catholics."' We are all sinners. We all fall short in some way. We all need forgiveness. We all need healing. We all need God.
 
Here, in the embrace of Holy Mother Church, is the greatest gift we all need, no matter what our individual problems or issues are - the gift of God's grace, God's life, God's help, that will heal us, help us, makes us grow, and, if we let it, make us into saints.
"Son of Dayjd, have pity on me," says Bartimeus today, discouraged, helpless, blind. "Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you," they tell him. Jesus is calling each and every one of you. Come to him. Listen to him. Trust yourself to the healing graces that come from the Church and her ministry.
 
 
 
They departed in tears,
but I will console them and guide them;
I will lead them to brooks of water,
on a level road, so that none shall stumble.
For I am a father to Israel,
Ephraim is my first-born.
 
 
 
 
 
Rev. Mr. Gaurav Shroff ("Deacon G") 
Mount St. Mary's Seminary (Archdiocese of Atlanta)
 
 
Webpage for Diocese of Harrisburg's Tribunal