ANNULMENTS AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: STRAIGHT ANSWERS TO TOUGH QUESTIONS. By Edward N. Peters (Ascension Press, P.O. Box 1990, West Chester, Pa. 19380, 2004), 197 pp. PB $12.00.
Few aspects of Catholicism provoke as many questions as does the topic of annulments. The cynical often regard it as “Catholic divorce,” available at least for the rich, but even well–meaning Catholics easily grow perplexed about just how annulment differs from divorce, except that annulments seem to require a lot more persistence to obtain. In a volume that will be highly useful to priests anxious for a refresher course on the subject as well as to anyone thinking about seeking an annulment, Edward Peters clarifies many of the technical points of theology and canon law that have sparked confusion and controversy. This book will also be a tremendous resource for many educators, from teachers of high school marriage classes to seminary instructors. Peters has doctoral degrees in civil and canon law and has worked with tribunals in Maryland, Minnesota, and California. This book, an updated version of his earlier 100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments (1997), is well annotated throughout with references to the relevant provisions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Among the one hundred questions with which he deals is the surprise people sometimes exhibit at finding a lay person (like Peters himself) as a tribunal judge, for canon law is still perceived by many as the preserve of priests. A few stories from his own experience as a husband and a father of six children add to this book a certain charm that compliments the confidence that his professional competence and years of tribunal experience inspire. The topics that Peters treats range from the purely practical to the profoundly theological. In the area of procedure, he explains the steps to be taken at every stage, from early inquiries at the parish level, through the process used by the tribunal, to the rendering of a formal judgment and the possibilities of appeal. Throughout these sections Peters shows great good sense in explaining the general system that the Church uses while constantly exhorting the person who feels anxious over delays or is concerned that justice is not being done, to consult local officials rather than to perpetuate the stereotypical complaints made about annulments without giving the system an adequate chance to perform its designated function. At the more theoretical level, Peters offers a well-balanced view of this delicate matter within a framework of great fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage. The annulment process, Peters explains, works both to maintain justice and to extend mercy. It starts from the presumption (somewhat analogous to the principle of common law whereby a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty) that a couple who have gone through a wedding ceremony are presumed to have married until the tribunal can legitimately establish that they did not in fact marry whether because of some problem with form, with the capacity of one or both of the parties to enter marriage, or with the consent of one or both of the parties. Yet there is an important difference: the annulment process is not like a criminal trial, for it is not a matter of discerning guilt, finding fault, or casting blame, but rather a forum for discovering the truth about whether there truly was a marriage from the beginning — even the “guilty party” (for instance, the spouse who broke up the relationship by adultery) may bring a petition for annulment! By careful presentation of many examples typical in tribunal work today, Peters forcefully conveys sense of what does and what does not serve as grounds for the Church to declare that what might have been perceived as a true marriage was not one. On this precise point we can see one of the main reasons why annulment is not like divorce, for it is not the Church’s way of trying to terminate a marriage that for some reason or other has failed (or as Peters puts it, “good marriages that go tragically bad are not necessarily null.”) While information about the final breakdown of a couple’s relationship might shed light on the conditions that prevailed back at the time of the wedding ceremony, such information is not directly “evidence” that would be decisive for a judgment of nullity, in contrast to information, say, about a person’s canonical incapacity at the time of the wedding to make free commitment of self needed for a valid marriage. Peters explores such topics as alcoholism and drug addiction and explains the relatively high burden of proof that must be met to prove a psychological incapacity for giving sufficient free consent to marriage vows. What is especially interesting to the reader concerned with the Church’s recent practice in granting annulments (some charging that there are now too many, some that there are still too few) is Peters’ comparison between the practice of American tribunals and the Roman Rota. In the course of defending, in general, the tribunal system in the United States, he explains the important changes that were made in canon law when the 1983 code replaced that of 1917 and the enormous effect those changes had on annulment jurisprudence. In his analysis, clearer legal and theological insight about the legitimate grounds for identifying invalidity in attempts at marriage also help to identify some of the causes of the current chaos in marriage and family life. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. Fordham University