Tribunal Troubles

Among the many part-time jobs I did during graduate school, one involved working for an airline. Something I discovered working that job was that, although there are any number of difficulties that will annoy passengers, there is one that is guaranteed to alienate them forever.

Passengers dislike flight delays, no legroom, and rude, uncaring airline personnel, but none of these will necessarily keep them from flying your airline again. Lose their luggage, on the other hand, and they’re done. They won’t be back for years – if ever. The problem is, it’s very easy to get so busy getting people on and off planes that you forget this little side affair, but it carries an extraordinary degree of importance in the lives of passengers.

There is a similar sort of difficulty, I’ve found, that besets Catholic dioceses. Bad music, ugly churches, lousy preaching all annoy the faithful, but they’ll often keep coming back – for a while, at least. Mishandle an annulment, on the other hand, and they’re done. I’ve seen the situation far too often: A faithful, dedicated Catholic approaches the Church for an honest judgment about whether a marriage was valid or not, and they are greeted with rudeness, petty bureaucratic delays, lost paperwork, bad advice, misdirection, and at times, even outright lies.

It’s easy to get so busy taking care of the day-to-day business of running parishes that you forget the little side affairs that carry an extraordinary degree of importance in the lives of the people involved. The pain and bitterness caused by a mishandled annulment proceeding isn’t going away anytime soon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not calling for easier or more frequent annulments. The standards for granting annulments are set by canon law and Biblical mandate. My plea has to do, rather, with the bureaucratic and pastoral dimensions of the process. Lost paperwork, bad advice, rude secretaries, and a lack of pastoral sensibility among the tribunal staff all do serious damage.

I have no doubt that nearly every tribunal in this country is understaffed. Most bishops are, quite rightly, focusing their attention on the day-to-day workings of parish life. That is as it should be. And yet bishops cannot be inattentive to the competency of their diocesan tribunals any more than airlines can be inattentive to the issue of lost luggage. The result will be Catholics lost to the Church – often forever.

And then of course there are the cases in which wealthy donors pay thousands of dollars to the Church and get their annulments in four weeks, while everyone else’s paperwork is lost or sits on a desk for months. The stories of these little payoffs almost always become known, whether bishops think they can keep them quiet or not.

There are also the foolish priests who cynically advise petitioners (with a wink) that if they simply change their plea, it will all go much easier. This sort of irresponsible behavior merely convinces the people involved that the process isn’t a serious search for the truth, but merely a legal game clerics play that involves moving categories around to dress up the whole unseemly business in a nice package.

And then tragically, we find Catholics who have been granted annulments on good solid grounds, but who still doubt the soundness of that judgment because the tribunal’s work was so sloppy, perhaps even corrupt. Some of these will tragically spend their lives believing (and telling everyone else) that annulment is really just “Catholic divorce.”

The faithful deserve better. They need an honest determination whether they were in fact married or not based on an open and transparent process with clearly defined standards of evidence. They should be afforded this judgment within a reasonable time, and the process should be clearly explained to them beforehand and at every stage along the way. Catholics have a right to well-informed advice and not to have to hear cynical ploys from clerics who think they know how to game the system. They need office workers who don’t lose their forms and who talk to them respectfully, with a sense that the people calling are going through a heart-wrenching process and thus probably will not be at their best.

Above all, petitioners should be told repeatedly that they are going through a process that is both legal and pastoral. It is pastoral in that it involves a journey of serious and oftentimes difficult self-examination that will likely be discomforting, but which, if entered into honestly, can bring greater self-understanding and wisdom for a better future. And yet, while pastoral, it is also a legal procedure with legal categories and standards.

Thus at the end of the day, it isn’t merely a question of whether the spouses feel that they were married or not. The issue is whether, based on the laws of God and the Church, they actually were married. If they were, no power on earth can dissolve that bond.

Catholics seeking annulments have to be ready to go through a tough process. Annulment is heart-wrenching because it touches the people involved at their most intimate and vulnerable places and requires some of the most difficult bits of self-honesty Catholics are called upon to undertake. There’s no getting around the difficulties, and there’s no point soft-selling it.

But for God’s sake, just handle the paperwork and make a decision in a reasonable time. After two or three years go by with no decision, even the most faithful Catholics will have started dating again, setting them up for an extremely gut-wrenching break-up if the decree of nullity is not granted. Lose their paperwork in the process, and even if the annulment is granted, you’re still probably losing someone from the flock forever. You can’t convince them that it’s the Church of the poor and the suffering when people come to you at the lowest point in their lives, and you don’t care enough to keep their paperwork straight.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.