Annulments are just a Symptom of the Problem

I’m combining several topics in one post which is partly about the new annulments process, but also includes broader concerns.

General Concerns

First, and I say this to everyone commenting on the words and deeds of Pope Francis: You are not the equal of the Pope.

It is fine for Catholics to discuss papal decisions and sometimes disagree with a judgment of the prudential order or decision on discipline or a personal theological opinion. But the Pope is guided by God. He can err only to a limited extent. He can sin, but he cannot commit apostasy, heresy, or schism. He has the grace of God to assist him in all that he does, especially but not solely when he teaches.

Many comments that I read online about Pope Francis treat him as if he were an equal — no, that would be an improvement. They treat him like a remedial student, because he is liberal and they are conservative. They have an open bias against all that he says and does. And I have the distinct impression that, if the current Pontiff were a very conservative traditionalist, and he made the same change to annulments, they would be adamantly defending these changes, rather than attacking them.

Second, bias against anyone is contrary to truth. If you are a conservative Republican and the President is a liberal Democrat, you should evaluate his proposals for a new law or policy with the same objectivity and search for truth and the common good as if you were the same party. And the same should be true in theology. Unfortunately in the Church today, Catholicism has become divided into pseudo-political parties, must like Judaism in Jesus’ day.

Bias against the Vicar of Christ, because he is liberal and you are conservative is worse than political bias. He represents Christ. He deserves the utmost respect and the submission of will and intellect, especially when he teaches, but to some extent even when he exercises a prudential judgment. Catholics should not regard the decision of the Holy Father with automatic distrust and dislike. They should charitably try to see all the good in his decisions, and pray about the rest. This constant barrage of overly critical commentary against the Pope is literally laying the foundation for a schism. No exaggeration.

Third, the internet reaction to the new annulments process and to the decision on confession and abortion does not bode well for the reaction to the Synod of Bishops. The decisions from that meeting are likely to be more comprehensive and monumental than these other acts of the Pope. The tendency of conservatives to find negative things to say about anything Pope Francis says and does is worrying. The Synod will be like a little Vatican II to the conservative. But now, with the internet fanning the flames of dissent and allowing papal critics all over the world to join together and quickly spread dissent, a full rejection of the Synod and the Pope is a real possibility.

Fourth, what would have happened if, in 1983, when Pope Saint John Paul II signed the new Code of Canon Law into effect, the same internet culture prevailed? The changes to Canon Law were so numerous, there would have been an avalanche of negative criticism and probably a large number of traditionalists and conservatives would have rejected the Code.

The Catholic internet culture of constant biased criticism of the holy Father needs to change. Catholics should not behave according to the customs of modern culture — self-exaltation, harsh criticism of opposing views, absence of respect for authority, malice under cover of anonymity, and so many other problems. Online and in real life, we must speak and act like followers of Christ.

Strangely, most Catholic commentary online about any topic is absolutely devoid of any reference to Jesus Christ, Sacred Scripture, or the holy example of the Saints. It is as if Catholicism were a collection of political points of view, not a way of living in worship of God.

Canon Law

After some positive comments yesterday, Canonist Ed Peters makes some negative comments about the new annulments process today: A second look at Mitis, especially at the new fast-track annulment process. I have several criticism of his point of view.

He sees the decision on annulments as fundamentally legal, and so he wants the persons deciding each case to be canon lawyers. I see the decision as fundamentally doctrinal, since a declaration of nullity can only ever be based on a failure to obtain a valid Sacrament. Annulments should never be granted for a reason that is solely legal, and not also related to the fundamental nature of the Sacrament. Canon lawyers should always be well-versed in theology, because no issue of Canon Law is solely legal. It always is related to the spiritual life of the faithful, the Sacraments, and the worship of God.

He worries that too many annulments qualify for the faster process. I don’t see why that would be a problem. A decision that takes several months is not necessarily better than one that takes several weeks. As long as the Bishop and another cleric agree that the conditions for a valid Sacrament were plainly not met, an annulment should be granted without delay.

Peters does not like the new principle that the cooperation of both parties to the putative marriage allows for a fast-track decision. But I think that is merely a practical matter. If both spouses are involved or cooperative with the process, the information needed can be obtained more easily and more quickly. And a quick decision does not imply that an annulment would be granted.

Peters points out that the listed criteria for an annulment to be granted quickly are sometimes also criteria for possible nullity and other times not related to nullity. I don’t see that as a problem. The Bishop can use his own judgment as to which cases are given a fast-track, and the Canon does not state that these criteria prove nullity.

Like many commentators, Ed Peters speaks as if he understands the topic better than Pope Francis. In commenting previously on the changes concerning abortion and Confession, Peters assumes that the holy Father has misunderstood Confession and abortion: “I think the pope’s statement reflects a mistaken assumption, common among those who were trained under the 1917 Code, that priests with normal faculties for Confession still cannot absolve from the sin (let alone from the crime) of abortion.”

