What if the Other Spouse Doesn’t Want the Annulment?

Q: I read Sheila Kennedy’s book about her annulment experience, and it sure sounds like the Boston archdiocese put her through hell! I heard later that she appealed to the Vatican and they overturned the annulment her husband had got from Boston. It seems pretty obvious that the Boston canon lawyers tried to give her husband an annulment just because he’s a Kennedy. Don’t you think it’s scandalous that the Church treated her this way? –Stephanie

A: The former wife of Joseph Kennedy III did indeed write a book castigating the Catholic Church in general, and the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston in particular, after her ex-husband sought an annulment of their marriage. Calling the entire annulment process a “sham,” she has subsequently sought to pressure the Catholic Church to accept divorce and remarriage, and asserts that the Church could, if it wished, permit second marriages that are non-sacramental. It is amazing to find that this book is sold by many Catholic bookstores which otherwise carry material that is solidly orthodox, because it is essentially nothing more than a direct assault on both the Church’s teaching on marriage, and the authority of the Church’s  hierarchy to determine sacramental invalidity. As such it is hardly recommended Catholic reading material!

The issue of marriage nullity has been addressed numerous times before in this space, but it is worthwhile to examine some additional aspects of both the Church’s teaching on marriage and the annulment process. Then we should be better able to understand the few known facts of the Kennedy marriage and annulment proceedings—which, incidentally, are apparently still ongoing.

As has been said before in this space, there is no question that the Church’s law concerning marriage and annulment is the most widely misunderstood concept in the entire Code of Canon Law. We discussed in more detail in “Marriage and Annulment” the fact that a marriage annulment is utterly unlike a civil divorce—for an annulment is a statement that the sacrament of marriage was actually invalid at the moment that the spouses exchanged their consent. Some of the many reasons why a marriage may be found null have been addressed here in the past (see “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic” and “Do Lapsed Catholics Marry Validly Outside the Church?” for examples), and some of the basic elements of the annulment process were discussed in “Why Do Annulments Take So Long?”. Hopefully regular readers can by now appreciate the complexity of Catholic theology and canon law on this subject.

As we’ve discussed before, one rarely hears of anyone challenging the validity of a priest’s ordination, or of a teenager’s confirmation. Yet marriages are celebrated and later found to be invalid with astonishing frequency! Why does it seem that of all the seven sacraments, marriage is the one that is most problematic?

There are two main reasons: firstly, the minister of the sacrament of marriage is not the priest who officiates at the wedding. The sacrament is actually administered by the spouses themselves, who must give their consent. (See “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” already mentioned above, for a more in-depth discussion of this.)

Secondly, marriage is the only sacrament which by its very nature involves two ministers of the sacrament. At the wedding, both bride and groom must give their full consent as the Church understands it. It is possible that one spouse may do this flawlessly; but if the other does not, the marriage is null. Each is, therefore, utterly dependent on the other for the marriage to be celebrated validly. To a believing Catholic, there should be nothing surprising or objectionable about this. After all, mutual cooperation is a pretty basic component of Christian matrimony! But it means that mathematically, the odds that the sacrament of matrimony is administered invalidly are instantly doubled.

It also means, sadly, that a person who entered a marriage in total sincerity and gave his complete consent, fully intending to spend the rest of his life in union with the other spouse, can feel bitterly betrayed if that other spouse subsequently seeks an annulment of their marriage—and gets it. The undeniable fact is that it takes both spouses for a marriage to be valid; but it only takes one for it to be null. However painful this may be, it is crucial to remember that this unhappy situation is not the “fault” of the Catholic Church or its teaching on marriage. Still less are the staff of a diocesan marriage tribunal to blame. Bear in mind that a marriage tribunal does not make a marriage invalid; rather, it issues an official acknowledgement that a marriage which was celebrated invalidly is in fact null. A tribunal recognizes pre-existing nullity; it does not cause it.

This is a hard but critical fact to bear in mind when looking at the arguments of Sheila Rauch Kennedy. The former Mrs. Kennedy is not, and has never been, a Catholic, and thus may be excused for her failure to understand Catholic church teaching. What is harder to understand is her apparent refusal even to try to learn it. While we may all sympathize with her bitter sense that her former husband’s petition for an annulment was an act of treachery in which the Church acquiesced, we should at the same time pay close attention to her logic when she casts blame on the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston (which handled her husband’s petition) and on the Catholic Church as a whole.

Sheila Kennedy, who divorced her husband civilly in 1991, objected when her ex-husband sought an annulment two years later, in order to remarry in the Church. Evidently his petition was based on canon 1095 n. 2, which states that those who suffer from a grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and obligations, are incapable of giving their consent at the time of the marriage.

I say “evidently,” because any information from the documents and any other evidence contained in the records of the Kennedys’ annulment proceedings is not public knowledge. In her book, the former Mrs. Kennedy repeatedly expresses her frustration and outrage that the Boston marriage tribunal officials would not give her copies of the proceedings or even permit her to cite them. While she and her advocate were allowed to come to the tribunal and read the documents themselves, they were forbidden to use the information they contain outside the court. The implicit suggestion here is that the tribunal was engaged in a cover-up, trying to conceal the arbitrariness of its decision, and gagging a woman who was vainly trying to reveal the truth for all the world to see.

In fact, far from constituting an arbitrary and cruel violation of justice, it appears that with this prohibition, the tribunal was doing exactly what it is required by law to do. Canon 1475.2 notes that without an order from the judge, copies of the judicial acts and other documents are not to be given to anyone. Does this mean that Sheila Kennedy was kept in the dark throughout, while the validity of her marriage was being adjudicated? Not at all. Canon 1598.1 states that the judge in a marriage case must make all the acts of the case accessible to both spouses and their advocates for their inspection, and at their request, copies of the acts should be given to them. In fact, a failure to do this would actually invalidate the tribunal’s subsequent decision, because it would be denying both parties the ability to respond.

