A few weeks after my divorce was final, I began searching online for help and direction. I searched the Catholic websites in hopes of finding more than just practical advice. I needed truth and not pages of, “You go girl!” or “Yay, time for a fresh new start! (insert smiley face)!” My hope was to find Catholic sites that understood my pain and the shame of feeling like a failure along with spiritual guidance to help me process this in the light of Church teaching. Unfortunately, this is not what I found. To be a bit crass, what I found could be summed up this way:
“So, divorce is terrible, but it happens. Christ still loves you (insert prayer) and here’s a link to all the information you will ever need on annulment, especially if you have a new ‘special’ friend. Annulment will heal you.”
Whoa, what…? Annulment? I just got divorced! I had scarcely begun processing this awful divorce, and in fact, I was still praying desperately for even a glimmer of hope that this was temporary. That soon, he would come to his senses and begin reconciliation. I was ages away from accepting as fact that my children were going to grow up in a single-parent home. Yet instead of encouragement to stay the faithful course, I was barraged with the doctrine of nullity. How about empathy and advice for someone who doesn’t want to immediately presume that fourteen years ago, the most important and beautiful day of her life…was all a lie?
It appears as though, the Catholic media is hell-bent on all divorces ending in annulment. Perhaps they have forgotten that divorce and annulment are not the same. The virtues of fidelity, prudence, temperance and chastity need to be the focus during this confusing and frail time. So, what do we, as faithful Catholics, really need to know about annulment?
The divorce papers are signed. The financial and custodial agreements are settled and now, as my eldest daughter would say, “you need to take a beat.” You’ve been through hell, and most likely you’re still in hell and will be there for some time. This is not the occasion to make any big decisions, especially if you have children. Nor is this the time to entertain the idea of annulment. That time may be (at least) a couple years away. Remember we are talking about the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony; “’til death do you part,” not, “paper or plastic.” Let’s leave the big decisions for that distant destination called, emotional sobriety. To jump right to annulment will do a profound disservice to you and to the sacrament. This is the time to mourn. Leave the nuanced diagnostics of your marriage for some years down the road.
First Things First
“Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both, first and second things.” CS Lewis
If we all embraced this idea, how much more peaceful we would be! In this particular case, I offer this quote as an essential motto for the divorced Catholic. Our world was turned upside-down. It is now imperative that we remember and focus on the ‘first things:” our marriage, our children and all souls involved.
Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1649 Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond which remains indissoluble.159
You married, for better or worse. It’s true that you never really believed ‘worse’ could actually be this bad, but it can and is. That does not mean that your marriage is annullable. Divorce is nothing more than a civil decree and has nothing to do with your sacrament. It ends nothing. This is the time to pray for the grace of marital fidelity more than ever. This marriage is still your first thing.
Not All Marriages are Annullable
The world around us is a ‘throw away’ world, from paper plates to unborn babies. If something no longer provides us with pleasure, the world’s response is to dispose of it, whether or not it retains its own innate value, including marriage. To say that marriage is difficult, especially to the separated/divorced crowd is a hilarious understatement, but when speaking with those couples who have, successfully, hit their thirty year or more anniversaries, I am amazed at their honesty when discussing how hard they both had to work. How much they both had to give to get to this beautiful place. All marriages endure trials, though some are much worse than others, it doesn’t make them invalid.
I met a remarkable woman who had been divorced for a couple of decades and I asked her if she ever considered annulment. She answered with such openness that her marriage, though broken, was a true union. She has remained chaste and faithful all these years as a magnificent witness to the power of the sacrament. Her children and grand-children adore her, rightly so. She lives in peace through God’s love.
Temptation can cause a spouse to leave, abuse and destroy a marriage, but committing some personal sins later in life do not nullify a union. There are very specific conditions that, if present at the time of our wedding day, may indicate that the marriage is a candidate for nullification. Otherwise, we must find our joy and salvation in our children, friends, hobbies, etc…while living separate but remaining faithful to our spouse.
If the time comes when you are ready and healthy enough to consider annulment, please be honest with yourself! Be open to the possibility that your marriage, though broken, may be truly valid. Lying to oneself and inadvertently to the Tribunal will only bring about an inaccurate decision, not the truth. Without truth there is no freedom.