Dr. Peters is being condescending toward the holy Pontiff. I don’t believe that layperson and canon lawyer Ed Peters understands the Sacrament of Confession better than the Vicar of Christ. I don’t believe that his judgment on annulments is better than that of the Supreme Pontiff. The self-exaltation evident in his and other commentators’ criticisms of the Pope is appalling.

I have the distinction impression that Ed Peters thinks he should be treated with respect because of his credentials as a layperson who is a canon lawyer. But I don’t see him treating the holy Father with the same respect.

I’ve seen humble Catholic parishioners treat a lowly parish priest with great respect, merely because he is a priest. And I’ve seen many Catholics online treating the Supreme Pontiff and Vicar of Christ with the utmost disrespect and denigration, merely because he speaks or acts contrary to their will and whim.

Pope Francis is a Saint

In my opinion, Pope Francis is so holy and faithful that he will become a canonized Saint not long after his death. Pope Saint Celestine V made many controversial and arguably incorrect decisions in matters of discipline and Church administration. But that did not prevent him from being a holy Saint. We must not treat our holy Father as if he were a political leader of an opposing party, but as a Shepherd of our souls.

The Real Crisis

Marriage annulments are heart-breaking, not because the legal process is not legalistically perfect, but because a couple failed to obtain an attempted Sacrament, thereby causing their marital life to fall apart. Annulments are not primarily a legal matter, but a matter of doctrine and mercy.

Marriage annulments are heart-breaking, not because the Pope is liberal and everything would supposedly be so much better if the Pope were conservative, but because they are the symptom of a larger problem. The many requests for annulments, and the apparent truth that many marriages are not valid, is a result of the fact that the vast majority of persons who call themselves Catholic are non-practicing or minimally-practicing. It is easy for two devout Catholics, a man and woman mature in the faith, to obtain the valid Sacrament of Marriage. But it is much more difficult when the two persons are minimally-practicing, rarely pray, are poorly-catechized, and never go to Confession. And the latter case is far more common.

The Church is currently in the midst of severe crisis that few persons notice or talk about. The vast majority of Catholics rarely if ever go to Mass. The vast majority of Mass-going Catholics rarely if ever go to Confession. The vast majority of Catholics have rejected at least several definitive teachings of the Magisterium on faith and morals. The vast majority of Catholics have incorporated objective mortal sin into their daily lives without remorse or repentance.

Is it really so horrible that the marriage annulment process is now slightly different, and that difference could theoretically cause some problems in some cases? Has the Ark of Salvation run aground because of slight changes to Canon Law that have no negative effect if the persons involved are prayerful, loving, faithful, and well-versed in doctrine? If it were not for the present-day internet culture, which teaches us to judge everything harshly and loudly trumpet our every thought to the whole world, these changes would be little noticed by most of the faithful.

The real problem is that most Catholics have already departed from the true Faith in their hearts and minds. When finally they depart formally from the Church, the pews will be sparsely populated, parishes will go bankrupt and be forced to close, and it will seem as if the Church as collapsed like a popped balloon. The Church will suddenly become much smaller, but also much holier.

The foundation for the great apostasy has been laid, and the cement has hardened, like the hearts of most persons.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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3 Responses to Annulments are just a Symptom of the Problem

  1. Francisco says:

    Sadly, many “Catholics” with a worldly mind are concerned on the day of the wedding (with little or no marriage preparation whatsoever) what the bride is going to wear, how well dressed the invites are going to be, what gifts are going to be given, how beautiful the after party is, and yes, eat and drink and have fun as much as you can, never forgetting about the pictures that are going to be shared in the internet social media with so much he he he’s ha ha ha’s. (I’m Not saying that having fun and celebrate is wrong, not at all! I’m saying the overwhelming emphasis that is given to this – forgetting abut the meaning of this Sacrament).

    Is this really how the Sacrament is about? The Church can not be dormant about this situation in general, so She with her servant the Pope, is acting.

  2. You know, dear Ron, you just expressed in better words what I’ve been thinking up to now. Real practicing Catholics are going extinct and those who object the Pope every word he says are nothing but fake Catholics who want the Church to reshape itself according to their progressivist or conservative standards – standards which, as you said, are more political than religious. I probably find it difficult to accept this kind of people as I was a pure Trad myself and than became a moderate. I thought to myself: the Pope won’t harm the Church, whatever he imposes to the Church. So, I might love a more traditional liturgical setting with Gregorian chant, frankincense or the crucifix on the altar, but I’ll never accuse of heresy a person who doesn’t. I may be partially liberal on some issues such as married priesthood and very conservative in others such as women priests or gay marriage, but that’s only because I know the Church already expressed her belief on these issues and In know that priests can be ordered from the marital state, while women can’t be ordained and gay marriages are invalid. The key word that has been missing in the Catholic vocabulary of too many so-called faithful is HUMILITY. We live in a world where nobody wants to be subject to any form of authority, even to Christ and his Vicar. These are indeed dark times…Will the Son of man find faith when he returns?

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