Pre-Marital Annulments: What Tribunal Ministry Taught Me About the Culture of Death

Having spent the past four years engaged in tribunal ministry, I am often asked about the high number of annulments in North America. Now the Code of Canon Law lists many grounds upon which the Church may declare a marriage invalid. The more common grounds concern the psychological maturity of the spouses or their intention going into the marriage.

Premarital Relations

Rather than bore you with canonical jargon, however, allow me to state the root cause in most of these cases: abortion, contraception and pre-marital sex.

Granted, pre-marital sex is something society now expects from young couples. Pornography is the wallpaper of our culture, while condoms are as common in our classrooms as crayons. Thus whenever I interview someone seeking an annulment, I always ask whether the couple engaged in pre-martial relations. I cannot recall the last time someone answered no.

Why is this an issue? To begin, the problems that lead to divorce are often already noticeable during the courtship. Yet couples who engage in pre-marital relations will commonly overlook these differences. Thus the problems remain unresolved going into the marriage. Once married, however, these problems are both harder to resolve and more difficult to ignore.

“I knew this was a problem,” many women share during their interview. “But I had invested so much into our relationship.” This is a common euphemism when a woman engages in pre-marital relations. She cannot break off the relationship without feeling used. Men tend to state things more bluntly: “I had my doubts, but we were living together. So I felt obliged to marry.”

Notice how pre-marital sex creates a false intimacy within an insecure relationship. The couple feel compelled to marry. This compulsion arises neither out of love, nor from a desire to build a life together. Rather, the decision to marry arises from a guilty conscience. The couple desire to correct a morally sinful situation. The romance has deteriorated prior to the exchange of the couple’s wedding vows.

Contraception: A Barrier to Love

Contraception is another evil I find at the root of most divorce. Let us ponder the Church’s teaching concerning this matter. Through the conjugal act, the husband gives himself over to his wife. At the same time, the wife gives herself over to her husband. This giving of oneself is not merely physical, but also spiritual, emotional and psychological. Thus the conjugal act, as Pope John Paul II teaches in Familiaris Consortio, serves both a unitive and a procreative function.

Contraception separates the marital act from both functions. This is obvious with regards to procreation since in using contraception, the couple intends to prevent the conception of children. Yet contraception also raises a barrier between the couple and the unitive function of the conjugal act.

In Familiaris Consortio, we read how the conjugal act is an act of self-giving on the part of both spouses. God intended this act of self-giving to be both total and unconditional. Contraception frustrates the unitive function of the marital act because contraceptive sex is neither total nor unconditional. In short, contraception adds a condition to conjugal act. The condition is that the wife not become pregnant. Should the contraception fail, a wife cannot automatically assume her husband’s support. In fact, one of the first lessons I learned in tribunal ministry is the following: Domestic violence usually begins with an unexpected pregnancy.

Likewise, contraception prevents the total self-giving of either spouse over to the other. Either spouse withholds spiritually from the other, since the marriage is no longer a mutual source of God’s grace. The spouses withhold physically because they close themselves off to the natural consequences of their conjugal relationship. Finally, the couple withhold from each other emotionally as their mutual support for one another becomes conditional. It never surprises me to discover that contraceptive spouses stopped attending to each other’s needs shortly after the birth of their last child.

The Violence of Abortion

I cannot say that abortion is as common as contraception and pre-marital sex when dealing with broken marriages. Yet whatever abortion lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in intensity. Abortion is the A-bomb of marriage. At ground zero lies a child butchered from the womb. In time, the fallout will also destroy the lives of those who surround it.

As I mentioned earlier, most marriages that turn violent do so when the wife tells her husband that she is pregnant. This connection is particularly strong when the pregnancy ends in abortion. In some cases, abortion is the catalyst for domestic violence within the relationship. In others, a subsequent abortion amplifies the violence already present. Additionally, domestic violence is not uncommonly the means by which a man coerces his wife or girlfriend into aborting the couple’s child. After four years of tribunal ministry this is still the most common scenario I encounter with abortion.

It is also the scenario I find the most pastorally challenging. For despite what many feminists claim, a woman seldom chooses abortion freely — that is, without external coercion. Rather, the decision is usually made under duress. Eventually, she will face the reality of her choice and find herself in need of the Church’s help and compassion. For once her child is dead, the woman finds neither help nor compassion from the abortion industry.

It also makes little difference whether the couple procures an abortion during the courtship or whether the abortion takes place during the marriage. It always leads to an increase in emotional, mental and physical abuse between the spouses. In the vast majority of cases, the relationship ends within three years of the abortion. Often it ends on a violent note.

There are several reasons why this is the case, the most obvious being the moral guilt felt by the parties. Abortion is a traumatic experience. It affects the individual mentally, emotionally and spiritually. While society claims that abortion is a morally neutral choice best left to the individual and her doctor, our conscience reminds us otherwise.

In short, these women know abortion is wrong. They feel it in their soul every time they pass a mother with a stroller on the sidewalk. Their heart cries out with every television advertisement for diapers. What these women need is Christ’s healing touch in the confessional, as well as sustained pastoral support from pro-life organizations like Project Rachel. This is the approach Christ took with Mary Magdalen’s adultery: He did not excuse the sin, but He did not turn away the sinner. He invited her to repentance and forgiveness

Yet healing and forgiveness proves elusive as both parties internalize the guilt they feel from the abortion. Yes, abortion also traumatizes men. Both husband and wife avoid discussing the abortion. Rather than share their feelings openly, rather than seek one another’s forgiveness, rather than support one another through the post-abortion trauma both experience, the abortion becomes an unspoken secret within the relationship. This secret will inevitably surface in a moment of anger unless it is first absolved and healed in the confessional.

In the end, the culture of death lies at the root of most annulments granted in North America. But Catholics cannot solely blame divorce. For abortion, contraception and pre-marital sex break down many relationships before the couple first contemplates divorce.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Pete Vere is a doctoral student with the Faculty of Canon Law at Saint Paul University. He recently co-authored Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law (Servant Books) with Michael Trueman and More Catholic Than the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor) with Patrick Madrid. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Ottawa, Canada.

Pete Vere


Pete Vere is a canon lawyer, author, and Byzantine Catholic from Northern Ontario, Canada. He and his wife Sonya have six children. In his few spare moments, when he is not cooking or camping with his family, he enjoys hunting, reading, video games and scotch.

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