The Phantom Marriage Vow: A guest post on annulments by Abigail Tardiff

In today’s post, my sister, Abigail Tardiff, responds to Deacon Jim Russell’s recent article Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness” in Crisis Magazine.


“I Meant My Vows Even If He Didn’t”

I have a friend who was divorced and remarried. She understood that she couldn’t receive communion in such a state, and it was tearing her apart. At the same time, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her present husband (or live celibately with him).

I suggested she apply for an annulment of her first marriage, because I had reason to think there were strong grounds for establishing a defect in his consent. She said, “Oh no, I could never get an annulment. It would be dishonest, because even if he didn’t mean his vows, I meant mine.”

The Phantom Extra Marriage Vow

I have run into this misunderstanding again and again. People seem to think that when you get married, you make two vows: the first is your marriage vow, which requires consent from both of you. But the second is a promise just to God and to yourself to remain faithful to this person. The annulment declares the first vow void, but the second is irrevocable.

This is nonsense. There is only one marriage vow. If the Church declares that you are not married, then you are not required to remain faithful, for the simple reason that there is nothing to remain faithful to. If your spouse did not actually intend marriage, then you may have thought you were making a vow—but you weren’t. If no marriage took place, then no vow took place.

There is no such thing as a unilateral marriage vow. You don’t marry him and then also promise to remain faithful to him; your faithfulness to him is the putting into practice of your marriage vow. If your marriage never existed, then neither did your promise to remain faithful.

Simony: Charging Extra

Why is this so important? First, because of all the bruised reeds out there who are longing to get back to the Church, like my friend. Imposing extra requirements on someone—duties that Christ and His Church never demanded of us—is a kind of simony. (Simony, the selling of something holy, is named after Simon Magus in the book of Acts, who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles Peter and John.)

Well, buying something holy is pretty bad, but selling it is even worse. If you tell someone that in order to be a virtuous Catholic, he should not marry even when the Church tells him he is free to marry—then you’re charging him (in heroic sacrifice, not in money) for something that the Church has made free.

Faithfulness without Marriage?

Second, the idea that marriage entails two individual vows of faithfulness, essentially unrelated to each other, eats away at the theology of marriage. Faithfulness to your spouse is not a rule stuck onto marriage from the outside; it flows from the very nature of marriage, which is the becoming one of two who were previously separate. The very reason unfaithfulness is such a terrible sin is that it attacks that oneness of the spouses. But if that oneness does not exist, it cannot be attacked. Without a spouse, there is no one to remain spousally faithful to.

Faithfulness to My Own Consent?

In a recent article for Crisis Magazine titled “Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness,” Deacon Jim Russell makes some beautiful points about annulment. He says no one should ever be pressured to seek an annulment, and he points out that marriage tribunals are required by canon law to encourage the spouses to be reconciled, and to seek convalidation if there is a defect in their consent.

But he also writes, “when two people enter into a covenant, but only one ‘means it,’ the one who ‘means it’ has ipso facto remained faithful not only to his or her own words and will, but also faithful to the covenant itself.” He says it’s heroically virtuous to remain faithful to your own “irrevocably expressed consent.”

There it is again, that phantom second marriage vow: faithfulness not only to your spouse, but also to your own consent. Consent to what? What else but marriage? But if the Church declares a union null, there’s no marriage to consent to.

A One-Sided Covenant?

Deacon Jim says it’s heroically virtuous, in a case where your spouse did not mean his vows, to remain faithful nevertheless to a “covenant” that he admits is not a “two-sided covenant.” Again, this is nonsense. Marriage does not consist of two covenants, one two-sided and one one-sided, so that when the two-sided covenant is declared null, the one-sided one remains. Marriage is a two-sided covenant or nothing at all. Let us defend the indissolubility and sacredness of marriage, and support those who are divorced, without tying up burdens that are heavier than the ones our Faith already asks us to carry.

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6 thoughts on “The Phantom Marriage Vow: A guest post on annulments by Abigail Tardiff”

  1. I asked a priest (who worked for Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome) about annulments being infallible. I asked if the Church declared it null then it’s the same as God saying it’s null, right?
    He said that “no, the Church can absolutely make a mistake when declaring a marriage null. After all, what God joins no man can separate, no one except God can truly know for sure. That being said, both spouses of couple is free to marry again but that if for some reason the decision of nullity was in err (say dishonesty in testimony from one or both of the spouses and to God they’re really married) their second marriages would not be sacramental marriages even if they look to be so to the outside world.

  2. The more I think about this the more I believe that Tardiff’s view is cynical and cruel. It devalues the holiness and greatness of marriage vows by saying by faith that the marriage doesn’t exist since there is a possibility of a defect in consent. Or maybe that’s anti-faith. It says that woman’s vow was always meaningless and didn’t actual ever exist because there’s a possibility of a defect in consent. That actually seems kind of base and cruel.

  3. He was only talking about a pre-annulment, Schroedinger’s cat scenario, in which the Church by default presumes the marriage is valid, not a post-annulment scenario in which the Church has established that there is no marriage. In the Schroedinger’s cat situation the marriage exists even if hypothetically an investigation would lead to a declaration of nullity.

  4. I’ve never heard it expressed in these terms (more than one “covenant” going on in marriage)–but I think Abigail Tardiff is on to something important! I will have to think about it some more.

    I have taught RCIA before and I’ve often been surprised by the reasons people give for not seeking an annulment. If you’re able to talk to them about it, sometimes you find they do have mistaken or even very strange ideas about the nature of marriage. Lots of times, better catechesis about marriage can bring them relief.

  5. THIS.
    Brilliantly written. Thank you!

    There is so much work to be done when even a prominent deacon can think that lighting some kind of candle to a falsehood is somehow heroic or virtuous. The type of guilt that produces this kind of nonsense seems to be entrenched in many of the faithful. It is a more dangerous form of spiritual warfare.

    I used to think that the parable of the Wheat and the Tares was about good people vs. bad people. Now I realize it is more about the battle that takes place in each soul. Bishop Barron has given some good talks on this.

    1. I’m with you Anna Lisa, or mostly anyway. I’m a little concerned that automatic (or de facto conditions existing for) annulments when one spouse walks away from a marriage cheapens the sacrament of marriage. Under what conditions do you think an annulment should be denied? I mean, what’s the point of marriage being a sacrament if conditions have to be perfect for actual graces to be conferred? Or are actual graces conferred (just not enough of them) but there still wasn’t a sacrament at the ceremony? That said, I am hard pressed to think in real life of a single divorce where I believe an actual marriage ever existed in the first place. If I were on the tribunal board and any of these people were seeking annulments, I’d grant every one of them. And I wouldn’t charge for it either (but THAT simony talk is for another day). 😉

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