Annulments, Justice, and Marital Healing

Given all the recent talk about divorce, remarriage, and reception of Communion in Rome, it’s urgent to think once more about annulments. Marriage tribunals provide a valuable service for the Church and the sacrament of marriage.  However, a radical change occurred in the Catholic diocesan tribunal work from evaluating a few dozens cases per year in the 1960s to struggling with hundreds of petitions per year in the 1990s.  In 1969, 338 annulments were given in the Church in the US, in 1974 28,918 and in the 1990s roughly 40,000 per year were granted.

Some believe that this severe stress upon marriage tribunals led to a “rubber stamp” approach, as tribunals tried to clear the cases quickly without attending to the demands of law and justice. John Paul II regularly expressed concern about the granting of annulments, particularly in the United States, where 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population accounted for 80 percent of annulments.

My experience with Catholic couples suggests a failure of justice toward many spouses, children, and the marriage sacrament in annulment decisions.  A typical example: a spouse with young children, low levels of marital conflict, severe family of origin conflicts in the petitioner, and financial stresses who left the marriage for an adulterous relationship.  This spouse refused counseling with a priest or with a marital therapist primary because of the relationship.  In spite of the Tribunal’s knowledge of all this, it granted an annulment.

This might have been fully resolved had the Tribunal taken a different approach.  Dr. Howard Markham, a marriage scholar at the University of Denver, believes most divorces and most marital unhappiness can be prevented, which is also my clinical experience over the past thirty-five years.

Several steps need to be taken so that justice is done and the sacrament of marriage, spouses, children, and the culture are protected.  Most importantly, the spouse who seeks an annulment should not be permitted to enter into the process until there is clear knowledge as to how this person’s emotional weaknesses and conflicts contributed to the marital stress and the divorce.  In addition, the petitioner should be required to demonstrate that at least two years of effort and hard work have occurred in addressing the petitioner’s weaknesses and those in the other spouse. 

Ideally, a parish priest would be involved in the divorce prevention process and require that the couple attend a Retrouvaille program.  Also, a couple could be referred to a marital therapist who is loyal to the Church’s teachings.  Trustworthy therapists can be found at and .

Such requirements are essential if justice is to be served: too often, the petitioner presents himself/herself as a victim of the other spouse’s purported psychological or spiritual conflicts. In fact, conflicts emerge at every stage of marriage in varying degrees and can be resolved if each spouse is willing to work on growth in self-knowledge and in virtues and grace – and if the couple has support within the Catholic community.

In our narcissistic culture, many spouses who wounded their marriages and spouses severely by their controlling, angry, emotionally distant, disrespectful, and selfish behaviors nevertheless feel entitled to an annulment. Unfortunately, we have clinical experience with many spouses who refused to address such conflicts and were, nonetheless, granted annulments. 

Such actions by tribunals are a grave offense against justice and the sacrament of marriage. Tribunal staffs need an appreciation for psychological science, which demonstrates that marital conflicts can be resolved, even if a divorce has already occurred. 

One faithful, loyal spouse whose husband gave in to blind, selfish ambition recently wrote:

I have very deep concerns about the Church’s granting of annulments in long-term marriages, and the message that it sends to the world on how the sanctity of marriage is viewed by the Church.  Something is seriously wrong when the very ones who grant such annulments, at the same time, believe it is a sacrament and gift from Christ. . . .Those in the Tribunal reminded me of the first Catholic marital therapist we saw who was more like a divorce therapist and who never challenged my husband on his selfishness and failure to respect and honor me as his vowed to God on our wedding day.  They did not seem to be pro-marriage and also seemed to be divorce enablers as was the Catholic psychologist we saw.

Her husband refused to explore why he gave selfish ambition in his career and failed to value and give himself to the sacrament of marriage and their children.  It is no surprise that this man feels entitled to an annulment.  Sadly, it may well be granted to him without digging into causes. His two children have serious psychological conflicts because of their father’s infidelity.

I would like to balance this call for justice with mercy.  There are legitimate cases for annulment by petitioners who have suffered gravely because of a spouse who did not understand marriage or act properly.  These petitioners should be given pastoral care along with the legal proceedings because of their emotional “wounds” which may have been occurring for years.

Tribunal staffs and priests would benefit from ongoing educational programs on the profound wisdom on John Paul II on the sacrament, and the psychological science that demonstrates marital healing can occur.

As the pope told the Roman Rota in 2002:  “Whenever a couple is going through difficulties, the sympathy of Pastors, and of the other faithful must be combined with clarity and fortitude in remembering that conjugal love is the way to work out a positive solution to their crisis. Given that God has united them by means of an indissoluble bond, the husband and wife by utilizing all their human resources, together with good will, and by, above all, confiding in the assistance of divine grace, can and should emerge from their moments of crisis renewed and strengthened.”

Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D. is a psychiatrist in Conshohocken, PA who has treated youth and adults with gender dysphoria, and written on the topic. He is the co-author of Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope .