Valid until Proven Otherwise

The following is an actual Mary Beth conversation:

Me: I can't date him. He's not Catholic and he's divorced. In the eyes of the Church he's still presumed to be married.

Other Person: Well that's okay. He can just get an annulment, can't he?

In my last article, I talked about the question of whether or not it's okay to date someone who doesn't have an annulment. After all, that annulment may be denied, which means that the person you've been dating is actually already validly married and thus not available for you. Now I want to talk about the reason most Catholics don't take that very seriously, and the attitudes we risk developing as a result.

From where we as the laity sit, it appears to us that pretty much everybody who applies for an annulment gets it. Thus respecting the "possibility" that it may not be granted becomes more of a theoretical exercise than an actual likely outcome.

I'm not a tribunal "insider," so I don't really know about the actual number of unsuccessful petitions. I don't personally know anyone who has been denied an annulment, but since the people I know constitute a very small percentage of actual Catholics in this world, that doesn't mean much.

I do know that the United States grants a lot of annulments. I know that John Paul II thought that we grant too many of them. I don't know on which end of the marriage spectrum the problem lies. Are our dioceses granting decrees of nullity to marriages that are in fact valid? Or is it just the case that a lot of those big splashy weddings that take up our parishes every Saturday are actually invalid?

Either way, we have a problem.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to me, given the criterion for a sacramental union, that many of today's marriages would not in fact be valid. In a society where marriage is viewed as a temporary arrangement that lasts only as long as it suits both parties, young Catholics at the altar are bound to have absorbed that mentality. Combine that with all of the other factors that can make a marriage invalid, and it's almost inevitable that some annullable unions will slip through the cracks.

I know that there's a big effort within the Church to do more in marriage preparation. Mandatory classes and waiting periods all give engaged couples a chance to examine their relationships and their attitudes before walking down the aisle, and probably derail a few weddings along the way. But the problem is that, in the end, the Church really can't deny the sacrament to a couple who seeks it. If — after all of that preparation — they're still reciting vows they don't really mean or even comprehend, there's not a lot anybody can do about it except to meet them at the Tribunal once it all starts to fall apart.

I'm very grateful for the Church's willingness to investigate marriages and to grant annulments where warranted. There was a time where that wasn't the case. Anyone who said "I do" was presumed to be validly married. A youthful mistake, no matter how ill-advised or ill-prepared, meant no possibility of seeking a real marriage during the lifetime of that initial spouse. There is a real justice in the Church's efforts to do what she can, within the bounds of the eternal truths of marriage, to help those people move forward.

My concern, however, is that when we see all of these annulments happening around us, we begin to lose our sense of the sacredness and permanence of the marital union. We start to assume that every marriage can be annulled, and annulment really does become "Catholic divorce" in our minds. And thus we have conversations like the one I recounted above. "Well, yeah, he just needs to jump through those hoops and then he's all yours."

It winds up creating a vicious circle. A society that doesn't respect marriage leads to more invalid marriages, which leads to more annulments, which leads to more Catholics seeing marriage as dissoluble, which leads to more Catholics who fail to take marriage seriously, which leads to more invalid marriages…

The way I see it, the only solution is to guard our hearts and our minds. We need to constantly remind ourselves that a valid sacramental marriage is an indissoluble union — a permanent "self-gift" of one spouse to the other. That gift can't be "revoked" once it's freely and validly given. The Church doesn't grant annulments because somebody "deserves a second chance." An annulment is granted for one reason and one reason only — because evidence exists that, at the time of the marriage, a defect existed that was serious enough to render the marital union invalid.

We as singles need to keep that in mind in our dating lives as well. I know it feels a little like we're playing games, telling ourselves "the annulment might not go through" when we're pretty darned certain it will. I know in many cases it's more of a theoretical exercise than a likely outcome. But I think the exercise itself is very important. It's about a lot more than the logistics of one individual situation. It's about our attitude towards and respect for the institution of marriage. It's about the example we set for those around us — people who know we're Catholic and are watching us to see how we handle issues of marriage, divorce and annulment.

A valid marriage is permanent, and a marriage is presumed valid until declared otherwise. It's very, very important that we not allow ourselves to lose sight of that.

Mary Beth Bonacci, in addition to being a columnist is an internationally known speaker. In 1992 she addressed 10,000 teenagers in Monterrey, Mexico. In 1993 she spoke to 75,000 people at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. In 1996 she conducted a national seminar for single adults in Uganda, Africa. She does frequent radio and TV work, and has even made several appearances on MTV. In 1999, she spoke to 22,000 people at the TWA Dome during the Pope's visit to St. Louis. Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. Contact Mary Beth: [email protected]. Her web site is

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