Friday, November 13, 2015

Mercy, Annulments & Matrimony

Some reflections on the current state of things vis-a-vis matrimony, annulments, and mercy.

1. There has been a lot of talk about making sure the annulment process is merciful and compassionate. When people use this sort of language, they demonstrate that they do not understand what the annulment process is all about. The annulment process is primarily investigative; its purpose is to determine whether or not a putative marriage bond is valid or not. It has to do with research and investigation into the historical facts in a particular case. "Mercy" and "compassion" by their nature have nothing to do with such an investigative process. To say such a process should be "merciful" or "compassionate" is like suggesting an archaeologist needs to be more merciful when he is trying to figure out if there are ancient skeletons buried beneath a parking lot, or that a coroner doing an autopsy needs to incorporate compassion into his findings. If we told the archaeologist or the coroner this, they would rightfully look askance and wonder in what sense mercy was even relevant to their investigation. Investigation is about simply uncovering facts, and just as mercy and compassion are irrelevant to the facts of a scientific investigation, so they are irrelevant to the annulment process.

2. The annulment process is a legal process. Legal procedures can be just or unjust, but they cannot be merciful or unmerciful. It could be argued - because of the above point about the nature of investigative enterprises - that mercy has no place in legal proceedings. Mercy does have some place in legal proceedings when it comes to the prudence of a judge or magistrate in handing down a particular sentence. We may implore a judge to be merciful; there is a saying, to "throw oneself on the mercy of the court." But (and this is an important distinction) one is appealing for mercy regarding a sentence, not a procedural process. It is the sentence which elicits pleas for mercy, not the process of uncovering facts. A judge may be moved to mercy in issuing a sentence, but no judge would take seriously a plea that searching to uncover the facts of a case was unmerciful. So appeals to mercy are directed towards a sentence, not a process.

Furthermore, we appeal to mercy from persons, not procedures. A procedure can be more or less just, granted; but we do not make judgments about whether a system of procedures is merciful. Mercy is a moral act and can only be granted by a person, never a procedure. The talk about our annulment procedures being made more "merciful" is absurd.

3. It could be argued, of course, that an annulment is exactly that - a sentence. After all, the Tribunal issues a sentence at the end of the annulment process, and upon that sentence depends whether or not a previously contracted marriage is declared null. But the sentence is merely a sentence of fact, not a punitive sentence. The sentence is a statement that such-and-such are the facts of the case. One cannot appeal to mercy in such a judgment; it would make as little sense as saying that the judge's finding of fact that John Doe was spotted at the nightclub on the evening of July 25th is unmerciful. Facts are not merciful or unmerciful. They're just facts. And the annulment decree is a sentence of fact finding, not a punitive sentence. A person can argue that a fact is irrelevant, or needs to be understood in context, or that it is being understood errantly, but he cannot argue that a fact is unmerciful.

4. Finally, it is fascinating to me that there seems to be an eclipse of the concept of the sanctity of the marriage bond itself. For example, despite the great moral shift in the West, if you took a survey, most Americans would still say adultery or "cheating" is wrong. However, if you were to reword the survey and say, "Is it acceptable to have extramarital sex if your partner agrees to it?" we would see widespread agreement. If adultery is wrong, how could it be acceptable because a partner agrees to it? In other words, while many in the West still think adultery is wrong, they no longer understand why it is wrong. For most, adultery is wrong because it violates the trust of a spouse. This explains why so many will say it is acceptable in an "open marriage" situation or when the spouse assents to it. It is only wrong when the spouse has not consented. The betrayal of the spouse's trust is the real evil. Thus, the issue becomes whether mutual consent is violated - the Lockean libertarian principle applied to matrimony.

On the contrary, Catholic Tradition has always held that an extramarital affair is always immoral - even if the spouse consents to it - because it is an offense against the marriage bond. Of course violating trust is a bad thing, but it is not the only thing. The Catholic Tradition recognizes the marriage bond as something that exists objectively; it can be violated and sinned against by certain acts, even if both parties consent to them. But our culture no longer has any concept of an objective marriage bond; marriage is nothing other than consent - with consent, anything becomes permissible; without consent - a continuing consent - the marriage ceases to exist. Whereas Tradition sees the marriage bond as arising out of  a one-time act of consent, for the moderns the bond is nothing other than the consent itself. Thus, they do not understand why anything that is consented to can possibly be objectionable.

5. Finally, even if we could disregard all of the above and suggest that "mercy" should be applied in annulment cases, we ought to note that if "mercy" contradicts objective fact - that is, if in the name of mercy a declaration of nullity is issued that is not warranted by the objective facts of a case - well, this is not mercy; it is simply lying, which is an injustice.

We need to recognize as Christians that not only will our teachings be increasingly rejected, but they will not even be understood. When society cannot even understand that an objective marriage bond exists, the difference between a procedure and a sentence, an investigation of fact vs. a judgment, then the time has probably come to return to the deserts and lonely places and beat our breasts in prayer until renewal comes or the comes and smites the earth in flame.


Not That Guy said...

Great points. I can't understand how the Pope himself doesn't understand what the annulment process is all about. That kind of ineptitude is mind-boggling.

Bai Macfarlane said...

I would like to contact this author to introduce him to the work of Mary's Advocates. Who is "Unam Sanctam Catholicam"? He may know people who want to be faithful to marriage after separaiton or divorce, or those who want to defend their marraige against accusations of nullity.

Bai Macfarlane

Jeffrey Coogan said...

Now, the big question will be how we square a circle when this Pope shortly announces that he's officially (infallibly?) overruling Christ Himself and 2000 years of Church teaching.