Marriage, Annulments, and Money: A Cautionary Tale

He was a cradle Lutheran, divorced from a Jewish woman whom he had civilly married; she was a Catholic who had converted from Lutheranism, along with her mother, because they’d wanted to receive communion more often. In order for them to marry in the Catholic church, he needed to get an annulment.

It took two years, cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars, and the bride’s mother died before she could walk her daughter down the aisle on her wedding day. They were ultimately married in a Lutheran church, which had a practice of weekly communion; she has converted back to Lutheranism.

Two weeks later, his annulment finally came through.

His takeaway?

Whatever mildly warm feelings I might have previously had for the Catholic church were completely destroyed. This is why Luther wrote his 95 theses — I’ve read them, and they’re almost all about money. Christ freely died for my sins — there’s nothing that says I should have to pay money to the Catholic church in order to get married.

This is a heartbreaking story, on the personal level. On the institutional level, it is at minimum a pretty serious PR failure.

This is the second person I’ve met who needed to get an annulment from the Catholic church, even though neither spouse was Catholic, so that one of them could marry a Catholic in the church. I’d never heard of it before.

If I squint, I can almost see the logic: sacramental marriage is built on natural marriage, sacramental marriage is indissoluble, something something, therefore so is natural marriage, so an annulment is required.

But really, this just exhibits more of the sloppy thinking that equates civil marriage with natural marriage. It’s bad theology, bad pastoral practice, and bad PR.

If the upcoming synod on marriage is looking for a simple action that would make a non-controversial change with broadly positive effects, here’s a suggestion:

Stop requiring non-Catholics to get annulments of their non-Catholic marriages before they can marry Catholics in the Catholic church.

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2 Responses to Marriage, Annulments, and Money: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Simone says:

    I’m curious about the ‘civil’ marriage. Would I be right the think that means the marriage wasn’t in a church? If the marriage wasn’t in a church, wouldn’t it be viewed as not being ‘marriage’ and therefore no need for an annulment?

    • This is one of the areas in which Catholic teaching and discourse are often not very clear!

      Catholic teaching is that “marriage”, or perhaps more precisely “natural marriage”, is common to all forms of human society, and that the family, consisting of a man, a woman, and their children, is the fundamental unit of human society. This concept of marriage and family are considered real, independent of (and in fact prior to) any recognition of marriage by either church or state. (See for example section 2202 of the Catechism.)

      Civil marriage is the formalization and recognition of that marriage by the civil government. A civil marriage confers rights and responsibilities to the married couple under civil law.

      A “church marriage”, for Catholics, means the sacrament of matrimony. In the sacrament of matrimony, as in all sacraments, an ordinary element becomes both a sign of grace and the means of grace. Just as the water used in baptism is both really water and something more than mere water, the marriage celebrated in the sacrament of matrimony is both really marriage and something more than mere (natural) marriage.

      St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “grace builds on nature.” This is a good way to sum up Catholic thinking about the sacraments, including matrimony. Even a marriage that is not held in a church is considered a “real” marriage.

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