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.