This past weekend (February 6/7/8), those of us in formation for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Knoxville had perhaps the most important weekend of class that we have yet had, or may have, for it was this weekend that representatives of the Marriage Tribunal of Nashville and Knoxville came to instruct us in how to serve properly as sponsors in cases that may be brought before the tribunal when we are, God willing, ordained as deacons. In other words, how we can help people seeking declarations of nullity for their previous marriage present their cases before the tribunal in a way that will yield the best (and most truthful) possible result. We learned from the Director of the Tribunal, Jeanette Buchanan, that the judges of the tribunal do try their best to reconcile people with the Church and restore them to the sacraments if at all possible. After all, the nullity process is and should be seen as a process of healing, of justice, and of truth.
I also learned that the Director does not like the term annulment, which is commonly applied to this process, but rather the longer but more accurate declaration of nullity or nullity process as some tribunal brochures put it. The reason for this is because annulment is a civil law term which use leaves the impression that the tribunal is undoing something. It is not, because if a marriage is truly valid in the eyes of the Church, the tribunal simply can’t grant a declaration of nullity. The term annulment can also leave the false impression that a declaration of nullity is somehow “Catholic divorce” when it isn’t that at all. If the tribunal finds that someone’s marriage has been invalid, that is exactly what that means, it means that some defect existed on the day of the wedding itself.
People believe all kinds of things about the nullity process, and much of what circulates is false. It is not true, for example, that people can “pay enough money” to get a declaration of nullity, because in our diocese the nullity process is without cost. It does cost if you wish to appeal the tribunal’s decision, but not to have your case heard/reviewed to begin with. The bishops of Nashville and Knoxville determined that no one should have to pay for attempting to reconcile with the Church, and in this way we might say that everyone has what can be called a “level playing field.” No one is granted preference or is turned away because of money.
There isn’t really the time or the space here to go into everything that was discussed, nor would that be appropriate in a forum such as Life At 25, but I can share with you that I came away not with the impression that the tribunal process is “crazy,” as some have said, but that such a process is necessary to uphold the Church’s teaching about what marriage-Holy Matrimony-really is. It is a union of one man and one woman, a covenant, a partnership of the whole of life, ordered to the well-being of both spouses, ordered to procreation and upbringing of children, it is a sacrament, and Matrimony is permanent and exclusive. The Church understands, however, that all of us are imperfect and sinful people, and that inevitably means that people can enter into unions in a way that is not the intent of the Church as I’ve just described here. As a result, people come to the Church looking for a way to deal with the brokenness that this reality can cause, and that is why the nullity process is about mercy, justice, truth, and healing.
Sometimes, of course, people come to the Church and to the tribunal seeking a declaration of nullity and one can’t be granted. There are such things as valid marriages that meet all of the criteria in the Church’s teaching and are valid until death do the spouses part. Marriage isn’t all wine, roses, rings, and romance, it is hard work. That isn’t to say that your romantic feelings for your spouse should just be ignored, quite the contrary! But over the years in my own marriage, I have truly learned to love my wife for the whole person that she is, how to better serve her in love (something that I always strive to do better), and how to be a support for her.
One thing I have come away with from learning so much more about the nullity process is a deeper appreciation for the Church’s teaching about what the sacrament of Matrimony really is, and what she does to uphold that teaching in a world that has its own definition of marriage and its own rules (or lack of rules) about what commitment for life really means. We can be grateful that the Catholic Church continues to uphold marriage in the way that God intended, and will continue to do so because, as Pope Francis reportedly said, we “cannot change” what Christ has instituted.
As the Holy Spirit would have it, this past Monday in RCIA, we discussed the sacrament of Matrimony. We’ve been using the wonderful Symbolon program for RCIA this year, and below I’ve posted a short clip from the Symbolon video on marriage. It spawned good questions and, I have to say, some very serious discussion about what the Church teaches about Matrimony, the single life, divorce, remarriage, and the place of children in the marriage covenant and married life.