COMMENTARY: Vatican officials are unconcerned about U.S. annulment controversy

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Thomas Patrick Melady, president emeritus of Sacred Heart University, is former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and chairman of the Catholic Campaign for America.)

VATICAN CITY _ Vatican authorities have noted _ but are not especially concerned about _ the recent controversy concerning the annulment process in the United States.

The most recent controversy was sparked by Sheila Rauch Kennedy’s harsh attack on the annulment process in her book”Shattered Faith”(Pantheon), which detailed her messy divorce from Rep. John Kennedy, D-Mass.

But critics, who claim the church’s annulment process is merely”Catholic divorce”in disguise, are simply wrong. An annulment is not a divorce.

Still, the annual rate of annulments for Catholics is now approaching the 70,000 level. Since there were 400 in 1964, some ask,”Why the explosion?” Divorce among U.S. Catholics now equals that of non-Catholics. It is estimated that more than 8 million divorced and remarried Catholics in the United States are part of the more than 18 million divorced and remarried Americans.

The Vatican knows all these statistics about American Catholics.

At the same time, there is an understanding in Rome of the impact of the external culture in the United States which it believes is partially responsible for these divorces.

The annulment explosion represents the pastoral response of the U.S. Catholic Church to the contemporary culture. It is now clear that in the past hundreds of thousands of U.S. Catholics rushed into marriage without proper preparation for the responsibilities of a Catholic marriage based on the core church teaching of”forever until death do us part.” The common ground for the granting of most recent annulments is the lack of”due discretion to give valid consent.”The lack of discretion may involve some psychological immaturity.

Officials here believe the predominant hedonistic pop culture of the United States resulted in many marriages of Catholic lay persons not having an understanding of the requirements of marriage.

Realizing the pain of an ill-prepared marriage, church authorities have improved the processing of such cases since the 1970s. The cases are processed locally and contrary to critics, normally take only a few months.

There is resentment here when Vatican authorities read critics’ charges that”money will buy a Catholic annulment.”The facts are that in the United States the cost of an annulment are well under $1,000. Some dioceses bear the entire costs.

The Kennedy book has highlighted another of the critics’ charges _ that highly visible Catholics, especially the affluent and those in public life, are more apt to receive an annulment than others.

There is, in the words of one monsignor connected with the annulment process,”absolutely no connection between the annulment and their money.” Another criticism of Catholic annulments has been the harm done the innocent party such as in the case of Sheila Kennedy, who not only did not apply for the annulment but fought it.

Vatican officials acknowledge some people can be hurt in the annulment process. But, they insist, it is an important part of church law that if a marriage is invalid,”it is invalid.” Vatican authorities say they regret that little attention in the recent spat of publicity was given to the annulment procedure itself, which they stress is done quietly to protect the privacy of those concerned.

There is also regret here that the recent outbreak of controversial articles and reports on divorce and annulments have not included the church’s emphasis on joy, love, fulfillment and unity of marriage.

The pastoral mission of the church is to minister to all its members. Authorities here speak approvingly of the way U.S. church authorities are facing the enormous pastoral challenge of millions of Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment of their previous marriage.

The ministry to divorced Catholics provides counseling and pastoral guidelines. It is a positive source of assistance to Catholic lay people whose marriage has been terminated by civil divorce. Although many divorced Catholics enter into a second marriage without the blessings of the church, they are still a pastoral responsibility.

While the teaching of the church remains that these Catholics should not remarry without an annulment, the pastoral care shown them means the church has not abandoned them.

MJP END MELADY

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