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Null from the Beginning

There are certain questions I hate answering, as an apologist. Among them are questions about annulments. The subject is not only a sensitive one for many people, it is also very complicated. People feel confused by the issue, and that alone (apart from touchy marital situations) makes them uncomfortable with it. Fortunately, Edward N. Peters, a tribunal judge and canon lawyer with the Diocese of San Diego, has written a book on the subject that will spare me having to answer a lot of questions. Before this book’s publication, I had no in-depth resource on annulments to which I could point people.

There have been annulment-related books on the market, but I haven’t been able to recommend any of them to inquirers. Some have titles such as Annulment: Do You Have a Case? and Annulment: Your Chance to Remarry within the Catholic Church. I can’t recommend books like these because they are too narrowly focused on how to get an annulment (rather than offering a general treatment of the issue) and are often written by unreliable authors.

Other books are outright attacks on the concept of annulments and are written by people who do not understand the difference between divorce and annulments or the reason why annulments exist. Books of this kind include sensationalistic works like Sheila Rauch Kennedy’s Shattered Faith (an odd title, since she had no Catholic faith to shatter—she’s an Episcopalian) and Divorce—Vatican Style.

Fortunately, the new book by Peters provides just what is needed to cut through the fog surrounding the issue of annulments. No other work on the subject comes close to his book. This is partly because Peters is an orthodox, Catholic author. He has a firm commitment to representing the teachings and laws of the Church accurately, and a spirit of honest openness suffuses the work. He also knows his stuff. After years of serving on a diocesan marriage tribunal, he has thought through the issue of annulments so many ways that he has a real knack for explaining complex concepts in a crisp, matter-of-fact manner.

A favorite example of mine is a comment he makes when discussing why people are often asked to pay court costs for researching and adjudicating their annulment case. He asks, “The state required you to get a civil divorce before it would allow you to remarry under its laws, right? Before you got that divorce, the state also required you to pay certain fees and court costs, right? Do you think it was unfair of the state . . . ?”

This is a wonderful analogy. Because the Church is responsible to God for protecting the inviolability of Christian marriage, it has an even greater responsibility than the state to ensure that marriage cases are adjudicated properly. When it asks to be reimbursed for its costs (canon lawyers have to eat, too), this is no more unreasonable than when secular parties ask remuneration for handling a civil divorce.

Peters goes on to point out that there are procedures for reducing or waiving the costs involved for those who are truly unable to afford them: “No one is ever denied their ‘day in the tribunal’ because of an inability to pay.”

And he adds important facts that few people outside a diocesan tribunal would realize: “No one should think . . . that diocesan tribunals, American or otherwise, are making money on the annulment process, and indeed no diocesan tribunal I know of operates in the black. American tribunals generally charge users about one-half of the real cost of a marriage case, and, in almost all cases, the out-of-pocket expenses incurred in an ecclesiastical annulment fall far below those incurred in the civil divorce.”

Another often-sensitive question that Peters tackles in a no-nonsense style is whether an annulment declares the children of a marriage illegitimate. “No, but this answer requires some nuance. First, let’s say a few words about the notion of illegitimacy. It stinks. Babies are not illegitimate, no matter how illegitimate might have been the acts by which they were conceived. Babies are conceived in the image and likeness of God.”

The fact that illegitimacy is a legal category, rather than a moral stain on the child, is something that needs pointing out. Peters goes on to say that illegitimacy no longer carries any canonical consequences that he can discern and speculates that the only reason it is even mentioned in the 1983 Code of Canon Law is that some nations use it to decide questions of child-support and inheritance rights.

He explains that, under canon law, the children of any valid or putatively valid marriage are legitimate. A putatively valid marriage is one which, even though it may actually be invalid, was celebrated in good faith by one or both of the parties. It remains putatively valid until both parties become certain of its nullity, but any children conceived or born before that time are legitimate under canon law.

The book is divided into twelve chapters. Among other things, they cover the officials who are part of the annulment process, the courts in which annulment cases can be heard, when an annulment might be needed, and those who are eligible to file cases. Also included are three appendices containing Vatican documents on mixed marriages and why divorced and civilly remarried Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist. A glossary helps people catch the nuances of key canon law terms.

For many, the most interesting chapter of the book will be the one that discusses the possible grounds for an annulment. Peters explains that there are three things which can make a marriage invalid: one or both spouses lacked the capacity for marriage, one or both spouses did not give proper matrimonial consent, or one or both spouses failed to manifest consent in the proper way.

The first would be the case, for example, if one of the spouses already was married, meaning he lacked the capacity to contract a new marriage. An example of the second would be if the parties agreed to marry only if they could sleep around with other people. An example of the third would be if one or both were Catholic but they married outside the Church without a dispensation to do so.

Peters runs through the common grounds of annulments, as well as circumstances which are often thought to be grounds but actually are not (for example, infertility) or which are not themselves grounds but which may point to the existence of a ground (for example, alcoholism, which is not itself an impediment to marriage but which could impact a person’s ability to give valid matrimonial consent, if it is severe enough).

Another important chapter, “If the Answer Is No,” deals with the fact that not all annulments are granted. Though a couple may be civilly divorced, that does not mean that their marriage is invalid before God, and this has consequences for their lives. Peters explains what happens and what the Church expects in these cases.

If I had any criticism of the book, I would like to have seen it include more biblical and theological material relating to annulments. This would be somewhat outside the area the book carves out for itself—it is meant to be a canon law-oriented guide to the issue. But I think it would have been nice if the book strayed a little further afield to show the biblical and theological basis for the annulment process. Nevertheless, this is by far the best book on annulments that’s out there. 
 James Akin 

101 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments 
By Edward N. Peters 
Basilica Press/Simon & Schuster 
239 pages 
$24.95
ISBN: B0259

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