Chronicles of nullity

A correspondent calls my attention to one of the items that suddenly disappeared from Canon Law, yesterday, without being replaced. This is Canon 1676, in the 1983 Code, which reads:

“Before he accepts a case and whenever there appears to be hope of success, the judge is to use pastoral means to persuade the spouses that, if it is possible, they should perhaps validate their marriage and resume their conjugal life.”

This I might have characterized as a Catholic example of, “first, do no harm.” Not all marital catastrophes are irretrievable; and even “non-marital” live-in, and other extended, libidinous “relationships,” can sometimes be improved. Breaking them off is only one of the possible improvements. One’s mind should be open.

Among those appealing to the ecclesial authorities for the nullification of their marriage vows, there could conceivably be some who have as little appreciation of what they are doing as they had, apparently, when they got married. So why not begin at the beginning?

Even if reconciliation looks impossible on a first cursory glance, and may veritably prove impossible, some good might come from the demonstration, and perhaps specifically from the pain of demonstrating, that a spouse is a spouse is a spouse. “Marriage counselling” does not always fail. It only fails most of the time.

Among those with any faith at all, the sight of a priest meddling might be instructive: a “game changer.” Among those without, what are we bothering with anyway?

That is the beauty of the “annulment process”: that it implies some degree of Faith. The applicant must want somehow to regularize his standing, not only with some future spouse, but before God. Or why is he here? He might finally want to be eligible for Communion. Too, he might want to give future children a chance, at not being bastards. (Of course, of course, the children are thought of last; but they have souls, too.)

For secular divorce papers are easy enough to obtain, as often as required, in all modern jurisdictions — the State no longer believing it has an interest in preserving civilization. Holy Church still has an interest, however.

It is odd to argue — but then, I am odd — that an “annulment” (itself a shorthand term) should be made more, not less, difficult to obtain. Or that, even once granted, the Church should not then casually permit “remarriage” to parties who have sufficiently proved themselves unable to comprehend the Sacrament in the past. Surely, in an institution as large as the Catholic Church, someone should be lobbying for higher standards. This isn’t impossible; it was done in previous centuries.

Yes: it is often a waste of time, to work on reconciliation, but it is not always a waste of time. Paul, for analogy, did not cancel his trip to Iconium because the Pisidians had told him to eff-off; there might still be someone who wants to listen in the next town.

Too, there seems no longer an understanding that failure is useful, in itself. What they can’t handle now, they might remember later. If what they need to learn is that marriage is indissoluble, rubbing in their noses might help to obviate their next mistakes. Much else might be indirectly achieved by forcing a split-up couple to confront the gravity of what they have done — and of the risk they are taking, now, in carrying it farther. The risk, that is to say, with God. For truly, no one fully in his right mind can want to be on the wrong side of the Creator of the Universe.

“But that’s so unfair!”

Read once again the several Gospel parables in which Christ seems to go out of his way, to prove that He is “unfair,” by the usual earthly definitions. Is it always “unfair” that you don’t get what you want? …

A supplementary question might be, “Are you three years old?”

“It’s so unfair to the children!” By which is meant, I should think, the children of the subsequent “domestic arrangement.” This is pretty rich, when the children of the antecedent have been written off.

I am not a canonist; gentle reader is free to ignore all my opinions on this and other topics. I can at best refer him to such Internet authorities as Ed Peters (his blog, In the Light of the Law, here), or to the wonderful talk Cardinal Burke gave yesterday at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. (Here.)

This latter made a point that I would count as courageous, about justice “for the children” of second and subsequent “marriages.” They are, after all, bastards; where’s the injustice in that? They were, after all, born into that condition; it wasn’t the Church that made them that way. We are talking here about a fact already accomplished; an “injustice” that has been already done.

Yet it is not “unjust” that a bastard is a bastard. (I am using this word in its technical, not in its derogatory sense.) No matter what may be done to alleviate his social disadvantages (and in today’s society, I can’t think what they are), he will always have been born to parents who weren’t sacramentally married; to parents who were living in mortal sin.

Again: that is fact, that is why we have legal tribunals — to get at some facts. This does not mean the bastards’ children must also be bastards in their turn. It only means that their own condition is something we can’t change. Salvation the Church may and must attempt, and there can be salvation for bastards, but the facts of the past are incapable of amendment. Only a Stalin will try to change those.

I should like to state what I think is the forgotten position, more forcefully. For it is not only of “sacramental marriage” that we are losing sight.

We are losing sight of “natural marriage,” into the bargain.

Inscribed on the blackened little heart of the applicant for nullity is still God’s natural law. Humans, it can be said, are a monogamous species. How do you “feel” when you discover that your mate has cheated on you? How does your mate “feel” upon discovering that you have selfishly cheated? Or let us say, upon being discarded, how do you “feel”? … Badly?

Good, the machinery of natural law seems to be working.

And what do the words, “do as you would be done by,” mean to you? …

Excellent, now we are getting somewhere.

All this, together with the knowledge that sex leads “naturally” to babies, and even that children need love, food, clothing, and protection, together with somewhere to live — all this comes even before religion. And among those not actually insane, or otherwise mentally debilitated, the knowledge of this is baked in so well that it is impossible to scrape out. Even out there in the world of the juke box, the evidence from heartbreak can be obtained. Men and women know how things really are: in their bones, in their DNA. Even the playboys and the feminists know. They are only pretending not to.

It should be amazing, for any tribunal, to be told, with a straight face, that the applicant “did not know” what marriage was. This, surely, is the first hurdle to be climbed over. Perhaps it should be greeted with derisive laughter. Perhaps that was the key thing missing from the 1983 Code — the most merciful thing when viewed in the largest: the need to mock and humiliate the applicant from the start, and slap him into his senses, rather than indulge his reaksome self-pity. For sacramental marriage can only be founded on natural marriage; which in its turn is hard not to understand.

The Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus on this point: whether it were lawful to put away a wife for any cause. To which He replied:

Have ye not read, that He who made men from the beginning, made them male and female?

Apparently they had. And so He said,

For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh.

Moreover, to avoid misunderstanding, He added,

Wherefore now they are no more twain, but one flesh.

Then, lest this be mistaken for a suggestion — some sort of “idea” the professor has put in play —  He doubled down, rephrasing the analysis as a Command:

What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

I have had reason to want an annulment myself, as the years, now decades pass, of aloneness. But I read that and think: not so fast.