A Broken System?

The case of the “Kennedy annulment” came up in class one day during my first year of canon law studies, and it started quite an extensive conversation. However, no one present had read the book written by the respondent in the case, so I took it upon myself to tackle it. I am so very glad I did.

The book in question is Shattered Faith by Sheila Rauch Kennedy (New York, Pantheon Books, 1997). It was fascinating reading this book at the beginning of a career processing cases of nullity just like the cases that Kennedy grapples with in her book. I have approached this specific line of work, indeed feel called to it, precisely because I first came to see it as (at its best) a ministry of healing and reconciliation of persons with the Catholic Church. While my understanding of marriage nullity investigations has necessarily become much more complex in recent years, that sense of ministry perdures.

It would be easy (if uncharitable) to pooh-pooh the several technical inaccuracies Kennedy makes throughout the book, but I had to remind myself that I was reading as an insider, from within the very circle of trained expertise which she is trying so valiantly to understand from the outside. Considering the approach she took, based on the sources she had available to her, I think it is very much to her credit that she was able to uncover as clear a picture of the so-called annulment process as she did.

Kennedy takes the occasion of fighting her own fight to cast her net wider, to make hers not just a personal narrative but a work of research, albeit not in a scientific sense. She recounts the experiences of other women who have been the unwilling respondents in marriage nullity cases, and in telling her tale she is able to extend her narrative, and the import of her message, by weaving in the stories of others to build her case. Her thesis, of course, is that the ‘annulment machine’ in the American Catholic Church is out of control, and she is hardly the first person, inside the Church or out, to have made this claim: Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were quite clear in their repeated expressions of that same opinion.

Another thing, small perhaps, but noticeable, is how carefully she avoids flopping the Kennedy name and family history around between the covers of this book. She writes from an assumption that readers will know who her former husband is, and largely leaves it at that, which I thought was a good way to go about it, even though I was reading this long after this was a news item, and so sometimes wished for a little more detail, but almost always for my own sense of historical-biographical context, not because it was anything truly germane to the plot of the book.

I still absolutely believe that the work I am doing in the Church is worth doing, but this book broadened my perspective on the process and the impact — sometimes devastating — it can have on the lives of those involved. There are two parties to every marriage, and often children besides, and while the spouse bringing the petition for a declaration of nullity clearly wants to move on with his or her life and leave that relationship behind, that feeling may very well not be shared by the other party. So for me Kennedy’s story was a cautionary tale for me, and I hope it will inspire me to apply with particular care the Church’s own rules of justice, and not allow procedures to roll unquestioningly over people’s lives in the name of pastoral convenience for one of the parties.

Pope Francis has certainly expressed concern over how the current procedural structures could be made better, and how the church might do more to assist those many Catholics who have divorced and re-married. I am quite ready to admit that the processes we have are not perfect, and I would welcome careful reform in this area. As things are currently structured, however, we must bear in mind that the work of the ecclesiastical tribunal is not, ultimately, about making anyone happy. It is not about “letting people get married again” in the Church. Those may sometimes be the results. But the purpose of the process is simple: to discover the truth, and to respect both parties throughout the course of that search for truth. I pray that I and my colleagues can always keep sight of that, and that in searching for and discovering the truth, all may find they are set free.