There are important pastoral, as well as legal, reasons for maintaining the confidentiality of a marriage tribunal’s proceedings. The records gathered during the annulment process generally include information that is highly personal, involving as it does the intimate relations of the spouses. After all, a marriage tribunal is not asked to adjudge a marriage that is healthy and happy; the whole point is that there is an allegation of a problem on one or both sides serious enough to invalidate a marriage from the beginning. Consequently, the record of a marriage case often includes documentation such as accounts of emotional or mental instability and psychiatric intervention, detailed discussions of marital infidelity, premarital and unnatural sexual acts, and sometimes descriptions of childhood sexual or physical abuse. In short, it frequently makes extremely unpleasant reading that is hardly suitable for public consumption!

All of which is not to suggest that the proceedings of the Kennedy case necessarily include any such information. The point here is that there is good reason why tribunal records in general are not available to the public. And since Sheila Kennedy clearly intended to use the documentation from her case in a public attack on her ex-husband and/or the Church, in denying her request the tribunal could not have acted otherwise. She always had the right to view the evidence in her case; she did not have the right to use that evidence in a book or television interview.

Throughout these writings and interviews, therefore, she makes references to various aspects of her experience during the process, and asserts the absurdity of the Church’s laws on the sacramental validity of a marriage, but she can never provide hard, factual evidence to support them. At the same time and for exactly the same reason, neither her husband nor the Boston Archdiocese can publicly provide evidence to refute her allegations. The facts of their marriage case, and all the evidence submitted, remain confidential.

Equally confidential are the details of the proceedings of the appellate court. As we saw in “Why Do Marriage Annulments Take So Long?” whenever a marriage is declared to be null by a tribunal, the case is automatically appealed (c. 1682.1). Only when a marriage case has received two conforming sentences from two courts, both finding that the marriage is in fact null, can the case be considered finished. The Kennedy case was no different in this regard. However, it appears that Sheila Kennedy requested that the appeal be handled, not by the ordinary court of second instance for the Archdiocese of Boston, but by the Roman Rota. As we saw in the post just mentioned, the Rota is one of the Vatican’s courts, and can be compared (in a very imperfect way) to our US Supreme Court. As with any respondent in a marriage case, Sheila Kennedy had every legal right to do this (c. 1444.1 n.1). However, since any case sent to the Rota takes years to adjudicate, this indirectly dragged out the proceedings even longer.

In 2007, the Roman Rota decided that it did not agree with the decision issued by the Boston tribunal. Suggestions were immediately made in the US press that the Archdiocese of Boston had ruled the marriage invalid solely for political reasons, and that the Kennedys were validly married after all.

While this is possible, there is no evidence that this is indeed what happened. Once again, the proceedings and the judgment of the Roman Rota are confidential. We simply know that the Rota’s finding was not in accord with the original decision. There are any number of conceivable reasons for this. While Sheila Kennedy stated publicly that “Rome agreed with me,” this is not necessarily the case at all. It could be that the Roman Rota found that some of the wording of the original decision was theologically imprecise, or that it may have been better to find the marriage invalid on some other grounds. Once again, “Why Do Marriage Annulments Take so Long?” addressed the fact that when an appellate court reverses a declaration of nullity, this should not automatically be viewed as a sort of “slap” against the lower court (although it may be).

So what happened to the Kennedy case? Again, we who are not immediately involved have no way of knowing, as the case is confidential. Because the two tribunal decisions do not agree, the case must be heard yet again by a third tribunal. Since the case is already at the Roman Rota, this means that it must be re-heard by a different group of judges there (c. 1444.1. n. 2), which once again will take years to complete. It is known that in the meantime, Joseph Kennedy has already married another woman, outside the Catholic Church. The Church, of course, can never recognize any second marriage unless and until an annulment of the first marriage is obtained. Unless and until the Rota issues a second decision in conformity with the previous one, the Catholic Church holds that Joseph and Sheila Kennedy are married.

Paradoxically, this not what Sheila Kennedy apparently wants. On many occasions she has publicly stated that she wants the Catholic Church to accept that she and her former husband really were married validly but later divorced, and that her ex-husband should be permitted by the Church to remarry, in a “non-sacramental marriage,” without a finding that his first marriage to her was null.

Her repeated assertions that the Catholic Church can do this if it so chooses are erroneous. Overlooked in this argument is the fact that marriage was raised to the dignity of a sacrament by Christ Himself (c. 1055.1). The notion that somehow the Church can suddenly assert that it is possible for Catholics to marry validly, but non-sacramentally, is theologically impossible. As we saw in “Can Non-Catholics Receive the Catholic Sacrament of Matrimony?” the Church’s teaches that a marriage involving two baptized persons is by definition a sacramental marriage, regardless of whether both spouses realize this or not. If Sheila Kennedy truly understood Catholic teaching about marriage, she would be able to see the absurdity of her proposal. Without presuming to speak for the Church’s hierarchy, it is safe to say that it will never be embraced by the Catholic Church.

Without a doubt, there are many people who feel wounded by the Church’s annulment of their marriages, which they honestly believed to be valid. But denying fundamental Catholic teaching about the sacramentality of Christian marriage is not the answer. While we may respect Sheila Kennedy’s anguish about the annulment process, the Catholic Church cannot embrace her proposal and change its definition of marriage. For we believe that marriage has been established and defined by God Himself.

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