According to some statistics, 6 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in the United States. They account for 80 per cent of the annulments granted in Rome. Add Canada into that, and I begin to wonder if the Church actually has a serious “annulment problem,” yet. She certainly would if she allowed our American decadence to spread. I sometimes think many of her other problems could also be solved, simply by excommunicating everyone north of the Rio Grande.
But then I look at Ireland. I was raised in the belief that it was a Catholic country. It had stayed that way through centuries of siege by my Protestant ancestors, who in the end did not even manage to take all of Ulster. By osmosis I learnt that the Irish were impossible. They could not even be killed off. Lord, we tried. Starved them out and they somehow found boats: started washing up everywhere else. No matter how poor, no matter how desperate, they clung to their Mass. That old Ireland: the pre-eminent scandal of the British Empire, so close to Home. Even the Scots could be co-opted. Even the Welsh understood threats. Nothing could be done about Catholic Ireland. Decades before their cut-and-run from huge unmanageable India, little Ireland had made the English give up.
Only the Irish could defeat the Irish, and now they have done it to themselves. In the space between the last two censuses the number of divorced people in Ireland has much more than doubled. The number attending Mass has plummetted, and there is every other indication of religious and familial collapse. In my now Catholic view, they have sold their souls for a mess of EU pottage, and got in addition a staggering bill. They have bought into the post-modern void, and are voiding all over themselves.
In Ireland, according to some item I read recently in the Irish Independent, applications for annulment, which had never been numerous, have sharply fallen: they halve, while divorces double. The truth is that no one can be bothered any more. It was a different situation to start with. In America, from what I can see, annulment applications are rubber-stamped. Often one party to the annulment is not even consulted. The only trial is waiting the requisite long time for the papers to rise to the top of successive bureaucratic heaps. From the blank application before me, I see it is assumed the applicant has already found — is probably living with — another squeeze. The only Catholic touch seems to be the assumption that person is oppositely sexed. I’m sure objections have been raised to that restriction.
Whereas in Ireland I learn, as a holdover from the past, only a minority of applicants get beyond the application. Some 40 per cent are rejected outright, as showing no prima facie case. More than half of the remaining applications are then withdrawn, under cross-examination. The sheaf reaching Rome is very thin. Of those finally rubber-stamped, some 80 per cent contain prohibitions on any further marriage by one or both parties — the “defect” that was cause for the annulment being judged still present. In other words, Holy Church does not propose to be gulled again.
Now, this is a holdover from a culture in which marriage was not a joke. Clearly, the judicial vicars for the Irish tribunals are “behind the times”; understandably, given the speed of “change” in their country. In the secularized world that Ireland has suddenly entered, the whole idea of Christian marriage is inconceivable. Here in America, this has been the case for some time. For nearly half a century, every marriage has been contracted in the knowledge that a divorce (then, if wanted, an annulment) could be easily obtained if it did not work out. And even in Catholic churches, as I have noticed from attending a few “old fashioned” weddings in the last few years, the concept of “man and woman” is being discarded. Instead the word “persons” is discreetly insinuated, and the vows made identical, rather than risk confrontation with the Zeitgeist.
The large question of divorce and re-marriage is currently before Rome. In due course we will discover whether our current pope is like Paul VI — who wrote Humanae Vitae on his own, courageously in defiance of most of the advice that had been given him — or whether he is not.
His predecessor believed and wrote that we must expect a much smaller Church. The choice is to adapt the Church to “trends,” or breathe that defiance. I am in no doubt what Christ would do given that choice: for the Christ of mass-market publicity is not the Christ of the gospels. His “mercy” was very unlike our “tolerance.” He never said, “Who am I to judge?” and the Church that acted in Christ’s name never said it either. (She taught: “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” a dimensionally different idea.) But here we are in a new world where, as Walter Kaspar says, the Church finds herself vexed:
“Today we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the last Council. At that time as well there existed, for example on the question of ecumenism or religious freedom, encyclicals and decisions of the Holy Office that seemed to preclude other ways. Without violating the binding dogmatic tradition, the Council opened doors. We can ask ourselves: is it not perhaps possible that there could be further developments on the present question as well?”
In his “secret speech” which opened the Vatican’s consistory on the family, the cardinal is said merely to have “asked questions.” The quote exemplifies how leading those questions were. The pope himself praised Kaspar’s speech, before anyone could read it, as an example of “profound theology,” of “serene thinking,” of “doing theology on one’s knees.” Now we have the whole text, thanks to the secular newspaper Il Foglio, which obtained a copy and published it on 1st March.
Cardinal Kaspar alludes to conditions in the first centuries, when the Church confronted the pagan customs of the ancient world, and gradually amended them. He then admits that conditions are not quite the same today, while nevertheless looking back to the early centuries to inspire a “radical … paradigm change.” This is a cant phrase, itself deserving unequivocal contempt.
His most signal failure was to take matrimony itself seriously; he only considered the demands made against it. He addresses what we call today, “the problem” — people are not obeying the rules, so something must be done about the rules. It is easy enough to see the solution towards which Cardinal Kaspar’s leading questions lead. Through one of his soi-disant “questions” he proposes to take the Sacrament of Penance less seriously, and then the Sacrament of the Eucharist less seriously, in order to facilitate the quick fix that will take the Sacrament of Matrimony less seriously.
It happens I would myself be a beneficiary of any foreseeable relaxation of Church discipline in this area. Long before reception into the Catholic Church, I contracted a very unhappy marriage, the worst mistake of my life. It would be lovely to be free of it, in exchange for privately confessing what I have just publicly confessed. I am writing, thus, against my own interest; and this because I take the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer seriously. (“Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”)
We are trying to accommodate the outside world: that world in which marriage has become a joke. This is the opposite of what we did in the first centuries, when we were trying to make the outside world accommodate Christ. But the world to which we now bow is fluff. It is “redefining marriage” even as I write. Our answer, to the greater challenge in that pagan Roman environment, was defiance. This led to martyrdoms and many other unpleasant developments; and concluded with our triumph. But now we seem embarked on a course to avoid unpleasantness, by accepting defeat.