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For the New York Times and most other mainstream media it has become axiomatic: De Catholicis, nil nisi malum. (Roughly: If it’s Catholic, bash it.) When the Catholic Church, allegedly ignoring human complexity and weakness, proclaims the indissolubility of marriage (on the basis of Christ’s words in Matthew 19:6 and the Pauline notion that the fidelity between man and woman is the image of Christ’s love for His Church), it is being inhuman and heartless. When the Catholic Church, taking into account human complexity and weakness, declares a particular marriage null (as in the now notorious case of Sheila Rauch Kennedy), it is being, well, inhuman and heartless. The contradiction gives no pause. The Church has the wrong view of sex and marriage, and therefore whatever it says and does must be wrong.

For Sheila Rauch Kennedy, divorce from U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II was painful enough, but the Church’s annulment of their twelve years together, as though that time were meaningless, was the last straw. The former Mrs. Kennedy reports in her book Shattered Faith: A Woman’s Struggle to Stop the Catholic Church from Annulling Her Marriage (Pantheon) that when she received the letter informing her of her husband’s intentions, she immediately ran into the bathroom and threw up. To judge by the publicly documented record of the Kennedy boys’ antics with mafia molls, movie starlets, babysitters, and no doubt other players to be named later, this was probably not the first––or the last––time one of the Kennedy girls has had such a reaction.

The subtitle of the book tells all for those in the know: “a woman” has been the victim of the tyranny of Rome. This case, we are to presume, reveals the unholy intersection of the Pope, the Boston Irish mafia (clerical and lay), and the immense power and prestige of the Kennedy money and name. Up against that exclusive men’s club, how could the former Mrs. Kennedy ever hope to get a fair shake?

If truth be told, there are many Catholics, even those not charmed by the feminist and liberal paradigms, concerned about the way the American Church in recent years seems to have become in its frequent granting of annulments what Sheila Rauch Kennedy has dubbed “a Catholic Nevada.” The Church cannot ignore its pastoral responsibility to enable people who entered into sacramentally invalid marriages a chance to remarry within the Church. At the same time, it must champion the indissolubility of marriage by both word and deed. Under current circumstances, this means being publicly misunderstood about a complex and highly emotional issue. There is probably nothing else to do but grin and bear it––and try to give better explanations in the future about the nature of an annulment.

Still, a very high percentage of all the annulment cases presented throughout the world are presented in the United States, and most of the cases presented before tribunals in this country result in declarations of nullity. Is something truly amiss here?

The answer is partly yes, partly no. If you ask priests you trust––particularly those who serve on marriage tribunals––you get a far different picture from the popular impression. As one Defender of the Bond (the priest designated in every case to present arguments for the sacramental validity of the marriage) explained it to me, there are three reasons America has such high annulment rates. First, there are lots of Catholics in America, more, we fail to realize, than in such countries as Italy and France. Second, Americans take law seriously in ways that Catholics in other countries do not, and many of them want to be able to remarry in the Church with a good conscience. Finally, the American Church is wealthy, which means it can afford the canon lawyers and psychologists needed for the marriage tribunals that other national churches should run, but cannot. In addition, the high percentage of annulments granted to cases presented reflects a weeding-out process that occurs even before cases come before a tribunal.

Still, it looks bad and perhaps the whole process needs more careful scrutiny. Since Vatican II and the New Code of Canon Law, there have been significant developments of doctrine on marriage stemming from the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II himself. These developments build on earlier evolution in this century of understanding what a sacramental marriage must be in Catholic terms and taking into account relevant discoveries of psychology. This seems to be the main point of confusion and contention.

Briefly, the theology of this sacrament distinguishes between the natural bond in marriage, a civil or legal marriage, and canonical matrimony. No little heartache arises when a former spouse––usually a woman alone with children, like Sheila Rauch Kennedy––feels that the annulment, beyond rendering a verdict about the sacrament, threatens to erase her former life and render her personally meaningless in the process.

Many people feel that divorce merely recognizes the obvious fact that things went wrong after the wedding ceremony. Sheila Rauch Kennedy, for instance, actually petitioned for the divorce. Annulment, however, means that there was a sacramental defect at the outset, a ruling often erroneously thought to mean that the affection experienced and legal bonds incurred, including the legitimacy of children, never existed.

