Several months ago in this column, I wrote a certain defense for the Roman Catholic practice of granting annulments for marriages that have failed. In that article I argued that an annulment is not just “Catholic divorce”, that it doesn’t deny that a real marriage had existed, and that it doesn’t in any way jeopardize the legitimacy of the children of that union. To do this, I made a distinction between marriage as a purely social and legal reality and marriage as a sacramental bond.

I’ve received somewhat of a critical reaction. Essentially the criticisms can be reduced to two:

i) The concept of a sacramental marriage which I gave was seen as far too idealistic and, by its standard, nobody, it was argued, can really be said to have a sacramental marriage.

ii) The distinction I made between a social/legal reality and a sacramental one was also seen by some as, ultimately, false and an annulment was understood by them not as an adjudication as to whether or not a certain reality had existed,  but simply as the church’s acceptance of the fact that a marriage has failed and the church now in compassion reaches out, wipes the slate clean, and offers the parties the possibility of a new beginning.

My need to respond to these criticism stems not, I hope, from a need to defend a position, but from a need to clarify it.

In the original article I defined sacrament as “anything that visibly or tangibly gives expression to any aspect of God’s revelation or saving grace … anything that tangibly prolongs the saving action of Christ.” To this (taken from Edward Schillebeeckx),  I added a qualification taken from St. Augustine: ” … 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.”

Applying this to marriage, I stated that marriage is a sacrament when the love between a man and a woman has a certain likeness to the way God loves the world and the way Christ loves the church. Given that definition of marriage, a marriage is only a sacrament when “it radiates freely chosen love, commitment, fidelity, deep care, profound respect, great tenderness, hospitality for others, and a willingness to dies completely to self for the sake of that love.” 

Reading this, many asked, “how can human love approximate such an ideal?” These qualities, they argued, would only be present in a perfect marriage. According to those criteria, basically nobody would have a marriage.

It’s this point that I address myself: What’s key in Augustine’s qualification is the phrase “a certain likeness”. The church presupposes, given the limits of human love, that no marriage in this world will ever meet this standard perfectly. No two persons in this life can ever love each other as freely, faithfully, respectfully, tenderly, and selflessly as God loves the world and Christ loves the church. However, with that being admitted, it must also be admitted that for a relationship between a man and a woman to bring Christ into the world (since love, to be sacrament, must “be food for the life of the world” and not just mutual narcissism) it must have “a certain likeness” to the free, faithful, respectful, tender, and selfless way that God and Christ love us.

A “certain likeness” does not mean it needs to do this perfectly, but it must do it in some way, however minimal.

This is not, I submit, an impossible ideal, since we, in fact, promise exactly those things in our marriage vows. What else are the marriage vows if they are not a promise to love freely, faithfully, respectfully, tenderly, and be willing to die for each other? When the church grants an annulment it judges (perhaps wrongly in some cases) that this particular relationship did not concretely in life radiate what it promised in its marriage vows.

The very fact that the relationship broke up is, already, by most opinions a sufficient indication of this. As C.S. Lewis once put it, any love that dies had, at its very beginning, already some inherent flaw … and, by my application of the criteria, was then never truly a sacrament that symbolized God’s love for the world (Ephesians 5).

The question, of course, then arises: If the simple fact of failure is sufficient grounds for annulment, then why have the procedure?

The process of annulment is necessary, as the previous article stated, for the freedom of conscience of those who are undergoing it and for the clarity of their status within the rest of the Christian community. Moreover, it helps to bring about the type of closure that makes for a truly new beginning, personally and communally. I have seen many instances where individuals, while being bitter about the process while it was going on, were extremely grateful for it after it was over. That gratitude, I submit, came about because they understood, after it was over, the benefits not just of an act of compassion, but of an act of adjudication.