Reversing Wedding Bells

by Ken Briggs

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The marriage managers in Rome will apparently go to any lengths to avoid calling a spade anything but a spade. Politicians "misspeak" rather than lie. Catholics "annul" rather than divorce.

The Great Reformer, whose visage is ubiquitous in the media in advance of his visit to the U.S., has approved the latest gimmick in the church's contorted efforts to convince us that marriages can be clearly identified as "invalid" instead of just plain falling apart. By getting the annulling done smoother and faster, the pope supposedly entices broken-up couples into scrounging around for the myriad psychological, legal, circumstantial reasons why their vows were taken under conditions that don't violate the church's monopoly on deciding what constitutes a pedigree marriage, where the loopholes exist and the power to rule the unworthies out of communion.

The church was in a bind when the divorce rates shot up. Millions of parishioners were automatically barred from receiving the Eucharistic elements, the essence of the mass. The strained answer was to re-write the annulment code to broaden the categories of allowable causes, many provided from psychology and behavioral science. Though the numbers of applicants rose sharply, the strategy only appealed to a fifth of those who were divorced. The euphemistic attempt to call the dissolution of a marriage by another name never really caught on.

In advance of the Synod on the Family, amid talk of finding ways to let the non-annulled re-married back to communion, Francis has made a move which effectively ends speculation that the annulment flim-flam, costly and complicated, will be eliminated as a qualifier for participating in the Eucharist. No, it will presumably be "simplified" and streamlined to get the redeemed there faster.

A system whereby favors are granted by church authority invites corruption. If you're over 50, you probably recall the days when bishops covertly granted annulments to the rich and powerful like the Kennedys. Granted, Henry VIII got stymied, but the backdoor method has a rich history. After Vatican II, in the scramble to respond to the rash of divorces, the system relied more on diocesan and regional panels to sort things out, often at turtle speed and at the price of petitioners having to resurface the painful memories and accusations they were trying to forget. It's unlikely that many of those who submitted to this often gruesome autopsy were gaining anything except the "privilege" of doing the church's bidding and doing their part to preserve pristine doctrine.  

The latest revision allegedly simplifies matters but doesn't seem to be anything but another tactic to preserve a practice that needs to be totally re-thought. Ironically, it will give bishops more latitude to use their own judgment, mirroring previous ages, instead of shifting authority downward to panels composed of people who actually live within the lay world of marriage and family. It seems to me the new arrangements allow for more arbitrary exercise at the top of the diocese.

It probably won't matter to the growing numbers of Catholics are divorced or are planning to be. The "reform" will consist of a loosening of the gate to allow the non-annulled entry without fuss. Francis has again signaled that the laws will remain intact and that he will leave implementation to the locals. He may not be the Reformer in the legal sense but as the liberator of conscience -- do as you see fit. Perhaps the ambiguity is in some sense deliberate. Change can "feel" real without being encoded, except when someone reverts back to the law, arbitrarily or in principle. Sanctions are always lurking so long as they remain.

The pope's message in the annulment move is to remind Catholics that the laws will remain on the books so take it from there. The pope of revived conscience has spoken -- and not spoken.

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