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.

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“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.

Not everything is fixable (God have mercy on us all)

black-and-white-forest-trees-branches

A caller once asked radio host Dr. Laura for advice about an impossible situation. I forget the details — something about lots of children and lots of fathers, various addictions, various betrayals, and a family tree that was twisted and ingrown and diseased. Dr. Laura could not offer much hope to the caller, other than to point out that her story shows why it’s so important not to have kids out of wedlock.

“But–” the caller protested.  “What if I can get my boyfriend to go to therapy?” Dr. Laura laughed – cruelly, I thought.
“Therapy?” she said incredulously. “Therapy isn’t magic. It can’t fix everything. Honey, not everything can be fixed.”

I’ve since stopped listening to Dr. Laura. She has some good ideas, but she has a lot of bad ones, too, and she has very little concept of mercy. But boy, she was right about this thing: not everything can be fixed.

Oh, in the long run it can, of course. Despite the anguished mental contortions of Ivan Karamazov, the second coming of Christ will bring about a thorough reconciliation of all things, unimaginable to our limited consciences. But in this world, there are some situations which have become so twisted and ingrown and diseased that they cannot be fixed.

These situations are what we’re seeing as we work through various solutions to “irregular marital situations.” Darwin Catholic points out that some people are speaking as if there are only two ways of describing marriage: either adulterous, and therefore bad, or loving, and therefore good.  He says:

The fact is, there are a lot of people in our current society who are living in relationships which are not what the Church would view as valid marriages (they were married before and their prior marriage has not been ruled invalid, they are living together without having gone through a marriage ceremony, they are Catholics who got married in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation, etc.) and yet who seem to all appearances to care about each other, to be raising children together, to be happy because of the relationship which the Church labels as sinful.

He uses the example of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who began their relationship in adultery — and yet they stayed together for decades, clearly loving and supporting and cherishing each other. Darwin says:

Was that an adulterous relationship or a loving relationship? Who’s to say it wasn’t both?

When we live in sin, with sin, around sin, it becomes entangled with a lot of the good in our lives. That’s one of the reasons we should try so hard not to get into these situations in the first place, because after going far down that path there will be good as well as evil that will be disrupted if we try to end our sin.

Very true. We want to see the world as black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, love vs. H8, so that it’s easy to choose sides — and once you make our stand, we can relax.

Well, we can’t relax. Every day is a struggle to discern the right thing to do in individual situations, which may have changed drastically since yesterday. But also,  every day is a struggle to discern how to treat people who are in a bad situation that they can’t get out of — that they can’t therapize away. How to be loving toward people who are in situations that can’t be fixed?

The other day, I suggested that the best we can do, in some unfixable marital situations, is to treat these couples as part of a larger family — to be welcoming of people living in sin if only for the sake of their children and all the other people their lives affect. This welcome doesn’t really help the couple involved, of course, unless their rightfully-married spouse dies, or unless they receive the grace to muster the heroic resolve to make their adulterous (albeit loving) relationship into a chaste one. One can make a spiritual act of communion and worship God no matter what, but remaining in a state of mortal sin is not a long term plan anyone should be comfortable with.

It would also be a wonderful thing to offer beefed-up  marriage preparation and support after marriage, so that fewer couples find themselves in invalid or impossibly difficult marriages.

I wish, though, that we could move past just repeating, “Not everything can be fixed.”  Okay, not everything can be fixed . . . but this is not a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation.

I’m so tired, like Darwin, of hearing from people who should know better that the world is black and white. It’s not.

Some Catholics would like to say, “Lower the boom! The Eucharist isn’t for people in mortal sin, and adultery is a mortal sin. Jesus doesn’t care about your stupid feeeeeelings, so hit the road, adulterers, and take your bastard kids with you, if you even bothered to have any, ptui.” And others would like to say, “We’re all sinners, and God is love, so why are we even bothering to talk about  – ptui – sin? Let’s be on the side of love. Here’s a Host for you, and a Host for you, and a Host for you . . . . ”

But that’s not how things really work. Not all couples living in marital sin are honest, virtuous, loving sorts who simply got dealt a bad spousal hand, and now the mean old Church just won’t let them have Jesus because of spite; but neither are all couples living in sin just squalid hedonists who followed their genitals into mortal sin and disastrous home lives. Not all couples in valid marriages are upright, devout cornerstones of society who are holding the Church together with the sheer awesomeness of their sacramental devotion; but neither are all couples in valid marriages are just lucky ducks who happened to stumble across a ready-made, shiny, happy, stable homelife.

