A Broken System?

The case of the “Kennedy annulment” came up in class one day during my first year of canon law studies, and it started quite an extensive conversation. However, no one present had read the book written by the respondent in the case, so I took it upon myself to tackle it. I am so very glad I did.

The book in question is Shattered Faith by Sheila Rauch Kennedy (New York, Pantheon Books, 1997). It was fascinating reading this book at the beginning of a career processing cases of nullity just like the cases that Kennedy grapples with in her book. I have approached this specific line of work, indeed feel called to it, precisely because I first came to see it as (at its best) a ministry of healing and reconciliation of persons with the Catholic Church. While my understanding of marriage nullity investigations has necessarily become much more complex in recent years, that sense of ministry perdures.

It would be easy (if uncharitable) to pooh-pooh the several technical inaccuracies Kennedy makes throughout the book, but I had to remind myself that I was reading as an insider, from within the very circle of trained expertise which she is trying so valiantly to understand from the outside. Considering the approach she took, based on the sources she had available to her, I think it is very much to her credit that she was able to uncover as clear a picture of the so-called annulment process as she did.

Kennedy takes the occasion of fighting her own fight to cast her net wider, to make hers not just a personal narrative but a work of research, albeit not in a scientific sense. She recounts the experiences of other women who have been the unwilling respondents in marriage nullity cases, and in telling her tale she is able to extend her narrative, and the import of her message, by weaving in the stories of others to build her case. Her thesis, of course, is that the ‘annulment machine’ in the American Catholic Church is out of control, and she is hardly the first person, inside the Church or out, to have made this claim: Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were quite clear in their repeated expressions of that same opinion.

Another thing, small perhaps, but noticeable, is how carefully she avoids flopping the Kennedy name and family history around between the covers of this book. She writes from an assumption that readers will know who her former husband is, and largely leaves it at that, which I thought was a good way to go about it, even though I was reading this long after this was a news item, and so sometimes wished for a little more detail, but almost always for my own sense of historical-biographical context, not because it was anything truly germane to the plot of the book.

I still absolutely believe that the work I am doing in the Church is worth doing, but this book broadened my perspective on the process and the impact — sometimes devastating — it can have on the lives of those involved. There are two parties to every marriage, and often children besides, and while the spouse bringing the petition for a declaration of nullity clearly wants to move on with his or her life and leave that relationship behind, that feeling may very well not be shared by the other party. So for me Kennedy’s story was a cautionary tale for me, and I hope it will inspire me to apply with particular care the Church’s own rules of justice, and not allow procedures to roll unquestioningly over people’s lives in the name of pastoral convenience for one of the parties.

Pope Francis has certainly expressed concern over how the current procedural structures could be made better, and how the church might do more to assist those many Catholics who have divorced and re-married. I am quite ready to admit that the processes we have are not perfect, and I would welcome careful reform in this area. As things are currently structured, however, we must bear in mind that the work of the ecclesiastical tribunal is not, ultimately, about making anyone happy. It is not about “letting people get married again” in the Church. Those may sometimes be the results. But the purpose of the process is simple: to discover the truth, and to respect both parties throughout the course of that search for truth. I pray that I and my colleagues can always keep sight of that, and that in searching for and discovering the truth, all may find they are set free.

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5 thoughts on “A Broken System?

  1. In the case of Sheila and Joe Kennedy, their marriage was declared valid by the Roman Rota. The Catholic Church teaches that such people must reconcile in most circumstances, and this is part of what canon lawyers leave out. In fact, there is a whole body of marriage law that is ignored today. Those laws are focused on the salvation of souls, which is also ignored today as if salvation is not an issue.

    I have co-authored a book outlining the many teachings of the Church that have been, in fact, ignored for the past 50 years. It is titled “When Marriage Becomes Worse, What To Do” published by Mother’s House Publishing, Colorado Springs, Colorado. It is available on the Internet.

    Mrs. Sheryl Temaat

    • You are certainly correct, Mrs. Temaat, in noting that the Church does, indeed, need to find better ways of helping and encouraging couples to work to strengthen and save their struggling marriages. I commend you and all the many others who work to further this most important work.

      It may seem a quibble, but I think it is important to clarify that a Church tribunal, including the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, does not in any case declare that a specific marriage is valid. The law of the Church presumes the validity of each and every marriage until proven otherwise (CIC canon 1060) and a negative decision in a marriage nullity case declares that the nullity of the marriage was not proven, and that therefore the presumption of the law in favor of validity has not been overturned. While the effect may be the same – the parties are still considered married in the law of the Catholic Church – I think there is a substantive difference that needs to be kept clear there.

