by Susan Walker
Covenant of love
As Catholics, our unique view of marriage places certain demands on those who choose to enter a marriage covenant. Marriage is perhaps the closest we will ever come to God's love in this life, and we hold it in high esteem. Think about it. We don't choose our parents, we don't choose our children. Yet, from the thousands of people we have met or will meet throughout the course of our lives, we choose one specific person to be our spouse. Spouses freely give to and receive consent from one another. This freely given love reflects God's choice to love us. The relationship between spouses and the relationship between God and us are so close in nature that we believe that marriage is an "irrevocable covenant." If we enter our marriage covenant fully and authentically, to abandon marriage would seem tantamount to God abandoning us.
Unfortunately, sad experience tells us that not every marriage continues. Not every civil marriage is a sacramental exchange of consent, couples may obtain a civil divorce. Little more has the power to devastate us than the break up of a close marital relationship. Divorce is usually incredibly painful. A divorce has pain-filled events and memories: dreams unfulfilled, disappointment, disillusionment, loneliness, a sense of betrayal or failure and the difficulties of separating a household and re-establishing a "home." Usually both parties involved invested a great deal in their marriage, and its dissolution is traumatic.
The church community invests in this relationship as well. Marriage is a sacrament - equal in sign and meaning, and as unchanging as the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders. Each marriage receives the benefit of the doubt, that is, that sacramentalism existed at the moment of consent.
The high level of investment in the first marriage and the crashing disappointment of its failure make remarriage all the more sweet. To find and commit to a spouse has deep and intense meaning after the emotions of divorce. And naturally other people are happy for the couple, for their new love and for the new hope in their lives. Yet there is still baggage to be dealt with from the first marriage.
As parish communities, we walk a fine line between sensitivity to the personal hurts of divorce, the promise and hope in remarriage and the necessity to uphold the integrity of our beliefs about sacramental marriage.
The annulment process comes in at this point. A civil divorce cannot suffice for the church community because of God's command that what has been joined cannot be separated. The question becomes, "Were the two people ever truly joined in a sacramental marriage? The process of determing that answer call be long and confusing, and couples need to be guided through it with a great deal of pastoral sensitivity, in a gentle and non judgmental manner.
The first step in the process of an annulment is for all involved, couples and ministry personnel alike, to understand what a decree of nullity is and what it is not. An annulment does not assign guilt or innocence. Nor does it zone in on individual faults and failings. It does not pretend that the civil marriage never happened or change the legal status of children, nor does it affect parental rights or responsibilities.
Rather, an annulment examines the subjective area of spiritual consent by examining objective behaviors. The marriage tribunal struggles to determine if marital consent is given freely or if circumstances in the husband's or wife's life make a free choice unlikely - if not impossible. Did friends and family members observe behaviors and situations to indicate this? Was consent given with the intention of a lifelong commitment, a deep and conscious decision to enter an irrevocable relationship or was there a casual attitude to the formality of getting married'?