Friday, August 8, 2014

Annulment: a theological fiction?


I am grateful for all comments received below, some of which have challenged my thinking here. While travelling yesterday I had a chance to reflect a bit on what I am trying to achieve by raising this question. I think it is this. As churches come under pressure of social change in respect of human sexuality, debates rage between 'sides', debates which reflect the conservativism of the church (how we have conceived things till now) and the liberalism of the church (where might God be taking us into a new future). One outcome of such debates is that conservatives leave a church for a church perceived to be a bastion of conservatism, another outcome is that liberals leave a church for a church perceived to be a beacon of liberalism. For Anglicans one option has typically been to leave for the Roman Catholic church. My point here is that Rome itself is under pressure from social change, signified by the Kasper v Muller debate and the Pope's own raising of questions he wishes to see addressed. That pressure has a pressure point around the process of annulment which is an attempt to conservatively uphold the teaching of Jesus while liberally responding to the facts of dissolved marriages. Whether Rome makes any changes via forthcoming conferencing will be interesting to observe. If it does not make change, my question re annulment stands: is it a convenient fiction which enables a certain kind of balance between conservativism and liberalism to be maintained?

I have also had this mischievous thought re same sex marriage: are such marriages - if agreed to by the church - dissolvable since Jesus spoke only about the indissolubility of marriage between a man and a woman?

Picking up from a previous post which cites William Oddie as he argues that in a theological wrestle between Cardinals Kasper and Muller on the question of Roman pastoral response to divorce and remarriage, Pope Francis will go with Muller, I am on Kasper's side. Though his detailed arguments may not be mine!

In that post I asked for your responses to this citation of NY Times columnist Ross Douthat's outlining key theological issues - underlined by me - in the matter:

"“whatever individuals and pastors decide to take upon their own consciences, declaring the reception of Communion licit for the remarried-but-not-annulled in any systematic way seems impossible without real changes — each with its own potential doctrinal ripples — to one or more of three theologically-important Catholic ideas: The understanding that people in grave sin should not generally receive the Eucharist, the understanding that adultery is always a grave sin, and/or the understanding that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble.”"

Thank you for responses made!

Here is my response, offered at this point as a 'response' more than a 'refutation', the former being a contribution to debate, the latter would be an ending of the debate on the basis that I am right and the whole apparatus of Roman theology is wrong. I am not quite that confident of my ability!

The questions I have are these:

(1) Is it consistent with the teaching of Jesus to foster an interlocking teaching whose application is such as to place people in a state of sin from which repentance is impossible?

Jesus deemed that only one sin was unforgivable and that was not remarriage after divorce! Put another way, where is the way forward to the reception of communion for a Christian who (say, through no fault of their own) is unable to secure annulment for their marriage yet for whom a new marriage is a right and proper action (say, in order to secure protection and provision for the person's family)?

(As I understand Kasper's position, and the reason for Pope Francis raising the matter of eucharist and the divorced at a forthcoming conference, this kind of question is driving whatever reconsideration of the matter which is going on in Vatican circles).

(2) Is it consistent with the teaching of Jesus to foster a distinction between 'sacramental marriage' and 'marriage'?

In Roman application of its understanding of annulment, (as I understand it) Roman Catholic juridical authority can decide that if X and Y, having consummated a marriage, produced offspring and lived a married life in a domestic home for 20 years, then divorce [according to civic authority], their divorce is not a divorce-as-Jesus-understood-it and a prospective new marriage for either or both husband and wife after the civil divorce and the church's annulment is not adultery-as-Jesus-understood-it.

In seeking to be faithful to Jesus' teaching a (monstrous?) fiction appears to be aided and abetted by the juridical system and sacramental theology surrounding annulment. As Ross Douthat's article points out, the statistics suggest a theological rort is going on because American Catholics constitute 6% of the world's Catholic population yet 60% of all annulments occur among their marriages!

For this Anglican at least, it is a little odd that the Roman theology of marriage fosters a distinction between marriage and sacramental marriage. Why do I say that? Because the same theological apparatus does not distinguish between baptism when Anglicans and other Christians practice it and sacramental baptism practised according to Roman rite. Why is there 'one baptism' but not 'one marriage'?

A further point of exploration under question (2) is why canonical law attends so intently to what Jesus said about marriage/divorce/remarriage/adultery in relation to sacramental action via priesthood when Jesus said zilch about the role of any commissioned servants in performing marriage rites!

(3) On the specific logic involved in the argument, "The understanding that people in grave sin should not generally receive the Eucharist, the understanding that adultery is always a grave sin, and/or the understanding that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble:"

I am going to be a Henrician Anglican: marriages can be dissolved. That is reality. Non-Henrician Anglicans get that, and I bet that most American Catholics involved in the 60% of annulled marriages around the Catholic globe get that too.

Kasper, I am sure, is alive the the reality of dissolved marriages and he is too smart a theologian not to understand the theological fiction which is involved in annulment. Ross Douthat describes the development in annulment over the centuries like this:

"Historically, Catholic marriages could be annulled (that is, declared to have been invalid from the beginning) for a fairly narrow range of reasons — a failure to consummate the union, consanguinity, the existence of a previous marriage, etc. 

But in recent decades, especially in the frequently-divorcing West, the range of justifications for annulling a marriage has expanded to include a much larger range of factors, psychological and emotional and intellectual, which might demonstrate that one or both members of a couple entering into a marriage basically didn’t understand what they were getting into, didn’t have a fully Christian understanding of the sacrament or fully Christian intentions to live it out, and thus weren’t capable of the kind of true consent that a true marriage definitionally requires. And the (incorrect, but understandable) popular view of the annulment process as a kind of “Catholic divorce” flows from this more expansive list of reasons why a marriage might be declared null and void, and from the more expansive consequences: The United States, ground zero for the approach, has 6 percent of the world’s Catholics and about 60 percent of the world’s annulments."

It is incomprehensible that Kasper's fine theological mind does not recognise that this is a theological fiction (i.e. it pretends that a real marriage has not been dissolved when it has). Yes, it is a very fine fiction because it successfully holds the line on indissolubility, as Douthat also observes:

"But the debate notwithstanding, nobody denies that an annulment process of some kind is compatible with the traditional Catholic view of marriage’s indissolubility, and I think that most critics of the American way of annulment would concede that a form that considers psychological and cultural factors, while prone to practical abuses, doesn’t introduce any inherent logical tensions into the church’s teaching on marriage."

So the general point is that Roman theology without this theological fiction it would face just the same issue as Anglican (and other Protestant) theologies face re marriage and divorce: it happens, there is a lot of it, many divorced persons remarry and they wish to receive the eucharist after repentance and do not wish to have the eucharist withheld because they are in state where repentance is impossible.

Now at precisely this point in the examination of the argument there are no grounds for Anglican triumphalism. We may think poorly of the logic of annulment but we have no great track record on how to improve the situation regarding marriage and supporting permanency of marriages rather than frequently finding ourselves responding to its breakdown.

We might edge ahead of Rome on an 'honesty in theology' basis, but we are no further ahead on a 'faithful to Jesus' teaching' basis.

I'll publish this tonight. I may repent of what I have written and rewrite it a little. I look forward to your comments.


carl jacobs said...

An initial comment.

I don't care if people didn't understand what they were getting into. If you are old enough to make the decision, you are old enough to carry the responsibility. Go to the bank and borrow some money. Then tell the lender you shouldn't have to repay the debt because you didn't know what you were getting into. See what happens. And yet marriage is more important than money.

What is this really? It's the perpetual whine of "I'm unhappy." Tough. Life isn't about being happy.


liturgy said...

Peter, as far as I can see you are accepting of the first two of the three premises, but are wanting to cast doubt on the third, “the understanding that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble”. As you do so you appear to use similar approaches as those who support blessing and marrying committed same-sex couples (just as one example:…the Bible does not take into account contexts where “a new marriage is a right and proper action”…) You won’t distinguish a marriage-recognised-by-the-state and a marriage-recognised-by-God. And you invent a new historical-theological revisionist fiction, “Henrician Anglicans”. Is the Church of England “Henrician Anglican”? Why could they not “dissolve” the marriage of Camilla Parker Bowles and Andrew Parker Bowles?



Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco
Henrician Anglicans accept that marriage is dissoluble (as a reality of life) rather than resorting to theological fictions which pretend it is indissoluble.

Henrician Anglicans have not yet permeated every part of global Anglicanism!

(PS There is not necessarily anything to admire in Henrician Anglicans. Their patron saint, Henry VIII bears too much resemblance to certain warrior leaders wreaking havoc in the world today ...).

You rightly draw attention to numerous issues surrounding our understanding of marriage in the world today, across churches today, and in the understanding of Scripture and its application to life today.

It is another topic to work out when a marriage is a marriage (is civil registration 'enough'?) - part of my critique of Roman understanding is that it does not count marriages you and I conduct to be sacramental marriages, our orders being as null and void as their annulled marriages. Yet we might (or might not) wish to say that a non-sacramental-in-Roman-eyes-marriage is a marriage in a different way to a civic registered marriage - something to discuss! Along with the virtues of the so called European (or is it just German?) option of civic registration followed by church blessing.

In the discussion of same sex marriages v remarriages of divorced persons it is right and proper that we raise the question whether today's 'context' warrants change. It is also right and proper that we ask ourselves whether a broken first marriage can be repented of and whether sex between two people of the same gender in all circumstances is a sin which should be repented of. Our Motion 30 I understand to be an attempt to keep discussing all such issues in our church.

Father Ron Smith said...

Perhaps there is no such thing as a common 'Christian' understanding of marriage.

Is it true, for instance, that a Roman Catholic may not be denied a new marriage in the R.C. Church, if his/her previous marriage was not carried out in the Catholic Church?

Does the Roman Catholic Church believe that a couple married in a different faith community are not really married, and are, therefore, 'living in sin'?

At least, the Anglican Church does recognise that a legal marriage is a marriage - whether religiously contracted or not.

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Bosco and Ron
I may have "mispoke" above ... I have much to learn.

On the possibility of an invalid marriage meaning a Catholic party to it is deemed a sinner and unable to receive communion, see the Catholic Catechism section 1635: in the mixed marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic where the non-Catholic is not prepared to commit to the children being baptised and educated in the Catholic church, the marriage would not appear to be counted as valid (even though 1640 implies it is when both are baptised ...).

Anonymous said...


I am not an expert, but the Catholic Church recognises other Christian marriages as sacramental as long as both parties are baptised (Code of Canon Law paras 1055ff). Although the Church does not recognise Anglican orders, that is irrelevant to your argument. Like baptism, marriage does not require a priest for sacramental validity. Under para 1623 of the Catechism, it is the spouses who mutually confer the sacrament through their consent; there is no sacerdotal element. If necessary, lay Catholics can officiate - see CCL 1112. As for annulment,a Catholic more knowledgable than I will have to comment.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Nick
I would like to know more about annulment, including whether the circumstances of the marriage-to-be-annulled contribute to the annulment being achieved. In crude terms, is it easier to obtain an annulment for a civil registration marriage than for a full nuptial mass?

Father Ron Smith said...

"Under para 1623 of the Catechism, it is the spouses who mutually confer the sacrament through their consent; there is no sacerdotal element." - Nick -

Are you saying then, Nick, that if a couple were baptized, their marriage in a registry office would be considered a 'sacramental marriage' in the eyes of your Church?

Anonymous said...


There are official Church websites to answer annulment FAQs. There might be people for whom the annulment question is current and painful. I do not want to run the risk of misleading them with non-specialist views.

Fr Ron,

Catholics can only marry outside the Church with permission of the Ordinary. If they do not receive it, there will be no sacramental marriage, as far as I understand. If you are asking about two Anglicans of different sex, I do not know for sure, but would guess "yes". If you are asking about two Anglicans of the same sex, the answer is definitely "no" because the Church only recognises marriage between a man and a woman cf CCC 1601 and 1625. Same sex marriage cannot be sacramental in the Catholic Church.


Anonymous said...

This topic has very personal and painful resonance for me, and you have just made me laugh heartily, which is excellent medicine. Thank you so much.