by Father John Catoir
When I was director of The Christophers, I received a call from the CBS news show “60 Minutes.” Producers were preparing a segment on a case involving a Catholic annulment. Since they couldn’t find any church official who was willing to talk to them, they called me.
I understood the secrecy issue, having been the judicial vicar of my own diocesan marriage tribunal for 10 years. But I also knew that I could get clearance before I agreed to be a guest on the show, and I eventually did.
It seems that, after getting a divorce, a Catholic man approached his diocesan tribunal for a church annulment from his Jewish ex-wife. Though she had agreed to the divorce, she sued the church for accepting his petition.
She was outraged and had said, “He left me for another woman, and now the Catholic Church is going to condone his betrayal. We took vows to marry for life.”
“60 Minutes” took her side, and as soon as I agreed to be interviewed, Mike Wallace came to my office with a camera and crew. He was very gracious, but all business.
The first question he asked me on camera was: “Isn’t the annulment process nothing more than a Catholic divorce?”
“No, not at all!” I countered. “A divorce severs the legal bond of marriage, rendering the rights and privileges accruing to it as no longer legally binding. An annulment, on the other hand, searches to find if the original contract had any trace of fraud going to the heart of the contract.”
I continued, explaining that if fraud is discovered (for example, he never intended an exclusive union), or if there was a lack of capacity on the part of either spouse to enter into and sustain the burdens and obligations of marriage, the court will declare the union null and void.
“This means that the contract was invalid from the beginning,” I explained. “The rights and duties accruing to the invalid contract were therefore never binding.”
An annulment doesn’t mean that there was never a marriage; there was a legal marriage according to the state. Nor does it mean that the children born of that marriage were illegitimate in the eyes of the church. The word “illegitimate” only refers to children born out of wedlock.
During the show, Mike Wallace questioned me about the rights of the Jewish ex-wife, asking if she should be punished for his unfaithful behavior.
I said, “No, the church does not want to inflict any pain on anyone, but what is at issue here is the right of a Catholic to have his/her marriage examined to see if there was any sign of an invalidating impediment.” The man’s wife, however, wanted to stop the process before it even began.
To the best of my knowledge, the annulment was never granted, and I don’t know why.
In the course of the interview, I mentioned St. Joan of Arc and her trial before an English church tribunal. Joan had every right to protest the court’s decision that declared her to be a witch. But to everyone’s surprise, she simply said something to the equivalent of: “I love the church. I will always love the church, because for me the church is Jesus Christ.”
She wasn’t saying “my church, right or wrong.” She knew a grave injustice had been done.
We all know that the church has made many mistakes down through the centuries.
St. Joan of Arc was sentenced to be burned at the stake on May 31, 1431. It wasn’t until July 7, 1456, that her sentence was overturned. She was declared a saint and a martyr, but she wasn’t officially canonized until May 16, 1920, by Pope Benedict XV.