Marriage annulments and the Society of St Pius X

March 3, 1998

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

Amongst other accusations recently leveled at the Society of St. Pius X in the U.S.A. from former friends to left and to right is one that is delicate to handle in the public domain, and might have been better left in private. However, now that the issue has been raised, not by ourselves, it must not be thought that the Society has no answer. Also that answer throws much light on the nature of the Church and today's fight for the Faith. Let us then tackle the question head on: the question of marriage annulments.

The accusation leveled at the Society is that by undertaking to examine marriage cases, and by declaring the invalidity of even only a few of the marriages examined, the Society is taking upon itself an authority which can only belong to the mainstream or official Church. Thereby the Society is first going into schism, and secondly helping to dissolve the institution of holy matrimony.

The Society pleads not guilty on both counts!

Let us begin by remembering what the Church teaches concerning marriage and marriage annulments. Here is a classical definition of marriage: "Marriage is the union for common life between a man and a woman capable of that union, arising from a contract by which they give each other the exclusive and irrevocable right over one another's bodies for the procreation and rearing of children".

Between two baptized persons this union was raised by Our Lord to the status of a sacrament. If either or both parties are unbaptized, the union is still a sacred institution (Leo XIII), as designed by God for the continuation of the human race, all of whose members are meant for Heaven. Also by God the union, whether sacramental or not, is designed to be one and indissoluble. In other words one man may have only one wife, one woman only one husband, until death do them part. The main reason for this is that children are the primary purpose of the union, and children need a stable home with their own biological father and mother. Look around for the devastation caused by disregard here of God's law.

The union arises from the contract made between the man and woman when they exchange the right over one another's bodies for that act which generates children. If the contract was valid, the marriage is valid until the man or woman dies. If the contract was invalid, the marriage never exists nor existed. The first exercise of the marital rights does not validate, it merely consummates the marriage. Thus the validity of a marriage depends upon what actually happened when the contract was originally made. It is a question of establishing the facts and checking them against the rules that apply.

Now the rules for a valid marriage contract basically resemble the rules for any other kind of contract. For instance substantial fraud will invalidate a marriage, as when a girl marries a man because he tells her he is a prince and he turns out to be a slave. Most Catholic priests know these rules well enough to be able to give sufficient guidance to Catholics seeking it. But just as with civil contracts, two parties can bitterly dispute over what was contracted between them, so that each country has a body of law to settle difficult disputes, and law-courts and judges to apply that law, so too with marriage contracts, spouses can be at war with one another or make war together upon their marriage, so that the Catholic Church has always had courts or the equivalent of courts to judge of the validity of marriage contracts.

For indeed firstly, the parties themselves cannot be judges in their own case, especially where such passions can be involved as in marriage cases. Secondly, the Church itself has a stake in marriages, as does the State, because upon marriages depends the future population of both. That is why both have a right and duty to legislate and adjudicate, in accordance with God’s law, questions of marriage, because it is a primarily social and not just individual institution. That is also why the Church sets up a "Defensor vinculi", or defender of the marriage bond, in case both partners unjustly wish to tear it apart.

And a third reason why the church must place at Catholics' disposal a means of resolving difficult marriage cases is that their non-resolution can be a real obstacle to the eternal salvation of the souls involved. May we, or must we, either separate, or live as brother and sister, or live as husband and wife? These can be agonising questions, and they can call for an authoritative judgment. For just as God cannot require of men to believe in His Truth, on pain of eternal damnation, without making it accessible to them by an infallible teaching authority, so He cannot require of them to observe marriage laws making often severe demands upon their fallen human nature, without guaranteeing to them His Church's authoritative guidance as to the application of those laws. It stands to reason.

