The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is for life. Divorce is not allowed in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, however, does offer annulment. Annulment used to be a rare occurrence, but in the last several decades Catholics have come forward in unprecedented numbers to ask for annulments - and have been granted them. In this post, I will examine this phenomenon and reflect on what I see as its implications.
First of all, it is important to understand what an annulment is. An annulment is an official proclamation that no marriage ever existed between a man and a woman who were believed to be married. The man and woman went through the motions of a marriage ceremony, but no marriage took place because one or more impediments stood firmly in the way, though these impediments were unrecognized at the time. If there is an impediment, no marriage can take place.
A simple example of an impediment is being related by blood as brother and sister. If a man and a woman who are brother and sister go through a marriage ceremony, not realizing their relationship, no marriage takes place. The brother / sister relationship is an impediment to marriage. The two are not married.
In recent years, the impediment most commonly found in couples who present themselves for annulment is the emotional immaturity impediment. To be eligible to enter into a marriage, both parties must have the requisite emotional maturity for this commitment. If one or both parties lacks this emotional maturity, no marriage takes place. In case after case after case of couples presenting themselves for annulment, it has been found again and again and again that one or both members of the couple did not have the emotional maturity required for a marriage commitment at the time of the marriage ceremony - hence, no marriage took place and the marriage is nul.
If I had any authority in the Catholic Church with regard to marriage preparation for couples and I were faced with large numbers of couples over the last several decades receiving annulments because of the emotional immaturity impediment, I would be aghast. I would institute serious reform of the way couples are prepared for marriage in the Catholic Church. Surely, marriage preparation should include recognizing impediments to marriage. I find it very harmful for a couple to believe that they are married and to live as though married for five, ten, fifteen, twenty or more years, to build a life together, to raise a family - and then to find out that they were never married at all. For heaven's sake, let us do a better job of preventing this! Let us ferret out the impediments BEFORE the marriage ceremony! In the case of the emotional immaturity impediment, this does not mean that marriage is forever impossible for the couple. All it means is that more time and effort are needed to gain the necessary maturity. DOESN'T THE CATHOLIC CHURCH SEE THE NEED FOR SERIOUS MARRIAGE PREPARATION REFORM?
When a Catholic couple goes through a marriage ceremony with an unrecognized emotional immaturity impediment, so that no marriage takes place, what actually happens? Well, the sacrament of matrimony hasn't been received, even though the motions of the sacrament have been performed. Since the sacrament has not been received, the special graces specific to the sacrament of matrimony have not been given to the couple. These are graces that unfold over the course of the marriage - graces to help the two build their life as a couple, to prepare them for parenthood should children arrive, to see them through the ups and downs of married life. Think of the disadvantage that the children of such a couple will have. Their parents got "married" without the required emotional maturity to do so, and their parents have not received the special graces of the sacrament of matrimony to help them as spouses and as parents. We have, then, emotionally immature parents who, in addition, lack the graces for marriage and parenthood. And the children suffer for it.
Here is something else we should consider. It would be a mistake, I believe, to think that all those with the emotional immaturity impediment present themselves for annulments. They do not. Many "married" couples with the emotional immaturity impediment will not present themselves for an annulment until years down the line. Many "married" couples with the emotional immaturity impediment will never present themselves for an annulment.
What does this mean? First, it means that during the centuries before the 1960s, when it was extremely rare for a couple to seek an annulment, you nonetheless had "married" couples with the emotional immaturity impediment who lived their entire lives believing themselves to be married, died, and are buried side by side - but who nonetheless were never married. The emotional immaturity impediment prevented any marriage from taking place, and even though no annulment was ever sought, the couple simply was never married because of the emotional immaturity impediment. I firmly believe that this describes my own parents.
Second, this means that right now there are "married" couples in the Catholic Church who are not married. If a couple got "married" in 2000 and if that couple will seek and receive an annulment in 2020 because of the emotional immaturity impediment, then right now - in 2010 - the couple is not married. An annulment means that the couple was never married - not for one instant - during the whole time between 2000 and 2020 when they lived together as though husband and wife. I find this a serious matter. If I had any authority in the Catholic Church, I would want to do something about it. I would want to find a way for couples who believe themselves to be married to insure that they actually are, in light of all the emotional immaturity impediment annulments. If I were a married Catholic, I would want to make sure that my marriage was valid, again in light of all the emotional immaturity impediment annulments. Is not the Catholic Church concerned about all the "married" Catholic couples who are, in fact, not married at all because of the emotional immaturity impediment - the ones who have not yet or who will never come forward for an annulment yet who do have this impediment and are, therefore, not married?
Finally, it should certainly be obvious that, among Catholic couples now presenting themselves as candidates for marriage, there are those with the emotional immaturity impediment. I would say that anyone who prepares Catholic couples for marriage and never recognizes the emotional immaturity impediment in any of them is committing a gross and costly failure. At the very least, Catholic couples preparing for marriage should be made aware of the many annulments due to the emotional immaturity impediment and of the consequences of spending years as a "married" couple when no marriage exists, and they should be offered the option of being examined for this impediment so that they can be sure of being truly married. Is not the Catholic Church concerned about Catholic couples now entering "marriage" when no marriage is possible because of the emotional immaturity impediment?
If I were a Catholic preparing for marriage, I would absolutely INSIST that my fiancé and I be thoroughly examined for impediments, especially the emotional immaturity impediment. Whatever examination is done by an annulment court, let it be done BEFORE the marriage ceremony so that we can enter marriage confident that we ARE INDEED MARRIED. Then, we won't have the uncertainty of possibly finding out several years down the line - oops - there's an impediment - guess what - we're not married at all.
As for me, I left the Catholic Church. But I do wish to point out the problems with the Catholic view of annulment, according to the way I see it, and that is what I have done in this post.