Some of us worked hard and still lost; some of us got lucky and skated into something great. Most of us are some combination of lucky and unlucky, hard-working and stupid. What do we all have in common? We all need mercy — from God, and from each other.

Unfixable. Some situations are unfixable. We can work on prevention and we can work on damage control, but not everything can be fixed. But that doesn’t mean that we have a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation. We can’t say, “Not everything is fixable, so get away from me.” We should say, “Not everything is fixable. I’m so sorry. God have mercy on us all.”

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I just figured out why it was called “The Synod on the Family.”

Keep away the fire at the family hearth

 

I just figured out the entire Synod. Or at least, I figured out something about it! Maybe everyone else already knows this, and I’m just slow, but it kind of blew my mind.

My husband and I were talking about people in really rotten marital situations — say, a Catholic man in a valid marriage to a woman who reacted badly to the trials of life, and turned into a horrible person. When she began to abuse the kids, they got a civil divorce, and he found someone else, and they’re really in love, and she loves his kids, and they had more kids together . . . but they recently met with their priest, and it’s painfully obvious that there is no way he can get an annulment. The old marriage was a valid marriage, awful as it was. This new couple has only two choices: (a) to remain in what is truly an adulterous marriage, and to refrain from receiving Communion indefinitely, because they’re in a state of mortal sin, or (b) to live together as brother and sister and hope the old wife dies.

Either way: awful, awful, awful.

The upshot of the first documents leaking out of the Synod seem to be saying, among other things, that the Church is trying to encourage people who can’t get annulments to be part of the Church in some way — to get them back into the community somehow, without them being officially in communion with the Church.

I wondered why. I mean, why would someone want to be in the Church if they can’t receive the Eucharist?  There are many wonderful things about the Church, but without the Eucharist . . . what’s the point? Who wants to hang around a restaurant if you never get to sit and eat?

And then I realized. The children. People will bring their children to be fed. If they feel welcome, and if they feel like they’re not utterly rejected, even though they can’t receive Communion, they will bring their children to Mass, and will bring their children to catechism class, and will bring their children to the sacraments.  They will make sure their children stay involved in the life of the Church. Or at least they might! And there is hope for the next generation . . . and also for the cousins, who always keep up on the family news, and for the friends of the family, and for the lady in the grocery line who stop and chat about  marriage and want to know all about your personal life . . .

They can tell that lady, “Well, it’s complicated, but I’m still a Catholic.There is still a place for  me. It’s not what I’d wish, but it’s better than nothing. They still want me, and I still need Him.”

Whereas, if all they hear from the Church is, “Sorry. You’re out. Shame on you. Next!” then of course they will not bring their children, and their children won’t go to Mass, or catechism, or to the sacraments. Why would they? Why would anyone be a part of an organization that not only cannot give them the Bread of Life, but won’t even acknowledge that they are trying hard to be loving? And we’ll continue in this horrible cycle where people who are really trying to be decent are barred from the sacraments, but people who waltzed into marriage without thinking it through can get their marriage declared null, and it just seems so unfair, and who wants to be part of that kind of Church that punishes love and gives a do-over for foolishness? And every conversation about the Church will be about how unfair it is, and that’s why We Don’t Go There Anymore.

That’s what I mean when I say I figured out the Synod. It really wasn’t hidden! It’s all about the family. It’s always been about the family — and the family is about more than the one marriage and the one couple in question. That’s why they didn’t call it “The Synod About Gay People and Divorce” or “The Synod About Just How Popey the Pope Plans to Be, Anyway” or “The I-Don’t-Recall-Jesus-Talking-Much-About-Marriage,-Do-Youuu? Synod” Nope. Every single human being is, for better or worse, part of a family, and because of this, what we do affects lots of other people — and how we’re treated affects lots of other people, too.

It’s about future generations, and also it’s about how the faith of children can affect parents. That’s what the Church means by “mercy.” Not “anything goes, as long as we all feel good,” but “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” We cannot give medicine to the dead, but neither will we sign any death certificates prematurely.

It sounds like the Church intend to make it much harder for people to accidentally or frivolously go through with invalid marriages, and it sounds like they intend to offer support for valid marriages after the wedding, so that people get married for real, and stay married for good.  But what about the generations of people who are already caught in an impossible situation?  There have been, let’s face it, several decades of failure. People have grown up never hearing a word of doctrine from the pulpit, never learning a scrap of catechism in Catholic school, never knowing the first thing about what the Church believes about sex or marriage (or the Real Presence, or anything). They’re caught, and it’s not fair, and it stinks.