Hence the Catholic Church has always had priests or courts with authority to tell the law (ius-dicere, jurisdiction) on marriage contracts. And before Vatican II, amongst many contracts submitted for examination by couples, usually in hopes of a judgment of invalidity, there always were a few marriage contracts which the Church authorities declared to have been, from the beginning, null and void. However, these "annulments" never dissolved a valid marriage, they merely declared one had never existed. The true Church cannot admit divorce.

But now what happened with the Second Vatican Council? Following the modern world's disordered glorification of the person, of the individual over society, the Council declared (e.g. "Gaudium et Spes" # 50) that children are no longer the one primary end of marriage, but its joint primary end together with the consorting of husband and wife, of which they are the fulfillment. Logically parents could now appeal to an Ecumenical Church Council for support to tear apart the marriage bond in their own interest, no longer subordinate to that of the children. Logically the Newchurch, soft on human passions and modern selfishness, began to declare more and more marriage contracts null. The situation became so scandalous in the United States that the Pope several years ago had to call the American Church to order for, in effect, creating Catholic divorce. Yet still we had the public scandal last year of Sheila Rauch Kennedy, Episcopalian wife of a supposed Catholic, appealing to the Catholic Church for help to defend her marriage, and being betrayed.

Of course many couples rejoiced in this "liberty" granted to them by the Newchurch. But what about Catholics who were serious about their faith? How could they look for a serious marriage judgment, in view of their eternal salvation, to authorities now capable of granting two "annulments" and a third marriage to a woman no older than 25 (case known in Detroit)? They hear the Pope himself calling these authorities to order!

Now if people deny that there is a crisis in the Catholic Church, then little of anything that the Society of St. Pius X does can make much sense. But if anybody grants that on the one hand the true Church owes to Catholics all the help they need to live up to its demanding laws, and that on the other hand the Newchurch is not providing that help, then it makes sense that the Society, amongst others, will step into that gap where it reasonably can, even if it has no territorial jurisdiction, and where it so steps in it may reasonably assume, in accordance with Canon Law, that the Church will, case by case, for the salvation of souls which is the supreme law, supply any missing authority or jurisdiction.

Upon that basis, as sins unfortunately continue, serious Catholics turn to Society priests for absolution from their sins, and these priests have jurisdiction supplied in emergency by the Church to grant absolution. Similarly, since marriage problems can also not wait until the end of the crisis in the Church to be resolved, Catholics may assume that if the Society sets about seriously examining marriage contracts in accordance with unchanging Catholic principles, then they may trust its declarations in the concrete case to be receiving from the Church any jurisdiction lacking, and they may act before God in good conscience upon any such declarations.

Of course the Society may abuse such supplied jurisdiction, because to err is human. But that does not take away the Society's right to act in such cases, because the urgent need of souls may even make that right a duty, for reasons already given. This Church crisis was not of the Society's making, and it is not of the Society's ending. Pray, dear Catholics, not that the Society priests never assume emergency powers, but that for your sakes and theirs they make the right use of those powers. Prudently to assume these powers is not to cut oneself off from the Church, but to engage more completely in the Church's own work.

And do not think - second accusation - that the Society is opening wide the flood-gates to "Traditional annulments". Here in the U.S.A., since the Society undertook this ungrateful task, it has taken only some one hundred cases seriously enough to examine them, and of those one hundred it has declared in less than a dozen cases, I am told, that the contract of marriage was invalid from the beginning. That is, like before Vatican II, a trickle rather than a flood. However, in all one hundred cases the couples concerned can now trust that they know where they stand before God, and that is a great gift.

Enclosed is a flyer that attempts to shed light on the present "liberal" or "conservative" or "Traditional" or "sedevacantist" confusion amongst Catholics. It indicates that there is an objective basis to the subjective sway and swirl of opinions. It is that objective Truth that matters.

Meanwhile, let us profit by Lent to renounce, sacrifice and do our daily duty. Our fallen nature must be held in check, or we will "all perish", says Our Lord (Lk. XIII, 3). May the thought of His Passion be with us in this season.

Sincerely yours in Christ,