What Will Annulment Accomplish?
There are many myths about annulment that serve only to make it roguishly attractive. This idea that somehow an annulment and remarriage will solve all your problems and heal your pain is a terrible and dangerous lie. Our happiness lies in Christ. No person, place or thing can make us truly happy or save our souls. The fact is, if you are unhappy in life another person may briefly distract you from your discontent, but ultimately it will return. You have to choose to be joyful. No one can maintain that for you. Married or single, if you don’t turn to Christ and choose to see the blessings and love around you, you will stay miserable.
Another myth or exaggeration is that annulment will heal you. I cannot count how many times I have heard and read that line. I went through the annulment process when my ex-husband petitioned the diocese for one in 2012. I received the letter with his accusations two weeks before Christmas…Merry Christmas. I was furious. I knew the reason he applied was to marry the mistress in the Church. So scandalous! My anger was compounded by the fact that though his accusations were false, I knew that there were valid grounds for this annulment. I was stuck. If I said nothing it would be granted on his lies, but if I participated and told the truth, it would be granted on my words. The frustration was crushing. (I cannot go into detail as to the reasons this union was never valid because they are not mine to share).
You may be wondering why I had such an issue with the annulment when I knew there were real grounds. Well, primarily my concern was for my children and the impending scandal, but first I should say that existing during the fourteen years my ex-husband and I lived together was difficult. For the annulment I was required to write it all out for the tribunal and relive every moment so that he could bring the Church into his scandalous and unrepentant adultery. It was brutal. Was it healing? Honestly…I don’t think so. The one positive outcome was the validation I received once I had compiled all that had been done through our years together. I started off suspecting that our marriage was toxic. I ended the process, certain of it. Yet, though validation is nice, it is not the same as healing. Additionally, he has since married the mistress, so things have not only not improved, but now my children have their father’s mistress as a step-mother. Explain how any of that could possibly be healing? Healing is a work achieved through God’s grace, not annulment itself.
How Will it Affect Your Children?
This point again harkens back to the idea of “first things first.” Regardless of what happens in your marriage, or how happy you feel either way, if you have children, their needs trump your feelings. That is just plain ‘ol good parenting. Parents have an obligation to their children. An obligation to rear them in a safe and holy home. A life lived rearing children is a well-lived life whether or not you are romantically satisfied. The children suffer ghastly crosses when the family unit dissolves and an annulment may only increase the weight of their crosses. Give them time to get their legs under themselves again. You are not the only one who needs comfort and healing. The last thing they need is the remaining parent to get caught up in CatholicMatch, Eharmony, etc…please; just be there for your children. Annulment or not, they must remain your ‘first things’ (second only to Christ). When they are not, they will feel it acutely. One parent putting their own feelings above the children’s is enough. Don’t subject them to two distracted parents.
If a valid annulment is granted then trust in God’s plan for your life. Relax and focus on parenting. If God chooses, then perhaps a spouse who is right for you and for your children may arrive, but if you rush it you may end up creating a toxic and divisive situation in your home. As a result, you may lose your children’s respect and trust. No romance is worth that.
A quick recap:
- Take a breather. Allow yourself ample time to mourn and heal.
- Unless an annulment has been granted, stay faithful to your vows (no dating).
- Be honest and open to the possibility that your marriage, broken as it is, may still be valid.
- Annulment in and of itself cannot heal you. Healing comes through the grace of Christ.
- Always act in the best interest of your children.
This may be the worst time of your life. The loss and heartache may feel as if they will be your demise, but the graces are there to help you be the person and parent that will bring Christ into the center of your home in spite of the troubles in your marriage. Accept them! Do not rely on earthly prizes to fulfill you. It is possible that you may remain single. It is only from the world’s view that celibacy is seen as an evil. Many saints saw it as a great honor. It is also possible that you may be a candidate for annulment but whatever the answer, accept the truth as it is.
For my part, I had thought that since it was clear there existed real grounds for annulment, I might consider applying for one once all my children were well over eighteen, had what they needed and were ready to launch. It did not work out that way, so now we will power through this new mess, trusting in God’s plan, focused on our ‘first things’ and under His Mercy.