How do we reduce annulments?

In his annual speech to the Roman Rota, the tribunal that handles annulments, Pope Benedict told priests they must do a better job preparing couples for marriage.

The Associated Press reports that the pope said no one has the right to a church wedding and that every Catholic bride and groom should intend to live marriage authentically:

Benedict acknowledged that the problems that would allow for a marriage to be annulled cannot always be identified beforehand. But he said better pre-marriage counseling, which the Catholic Church requires of the faithful, could help avoid a “vicious circle” of invalid marriages.

“The church and society at large place too much importance on the good of marriage and the family founded on it to not make a profound commitment to it pastorally,” Benedict said.

The pope’s comments are undoubtedly meant primarily for American Catholics. In 2006, the United States had more annulments than the rest of the world’s nations combined.

No doubt this is a problem, but it’s always seemed to me that the entire annulment system needs an overhaul. For example, why does a couple need a decree of civil divorce before they can apply for an annulment? If the Church considers a couple married until annulled, why does it make sense for the couple to end their lives together legally — and in all practical ways — before finding out whether they’re still married in the eyes of the Church?

This serves no one. It places a great strain on couples and puts priests in tough pastoral positions. I know couples whose marriages were ended legally — child visitation rights were settled, financial matters determined, houses sold, etc — before they could even apply for an annulment.

As for why there are so many annulments in the United States, one can speculate, but one of the reasons is cultural. The fact is, in many countries where annulments are virtually impossible to get — Italy, for example — people simply take lovers, or they live in unions for many years that are never blessed by the Church while staying away from communion.

This just doesn’t seem to be the American way. We want things to be made right, and our priests generally want to reconcile people to the Church and welcome them back to the sacraments. The Holy Father is right to urge clergy to put emphasis on better marriage prep — it’s so much easier to handle this on the front end. The challenge, of course, is how to do it. Truly solid marriage preparation is not just a better booklet or an extra month of meetings.

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Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Godspy.com. Zo

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