      While there is an extensive history in the United States and elsewhere of concerted efforts to make declarations of nullity far easier to obtain for individuals than they had been in previous eras, I know there are also a great number of tribunal practitioners who take very seriously the ministry of justice that has been entrusted to them for the good of souls and the good of the Church.

  2. BRAVO! for your comments :
    “…There are two parties to every marriage, and often children besides, and while the spouse bringing the petition for a declaration of nullity clearly wants to move on with his or her life and leave that relationship behind, that feeling may very well not be shared by the other party.” and “…to discover the truth, and to respect both parties throughout the course of that search for truth.” Finally, someone with a JCL who understands!!!

    The “pastoral care” of recent news has all been towards the divorced and remarried spouses…none has ever mentioned a peep about the pastoral care needed towards the innocent spouse BEFORE the annulment proceedings even began. It is not the Faithful spouse who compromised and broke the marriage vows, nor was it the innocent spouse who divorced and remarried and now find themselves on the outside looking in. And yet, they are the ones being ignored, both before and after the annulment. Where is the pastoral care in that?

    The first recourse in any proceedings should be the reconciliation of spouses as specified in Canon Law. The preservation of the marriage should be the first concern, if for no other reason than what the Church teaches, that divorce sows disorder in the family and society. So why are the reconciliation canons being ignored? Why does the Church tolerate something that has for decades been proved harmful to children and to Souls? What is the basis for ignoring the greater good? Why the emphasis on the ONE and not on THE MANY?

    I can speak from personal experience of the destruction and decimation of a family and parent-child relationships, being an unwilling participant in an unwanted divorce and annulment. And I can also speak of the choice to remain Faithful to my first vows and first and only spouse, and will close by rhetorically asking the question: “How many marriages could have been saved, had the application of the Canons that urge reconciliation been applied as vigorously and efficiently as the revolving door annulment processes currently in effect?”

  3. I am another example of “a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned” (ccc 2386). The suffering from this grave sin is great. Of course, the spouses suffer and the children suffer. But so do the extended family and the community (folks who know the family from church, school, work, friends, etc). The civil effects of this mess are horrendous! Good parents evicted from their homes by force of law! There is NO JUSTICE in this part of the justice system!!!

    Your archdiocese is one of the best at following canon law. I know because I successfully defended my valid marriage there about 4 years ago. Still, more work needs to be done. I won’t go into detail about every canon law right that was violated in my case, but I can tell you that I am sure my wife would have responded positively if ANYONE from the tribunal had “used pastoral means” to tell her the truth about Catholic teaching on marriage. I am convinced that would have “saved” my marriage (which is actually STILL a marriage–just in the “or worse” part of the “for better or worse”).

    As a director of a tribunal I strongly encourage you to do everything in your power to fix the brokenness of this mess. Here is what I would recommend for starters (not necessarily in priority order):

    1. Follow Canon Law!!! If it says to use pastoral means to try to reconcile the spouses THEN DO THAT!!! Don’t blow it off as “impossible” because one of the spouses says there is no way they will reconcile! Get the spouses together in a room with a person who TRULY UNDERSTANDS the teaching of the church on marriage, redemptive suffering (the Cross of Christ), humility (death to self) and thinking eternally instead of temporally. If Canon Law strongly encourages the judge to question the witnesses in person (vs sending them a letter for which they can all sit down for coffee and collude on their answers) THEN DO IT!!! If Canon Law says . . .example3, example4, etc. (you know what they are).

    2. Get some decent advocates! I interviewed all 8 and only one was remotely worthwhile (that was a Deacon who worked in the Tribunal). THREE HOURS OF TRAINING DOES NOT A WORTHWHILE ADVOCATE MAKE!!!

    3. Stop referring to “former” spouses. It just aggravates folks who understand Canon 1060 (and really makes the tribunal look like they are biased toward the petitioner).

    4. That’s enough for now. If you are really interested, send me an email an we can talk more: mjohns5621 “at” gmail.com.

  4. BRAVO, Mark! Another voice from the wilderness…another voice of the silent minority of Faithful Spouses!

    I echo your call to Tribunals to seek to preserve marriages and not destroy them and the Souls within. It takes little or no effort to end marriages nowadays, but it takes a Herculean effort and much Spiritual strength to help preserve one, whether by lay or cleric.

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