Four weddings, but only one sacramental marriage. That was the tally by the time Rob and Shannon made their vows to each other 18 years ago.
Rob and Shannon are not their real names. The couple is not ashamed of their story, but they do not like to dwell on it, either; and it is complex enough that they have not told their own children all the details. It is a story about mistakes, pride, fear and hope, growth and grace, and love and canon law. It is a story, in short, about what makes a valid marriage in the eyes of the church, and how church leaders and structures respond when a marriage is not valid.
For such a theologically dense topic, annulments are a perennially popular topic of discussion and debate among Catholics. They are also perennially misunderstood. Many Americans speak of “getting an annulment” as if it were just the Catholic version of divorce, and many Catholics leave the church when they discover that there is more to it than that. There are persistent stories of rich or famous Catholics who supposedly bought their way out of undesirable marriages; and armchair theologians are quick to offer their pronouncement on whether or not a stranger’s marriage is valid based on a few online comments.
But the problems surrounding petitioning for decrees of nullity go deeper than rumors and misunderstandings. In 2015, Pope Francis made some reforms, aimed at lowering the costs and expediting the process. He opined in January 2021 that these efforts were being stymied by the desire for money.
But some canon lawyers believe a different kind of reform is necessary, anyway—the kind that takes place on a more personal level, where couples begin their lives together with a better understanding of what the church means by marriage, and are supported during inevitable times of struggle.
What does the church really teach about this widely misunderstood process, and how does it play out in the lives of ordinary Catholics? What does it do to their emotional and spiritual lives to encounter a doctrine that works in the space where law meets love?
Fr. James Altman can no longer preach, assist at marriages, or baptize without permission, and he cannot celebrate the Eucharist with anyone else present until further notice from his bishop, according to an excerpt of a decree shared by Rocco Palmo on Twitter today.
The celebrity priest of LaCrosse, who gained notoriety for the increasingly strident far right views he shared in his sermons and online, was removed as pastor in May. He publicly rejected his bishop’s call to resign, and has now had his celebret removed for an indeterminate time, meaning many of his priestly faculties have been removed by his bishop until further notice.
The decree says that Bishop Callahan is taking this action as part of his duty to “protect the diocese against scandal and any civil lawsuits that could have dramatic financial consequences for the diocese.”
A cleric’s privileges may be restricted by an ordinary if there has been a delict (canonical crime) committed and proved, or alleged; or if the cleric in question is involved in a situation that, if he remains in a particular ministry, threatens the common good of the diocese.
The decree against Altman is the latter sort. Such a decree is issued when it will harm the diocese if the priest continues to act as a priest in public. The priest is not accused of having committed a crime, but his involvement in a particular situation is a threat to the integrity of the diocese, and the bishop judges that he is forced to constrain the priest’s faculties until something changes.
While the excerpt that has been shared on social media does not specify how Altman’s presence in the diocese threatens to harm its integrity, it does put the onus on him to remedy the harm. It says that if he does not act himself to remedy the situation, it harms the diocese. It says that the restrictions will be imposed “until the cause has ceased to exist” and that “[i]t is primarily the responsibility of Father James Altman to make sure that this cause ceases to exist.”
The decree bars Altman from leaving the diocese, which his bishop is entitled to do by virtue of the obedience Altman owes to him. It also requires him to go on a thirty day spiritual retreat “to give him the possibility to spiritually heal and recharge and to address the issues that caused the issuance of this decree.” It warns Altman that violations of the decree may result in further restrictions or the imposition of ecclesiastical sanctions.
Altman has not yet exhausted his chance to appeal the decree, and may now plead his case before the Signatura, the final canonical court of appeals for issues other than marriage nullity. The Father Altman account today has Alman characterizing himself as “a voice of Truth” whom the “corrupt” hierarchy “boldly continues to cancel.”
When Altman was removed as pastor, a group calling itself Caritas in Veritate launched a fundraiser for his legal defense, claiming he was the subject of “diabolical persecution.” As of July 8, over $359K has been raised. The fundraiser page said that Altman would donate any excess funds to the handicap ramp fund at St. James the Lesser, but only if he were allowed to remain pastor there.
He also forced his wife to come inside Holy Rosary Church, and he assaulted her before the altar, his wife told police.
According to the probable cause affidavit filed in court: Still wearing clerical garb, Fr. Reese made his wife to kneel before the altar, hitting her in the face, pulling her hair, and putting his hands around her neck, and threatening to choke her as he demanded the password to her cell phone. He then threw her into a wall in the church before forcing her out of the building and back into his car. He then continued to physically and sexually assault her for another several hours.
Fr. Reese has been charged with several crimes, including criminal confinement with bodily injury, criminal confinement where a vehicle is used, kidnapping, domestic battery, battery resulting in bodily injury, and intimidation. He has been released on bond, and his trial is scheduled for May.
the ordinariate said Reese has been barred from performing any public ministry since he was placed on leave.
“Bishop Steven J. Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter has pledged the diocese’s full cooperation with the civil authorities conducting the investigation,” the statement reads. “The Ordinariate is committed to collaborating with authorities to ensure justice is provided for all concerned, and affirms the Catholic Church’s clear teaching that domestic violence is never justified.”
Reese faces jail time. But his alleged crimes leave an aftermath that is not merely a legal matter, but a spiritual and canonical one.
Fr. Reese allegedly beat, threatened, and degraded his wife while forcing her to kneel before the consecrated altar. He is a priest who offers the holy sacrifice of the Mass at that altar. Do Reese’s alleged actions inside Holy Rosary constitute desecration? Does the church need to be reconsecrated?
“Given the alleged facts that have emerged … I am not certain how one could avoid concluding that a serious violation of the church’s sacred character had taken place.”
Vere said, “Certainly the act is grave, especially coming from an ordained priest. It was perpetuated at least in part in a sacred space. And it gives rise to scandal among both Catholics and non-Catholics.”
According to Canon 1211, the local Ordinary is the one who decides whether a serious enough violation has occurred. If he judges the acts are grave, injurious, and scandalous enough to qualify as a violation of a sacred place, the church will need to be reconsecrated.
The local Ordinary, says Vere, could be the pope, the diocesan bishop, the Vicar General, or an episcopal vicar.
On what basis does the Ordinary make his judgment? The Navarre commentary on Canon 1211 says that there are three conditions which constitute a violation of sacred space. It says:
These conditions — necessary, but not sufficient — are: 1) the act is grave and injurious; 2) it gives rise to scandal; and 3) it was perpetrated in the sacred space. In order to ascertain whether an act fulfilling these conditions gives rise to the violation of a sacred place, one must refer to the judgment of the local Ordinary, unless he himself has previously enumerated the facts that constitute a violation . . . today, the sensitivity of the faithful to the scandal that has been produced should be considered as a criterion for assessing the scope of the facts.
Before a church is reconsecrated, there must be reparation for the desecration.
“Preaching to prepare for the penitential rite may be carried out. The people are encouraged to avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation, which should be celebrated in another church. To symbolize penance, the Ceremonial recommends: “The altar of the church should be stripped bare and all customary signs of joy and gladness should be put away, for example, lights flowers, and other such articles.”
Fr. McNamara says that “the Mass of reparation is the preferred mode,” and that “it is fitting that the bishop presides at the rite of reparation.” Here is a more detailed description of that rite.
Vere says it’s common for Church authorities to wait until civil authorities have completed their work. Vere said:
“Before any action is undertaken, the local Ordinary would first need to establish what happened. Right now the priest has been charged but his case has not yet gone to court. It is not unusual in Canada or the United States for Catholic ecclesiastical authorities to hold off canonical action until criminal charges by civil authorities are resolved.”
Vere said it would be unusual for reconciliation and reconsecration to take place without the inclusion of the congregation, “because liturgy is the Church’s public prayer and thus generally open to participation by the faithful,” and because the story is now public, and thus “many of the faithful have been affected.”
“Pastorally, these are the people the Church will want to reconcile by the liturgical action prescribed,” said Vere.
All of us as human beings, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, have a right to be treated with the respect that our God-given dignity demands. We also have a right to hear the truth, whether it pleases us or not — even if it unhappily seems to complicate the unity of the Church herself.
Greg Otolski, communications director for the archdiocese, has returned none of our numerous calls, emails, and text messages. We have also received no response from the Ordinariate despite numerous requests.
Image: Holy Rosary Church interior, photo by Joe Grabowski.
If a dumb sheep starts nibbling on the medicine spoon, rather than drinking the medicine, that doesn’t mean that vets aren’t necessary. It means the sheep needs to be redirected to the goal, which is being healed.