Something Borrowed, Something Blue

In the last couple weeks, Pope Francis has made two announcements that have caught worldwide attention.  First, as part of his Year of Mercy, he announced that priests would be given a blanket authorization to grant absolution to those who have participated in an abortion.  In truth, this is a non-story.  While it is true that abortion (which, by the way, is not just women who have abortions but everyone who participates in the process--doctors, clinic staff, etc.) is a so-called "reserved sin" that bishops have the right to reserve absolution to themselves, in practice in most places the bishop just grants priests the right to absolve abortion-related confessions.  So, as a practical matter, this represents no change in most cases.

The other story is the change in the rules for annulments.  The changes, in essence, are designed to speed up the process and remove any impediments--dioceses can no longer charge fees for processing annulments, and the automatic appeal of the annulment is eliminated.  In my Google Translate version of the Italian original document (the official English version is not on the Vatican website), it does not appear that there are any new grounds for annulments.  Thus, in theory, no one who could not get an annulment before can get one under the new rules, but folks who were eligible will be able to get them faster and with less hassle.

What to make of these changes?  I know I have said this before, but we should be clear about precisely what is at stake here.  There are lots of Catholic folks out there who are divorced and remarried without getting an annulment to the first marriage.  While some of those follow the rules which tell them they must refrain from going up and taking Communion, in my totally anecdotal experience the more common response is either to go up and take Communion anyway, or else just stop practicing Catholicism (in favor of going to a Protestant church, or just stop practicing Christianity in an institutional way altogether).

If you begin from the premise that this reality is a fait accompli, then the Pope's move is less about the theology of marriage and more about repairing and strengthening the bonds linking people and the Church.  If there is a segment of people out there who are going to get remarried one way or the other, but whom would be alienated by the complexity and expense of the annulment process to the point they would leave the Church, reducing the complexity and expense makes it more likely they would stay in the fold.  On that level, these moves seem sensible and pragmatic (though, there is Pew data, admittedly of a very small sample size, that would suggest that this will have little effect).

This leads, however, to the obvious question--if we begin from the premise that Catholics are going to get remarried if they get a divorce no matter what, where does this leave the principle that marriage is a singular, unbreakable bond?  Sure, we can say that one should get married once for life, but that is not a particularly controversial.  Nor is it the same at all as saying one can only get married once for life.  Doesn't the Catholic marriage doctrine collapse in on itself?

Well, yes.  But I would argue that this has already occurred, at least in the U.S.
Here's a fun fact--49% of all annulments granted by the Catholic Church are granted to U.S. Catholics.   For a country that represents 6% of the world's Catholics, that's a whole lot of annulments.  What explains this?  Well, for one thing, U.S. tribunals are well known for being pretty liberal in giving out annulments to those that make their way through the process.  And there are all sorts of ways that people who know their way around the process (or know people who know their way around the process) can improve the chances of getting an annulment.

A number of years back, I was teaching RCIA, and there was a woman in my class that I became friends with.  She was marrying a Catholic guy, and she was both going through RCIA and trying to get her first marriage annulled.  We were having a conversation about her first marriage, and she mentioned that when he proposed to her she knew it was a bad idea to get married to this guy but felt like she had to (for reasons that, honestly, I can't remember now).  Now, that is a pretty clear example of entering into the marriage with reservations, and I told her to emphasize that story in her annulment papers.  I didn't tell her to lie or shade the truth (in fact, I think I said "tell the Tribunal exactly what you just told me.")  But she had no way of knowing that the story she told me was particularly relevant until I told her.  A tiny bit of insider information allowed her to frame her story in a way that made it more likely that she would get an annulment.

But, here's the thing.  Neither I nor the person I was speaking with actually viewed that anecdote as meaning what the Tribunal said it meant--that on some level she was never really married to the first husband.  And that's the real issue here--the vast majority of Catholics view the annulment process as a Catholic divorce, one with an idiosyncratic set of standards and conditions.  Very few people actually buy into the underlying theological principle that is ostensibly at work, which is that a marriage never really happened the first time around.  That seems to most like a contorted post hoc justification.

So, the Pope's move is not going to "fix" the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics, because the problem is deeply enmeshed in the  underlying theology of marriage.  "Fixing" the problem requires a far more difficult and challenging analysis than is being offered.  What do we do about the fact that a person getting married at, say 25, could reasonably expect to be married for 60 years if they stay married to that person (an unheard of length in the past, given life expediencies)?  How should Jesus's injunction against divorce, which at least in part was based on the desire to protect women in Jewish culture of the time, be understood in a culture that has far, far more gender equality than ever before?  Is the "just say no" approach to marital break-ups really in the best interests of all parties?

Those are tough questions, and Francis has not answered them.  But that's OK.  If this move brings more people back into the fold, then that's more people to work on this problem together.  If even a few people's lives are improved, if even a few people have an easier time finding God in their lives as a result of this, then it will be worth it.  If it reduces the temperature in the room a little bit, and keeps things from devolving into a screaming match, then Francis has done good work.

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