But it’s not going to help anyone to pretend that real marriages weren’t real, or that invalid marriages aren’t real. You can’t just change the rules when you feel sorry for people. That will just create more people for whom to feel sorry.

How to serve the people caught in the middle? Make a place for them, and make a place for their children. Make a place for their whole family.

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Everybody knows the Church will change. (Everybody is wrong.)

Rom,_Vatikan,_Petersdom_-_Silhouette_bei_Sonnenuntergang_3

 

Many Catholics believe the Synod on the Family will drive home the final nail in the coffin of orthodoxy. They believe that, when the Synod is over, from that coffin will emerge some hideous new zombie Church, which progressive Pope Francis will envelop in one of his famous Marxist hugs. Together, Frankie and Zombie will personally cater all the gay weddings they can find, and couples who have three or more annulments under their belts can claim a discount on renting the Sistine Chapel for their next few weddings.

Many Catholics look at the Synod, and they know that the Church is going to change. They know it.

Are they right? Let’s step back a few decades, to the last time everybody knew what would happen in the Church.

In 1963, Pope John XXIII called a Pontifical Commission to examine the Church’s ban on artificial birth control. After he died, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to include doctors, theologians, lay women, bishops and cardinals.

The members of this committee were chosen by the Pope, and everybody knew what that meant: the Church was obviously revving up for something big, something new. The commission members debated, studied, and solicited testimony for several years; and then in 1966, they came out with a report that concluded exactly what everyone was expecting: It said that the Church should do a 180 and allow artificial birth control. The official report said that birth control was not intrinsically evil, and that the Church’s ban on it should be lifted.

There was rejoicing in some quarters, wringing of hands in others, as everyone assumed that the Pope would agree. Everyone assumed that life as a married Catholic would be dramatically different from then on, in keeping with the times. Laymen thought so. Priests thought so. Everyone thought, “This is it. This is the big change we’ve all been [hoping for/dreading].”

And what happened?

Humanae Vitae happened. BOOM. Rather than assenting to the Commission’s recommendation, Paul VI issued the glorious encyclical which firmly and passionately reasserts the Church’s constant teaching on human sexuality, almost miraculously predicting the societal ills that would follow if the world embraced artificial contraception. The encyclical thrilled some, enraged others, and immediately began sowing the seeds for John Paul II’s flourishing Theology of the Body, which is only now beginning to take root in the hearts of many Catholics.

In 1968, everyone knew the Church was going to change.

Everyone was wrong.

I expect — no, I believe with all my heart — that the same will happen in the next few years regarding the issues of divorce and civil remarriage, and same sex marriage. The Pope has reaffirmed countless times that he is a “son of the Church” and will uphold and defend her doctrine, no matter what the rumors imply (and Cardinal Kasper — CARDINAL KASPER — says so, too).

Now, this is not to say that everything will be fine. Most Catholics, including those present when Humanae Vitae first came out, ignored and continue to blithely ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception. It’s likely that Catholics who are in favor of same sex marriage will continue to be in favor of same sex marriage, no matter what happens at the synod, and no matter what the Pope says, infallibly or otherwise.

But will the Church change her teachings on marriage? No, she will not. I would bet my life on it. Sometimes when everyone knows something, everyone is wrong.

So, listen to rumors if you like. Debate about the ins and outs of various meetings and interviews, and feel free to wince, as any normal human being would do, as we witness sausage being made. Above all, pray — pray for the pope, pray for the bishops, pray for a change of heart for those in dissent, and pray for courage for those who are faithful. Pray for the Church. Pray for all of us. Prayer is always the appropriate response. But as you pray, don’t panic.

Remember, everybody knew what was definitely going to happen in 1968.  Everybody was wrong.

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How about post-Cana counseling?

These cats are basically compatible and have more or less the same goals, but their relationship could still use some support.

These cats take their union seriously, are basically compatible, and have more or less the same goals, but their relationship could still use some support.

For many young couples, their main problem is that they simply don’t have any Catholic friends or family, and no one will know what they’re talking about if they are struggling with family planning, or educational choices, or how to maintain a family prayer life. What’s missing is not classes or seminars or programs, but direct human contact with people who understand.

Read the rest at the Register.