Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest

Q: In 1987, I was married in the Catholic Church. Both of us were Catholics.  We civilly divorced after three years of marriage. In 1994, I explained the previous marriage situation to a priest who was helping me and my new fiancée get married in the Catholic Church.  He had me begin the annulment process, but it took too long and was not completed, no determination was made.  The priest…told me that getting an annulment was a “formality,” and married us in Church in 1995 even though I had not had my previous marriage in the Catholic Church declared null by the Tribunal of our diocese.

Am I validly, licitly married under Canon Law?  Do I still need to get an annulment? –Patrick

A: God alone knows how many priests around the world today minister tirelessly and selflessly to the people of their parishes.  Sadly, their lifelong work and self-sacrifice can sometimes be completely overshadowed by the conduct of an equally unknown number of their fellow-priests who confuse “ministerial service” with “personal power,” and by so doing give the entire priesthood a bad rap.  Let’s take a look at what a priest is supposed to do in a situation like Patrick’s, and at the damage caused by his failure to do it.  In the process, all of us—priests and laity alike—should gain a renewed awe for the immense responsibility of every Catholic priest before God.

The fundamental issue here seems to be the need for a correct understanding of the exercise of authority.  There is no denying that through his ordination, a priest obtains spiritual power which is simply indescribable.  After all, when he utters the words of consecration over bread and wine at Mass, a priest is obeyed by God Himself!  As St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, once said, “Oh, the greatness of the priest!  If he understood himself, he would die!”

Needless to say, we unordained laity lack the powers that an ordained priest has obtained through his ordination, and thus we are entirely dependent on them in many ways, sacramental and otherwise.  This is clearly the way Christ intended His Church to operate: an ascending hierarchy of ordained clergy possesses the ability to do things in God’s Name that the rest of us cannot do.  How is this power supposed to be exercised?

Vatican II’s Decree on the Ministry and the Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, spells out pretty clearly what most of us instinctively know already: the life and ministry of a priest is to be characterized by humility, service, and obedience.

Aware of his own weakness, the true minister of Christ works in humility trying to do what is pleasing to God…. With humble disposition he waits upon all whom God has sent him to serve in the work assigned to him and in the multiple experiences of his life….

By this humility and by willing responsible obedience, priests conform themselves to Christ. They make their own the sentiments of Jesus Christ who “emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant,” becoming obedient even to death (Phil 2:7-9). By this obedience he conquered and made up for the disobedience of Adam, as the Apostle testifies, “for as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners, so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just”(Rom 5:19) (15).

Canon 276 is taken verbatim from yet another section of Presbyterorum Ordinis, noting that the clergy are stewards of the mysteries of God in the service of His people.  The clear message is that while clerics undoubtedly have a lot of power, it is supposed to be used not for their own self-aggrandizement, but for the spiritual good of others.

With all this in mind, let’s look at the specific case of Patrick, who approached his parish priest seeking to marry a second time in the Church.  As we have seen before in this space, canon law states unequivocally that marriage enjoys the favor of the law—meaning that every marriage is presumed valid unless and until the contrary is proven (c. 1060).  There is nothing about this canon that is optional or open to interpretation; and like all the other canons in the code, every Roman Catholic on the planet (including parish priests!) is bound to follow it (cf. c. 1).

What should have happened, when Patrick “explained the previous marriage situation to a priest who was helping [him] and [his] fiancée get married in the Catholic Church”? First and foremost, the priest should have explained the necessity of first obtaining an annulment of his first marriage. That’s because in the absence of a declaration of nullity of that marriage by a competent tribunal, Patrick is still married in the eyes of the Church to his first wife! Consequently, and not surprisingly, he is unable to marry again because of the impediment of prior bond (c. 1085.1). The next paragraph of the very same canon states that one cannot enter another marriage, before the nullity of the previous one has been established lawfully and with certainty (c. 1085.2). How much clearer could the code possibly be on this point?

And yet, as we see, Patrick was told by the priest at his parish that “getting an annulment was a ‘formality.’” The falsehood of such a statement, and this priest’s blatant disregard for the official laws and teachings of the Church regarding marriage, are simply mind-boggling. After all, canon laws are laws, not suggestions. To be fair, if this priest had studied at a poor seminary in a third-world country, or in a nation where the Church operates underground due to political persecution, it might be possible to blame his actions on substandard training and inadequate formation—but this incident actually occurred in the United States. Why, one wonders, would any priest who had received a proper education in theology tell someone still married in the eyes of the Church that he could nevertheless get married again?

One occasionally encounters Catholics who wrongly believe that parish priests have leeway in matters like this, because (so they claim) it’s a more pastoral way to help laity who are faced with a potentially difficult situation—such as waiting a long time for an annulment, before marrying again. To such persons there is only one answer: there’s nothing “pastoral” about giving the faithful false information, and telling them they can do X when in fact the Church teaches that they can’t. For Catholics, following Catholic doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage is not optional! It’s a bit like a doctor assuring someone with a serious heart condition that he can run a marathon—when in reality such strenuous exercise will kill him—because the doctor feels it’s “kinder” to tell the sick person what he wants to hear. The professional irresponsibility and sheer cruelty of such a mindset should be evident to all.

Patrick and his new fiancée were certainly not at fault here.  They did exactly what Catholics are expected to do: they consulted their parish priest and reasonably accepted the information he gave them as accurate.  After all, if you can’t trust a priest to administer the sacraments correctly, whom can you trust?  But the undeniable fact remains that Patrick and his new wife are, in the absence of a declaration of nullity of Patrick’s first marriage, most definitely not married so far as the Catholic Church is concerned.  The priest may very well have gone through all the required external motions to celebrate their wedding in accord with canonical form (c. 1108.1), but surely he was well aware that metaphysically speaking, he wasn’t marrying them at all.

What is to be done here?  First and foremost, Patrick has to find a responsible priest who will help him request an annulment from the tribunal of his diocese.  Since it appears from what he tells us that this process was started at some point in the past, someone must inquire as to the status of his case and ensure that it is completed—and let’s hope, for Patrick’s sake, that the judges eventually do indeed find that his first marriage was null.

Secondly, an investigation should be initiated immediately into all the other marriage ceremonies performed by this same priest.  As Patrick’s bishop will appreciate, it’s easy to imagine that this was not an isolated case!  And if this priest has no respect for the law on such a critical issue as the indissolubility of marriage, one shudders to think what other legal violations he may have committed on other occasions.  It’s worth noting at this point that pretending to administer a sacrament is a crime (c. 1379), as well it should be—since the lay faithful are completely dependent on their priests to administer the sacraments correctly and appropriately.  If a priest knows full well that the wedding he is celebrating can’t possibly be valid, then it follows logically that he is engaging in a sham—and the unwitting laity are its victims.

The news media gave a lot of attention last December to Pope Francis’ Christmas message to the Vatican Curia, in which he lashed out (and with good reason) at the hypocrisy of those clergy in the Vatican who abuse their positions of power.  While the main focus was on higher-ranking prelates, the conclusion of the Pope’s remarks pertained to the Catholic priesthood as a whole:

Once I read that: “priests are like airplanes, they make news only when they fall, but there are so many that are flying. Many criticize and few pray for them.” It is a very nice phrase but also very true because it delineates the importance and the delicacy of our priestly service and how much evil one priest who “falls” can do to the whole Body of the Church.

Pope Francis is right, of course! We need to pray for our priests—but at the same time, priests need to appreciate the “delicacy of [their] priestly service,” and take very seriously their responsibility to exercise their ministry in the right way. At the end of their lives, priests will have to give an account of their ministerial actions to God Himself.

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