But how can my marriage be null? I meant every word that I said'. I have met this puzzled and slightly angry reaction many times when starting to talk through a situation where a Catholic has been trying to make sense of the fact that their marriage has broken down. It is no exaggeration to say that the complexities provoked by marital breakdown and second or even third marriages has been the greatest challenge for Catholic parish communities over the last fifty years.
The way in which "The Church' has reacted is most often experienced by individual conversations of those whose lives have been affected with their local priests. Needless to say these conversations have gone in a variety of different ways, and I hope that many will have ended by the priest referring an individual or a couple to speak to someone from the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal.
I am also aware, however, that some have not and people who could have been helped were never referred, and indeed many people do not think it is even worth having the conversation for fear of being told that there is no hope, or even worse, being given a telling off for the situation in which they have found themselves, often through no fault of their own.
The "Church' has responded to this widespread pastoral challenge by establishing more effective and (I hope) pastorally astute Marriage Tribunals. In 1983 the Code of Canon Law was completely revised to recognise the developing needs and there have been two subsequent more minor revisions as well in order to make the Marriage Nullity process as straightforward as possible. Does this mean that the Church has "gone soft' on marriage and divorce? In fact, quite the opposite, we have come to recognise the true nature of marriage, its essential properties and obligations, the centrality of fidelity, permanence and openness to the gift of children.
You may be aware that the Church does not recognise the marriages of those baptised Catholics who have married "outside the church' either in a Register Office or in another church without a dispensation. If the lack of "outward formalities' invalidate a marriage, it stands to reason that a lack of "inward intentions' can also have such an effect.
It is true that it is hard to know what was in a person's mind and heart on the day that they exchanged their marriage consent, but there are often strong indicators, both before and after the wedding day, that such inward discrepancies may have emptied the words said of their meaning.
Consent is a complex human reality and it is the task of the Marriage Tribunal to investigate all the circumstances of a broken marriage to establish what the quality of that consent was. It is also important to realise that if just one of the party's consent is lacking then the consent of the other party, no matter how sincere, cannot compensate for that lack. It is like a £20 note, cut it in half and sellotape it back together again and you have a valid note. If you were to take half a counterfeit note and tape it to half of a valid one, it cannot make the whole note valid, it is not even worth £10!
The most important thing for people whose lives have been affected by a broken marriage, or those who wish to marry someone who has been married before, is that the Church will always listen and do whatever is possible to remedy the situation, although, sadly, this cannot always be the case. There is every reason though for talking through the complexities of these difficult human histories and it is often therapeutic in and of itself to experience, as someone recently said to me, the relief of "being listened to and believed'. The Marriage Tribunal exists to first and foremost, listen.
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The National Board of Catholic Women has just produced an updated guide to the annulment process, which explains the nullity process in a really clear way.Here's a link to the downloadable version: http://www.nbcw.co.uk/publications.html