In past few years Roman Catholic marriage tribunals have been granting annulments with increasing frequency. This has not gone unnoticed among both conservative and liberal critics.

Among conservatives one hears the remarks: “The church has gone soft. It’s caved in and is now ratifying infidelity. What ever happened to  ‘for better and for worse … until death do us part?’ The church is playing fast and easy with sacrifice and commitment.”

Among liberals the criticisms are expressed differently, but with equal distaste: “Annulment is simply the Roman Catholic version of divorce. Why have it?  Why make couples dredge up all that hurt and pain again? This is simply another one of the church’s needs to control, to have power … a celibate hierarchy again meddling in married peoples’ lives.  What does an annulment decree (‘you never had a marriage’) say to the children of those couples – that they are illegitimate? What does it say to the couples themselves – you didn’t know what you were doing?

Beyond these criticisms there is, very often, among those applying for annulments a deep resentment about the fact that they have to undergo this procedure and the sense that it is unnecessary, too expensive, and an undue infringement upon them. “Why”, they ask, “is the church making us do all this when we already have a civil divorce?”

What’s to be said about all this?

Whatever the value of all of these criticisms, they are, in the end, shortsighted and their persistence suggests that some very crucial insights into the complex reality of what makes a sacramental marriage are absent.

A marriage is a union between a man and a woman that involves a certain exclusive commitment. However there are various kinds of unions and commitments: psychological/emotional (love/intimacy), legal/social, and sacramental. 

What an annulment does is speak only to that latter reality, the sacramental one. It considers that psychological, social, and legal realities only insofar as they impact upon the sacramental one. Civil divorce is the procedure that examines the other realities.

A marriage is a reality with both social and spiritual dimensions.  A marriage ceremony, when performed in a church, already recognizes this. It binds the couple socially, legally, and spiritually and it sanctions their love in a way which invites the couple to make that love a sacrament – beyond its purely legal and social dimensions.

But what is a sacrament?  Simply put, a sacrament is anything which visibly or in any other way tangibly gives expression to any aspect of God’s revelation and/or saving grace. A sacrament, as Edward Schillebeeckx so aptly puts it, “visibly prolongs the saving action of Christ.” In a child’s definition, this means that a sacrament is anything that gives skin to God.

St. Augustine, in his definition of a sacrament adds this necessary addendum: “and for something to be a sacrament, there must be a certain likeness to the reality it signifies, otherwise you do not have a sacrament at all.”

For the love between a man and woman to be a sacrament, it must, then, have a certain likeness to the way God loves the world and to the way that Christ loves the church. Hence it must radiate freely chosen love, commitment, fidelity, deep care, profound respect, great tenderness, hospitality for others, and the willingness to die completely to self for the sake of that love.

When the church grants an annulment, it is not saying that there was never a psychological/emotional, social, or legal reality there. It is not saying that the children of that union are in any way illegitimate (“bastard” is a legal, not a spiritual, term). It does not deny that there was in fact a true marriage.

It speaks only to the sacramental dimension. What an annulment says is that there was never a sacramental reality there, namely, that this relationship was never able to give expression to and radiate to others the love that God has for the world and the love that Christ has for the church. It says that, for reasons which it specifies, the marriage of this particular couple was not able to embody the freedom of love, fidelity, care, respect, tenderness, hospitality, and willingness to die for the sake of the other that is radiated in God’s love for us. In effect, it says that the condition that Augustine specified for something to be a sacrament was not fulfilled … the love did not have sufficient likeness to that which it was meant to signify. In most cases, the very fact that it ended, already signifies this, any love that dies is not very apt to signify God’s love for us.

Annulment is not just Catholic divorce, an unnecessary addition to the already overly painful and humiliating civil procedure. It is a necessary statement about sacraments which is given, not as an accommodation to human weakness or for the benefit of a celibate hierarchy, but for the freedom of conscience for those who apply for it and who want the comfort of both of knowing that God constantly opens new doors for them and that the entire Christian community is clear and at ease with their status.