In current Church teaching, there are three grounds for declaring a marriage sacramentally invalid. The Church has always taught consensus fecit matrimonium, that consent forms the bonds. Tribunals must therefore resolve the question whether proper consent existed at the time the vows were exchanged. External force or fear may be factors, as in the old-style shotgun wedding. But there are as well three obvious internal impediments to consent: lack of sufficient reason (almost never cited, but sometimes connected with drug use or mental incompetency); grave lack of discretion; and diagnosable psychopathology. Little controversy has arisen about the first and last categories, and so we must turn to grave lack of due discretion, the Kennedy claim.

St. Augustine identifies three basic goods in marriage: unity, fidelity, and procreation. Defects in the intention or capacity to observe any of these renders the sacramental marriage null, if the defect can be proved “to a moral certainty,” whatever may appear to be going on during and after the marriage ceremony. Obviously, these matters involve less-than-ironclad judgments. At least in theory, it may be that almost any couple getting married will lack due discretion in some respect, laying open the possibility that virtually any marriage that comes to grief may also be declared sacramentally void (only 338 annulments were granted in America in 1968; more recently, the annual figure is around sixty thousand). The Pope has been giving yearly addresses to the Roman Rota (the final court of appeal) arguing that due discretion must generally be understood to mean that ordinary people in ordinary circumstances are capable of the high commitments to which they are called by life in Christ. About the United States, he has observed that the process is “too easy and hurried.”

Yet even granting that there may be problems both of perception and subjective judgment, tribunal practice remains, for the most part, rigorous. A few tribunals are notoriously lax. Even so, where the initial tribunal grants the annulment, the case is not simply closed. It is automatically reviewed by another tribunal. A suffragan diocese’s decisions are reviewed by the metropolitan; the large metropolitan archdioceses often review one another (New York handles Philadelphia, Baltimore handles Washington). Ultimately, any party can appeal to the Roman Rota (as Sheila Rauch Kennedy did), or more rarely to the Pope. There may be problems with the process, but if so it is not for want of attention to legal safeguards. Adequate opportunities to present evidence are provided all along the way for an ex-spouse who contests the annulment.

Can this whole process be influenced by the wealth and prestige of one or both of the parties? Undoubtedly. And that is why in such cases––where a local tribunal might truly come under pressure from powerful forces––the decision is often made elsewhere. A tribunal director pointed out to me that when Princess Caroline of Monaco sought an annulment of her first marriage, it was immediately sent on to the Roman Rota because her father, as head of state, might be perceived as being in a position to influence the outcome. In the event, it took ten years (the first husband was already dead by that time) for the Rota to grant an annulment. An experienced priest remarked to me about notorious cases involving well-known figures that “the Kennedys and the Sinatras get annulments, not because they’re rich and famous, but because they’re screwed up.”

In many ways, you have to sympathize with Sheila Rauch Kennedy and women in similar circumstances. Joe Jr. only has to mumble a few apologies about “mistakes” in the relationship and the good voters of Massachusetts allow him to go on with his political career. She is left alone with the children, feeling that, as her then-husband repeatedly told her, “You’re nobody.” Many people experience healing after an annulment and some are encouraged by the better tribunals, given deep-seated problems that have been uncovered, to go through counseling before thinking about remarriage. It’s tragic that nothing of the sort occurred here.

Her book raises some important issues, but it is not likely to bring her or anyone else peace of heart. An umbrella organization of dissident Catholic groups has already fastened on the case to make the sweeping claim that the Church’s whole teaching on marriage is hypocritical. Their solution is not to stop abuse, if and when it exists, but to abandon principle.

A more careful reading points toward a different moral to this story. Sheila Rauch made a bad bet on Joe Jr., who, she claims, called the whole annulment business “Catholic gobbledygook” and added “nobody actually believes it.” It’s easy to understand why she’s angry. But she also needs to recognize the truth about who rolled the dice in this marriage, which faith was shattered, and by whom. By her own telling, it was not the Catholic faith that proved false, but her trust in a fallible human being.

Robert Royal is Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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