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Sheila Rauch Kennedy

The 'loose canon' in the Catholic Church

A DECADE AGO, the Catholic Church tried to annul my marriage. My former husband, Joseph Kennedy 2d, wanted to remarry and stay in the good graces of the church; to do so, he needed the ruling. Despite 12 years of marriage and two children, a tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston decided that our union was never valid; nor were our children the offspring of a true Catholic marriage.

I did not agree with the archdiocese's decision. I was sure our marriage, although failed, had been real, and I appealed to the Vatican. In May, I learned that Rome agreed with me; the Vatican reversed the 10-year-old decision of the Boston Archdiocese.

I am grateful for the Vatican's intervention, and yet the news is bittersweet: Many Americans who might want to defend their marriages as I did are never told that they have the right to take their cases to Rome. Instead, they are intimidated by a process that has proved ripe for abuse.

I also have empathy for the 6 million divorced Catholics in the United States, a significant number of whom, like my former husband, wish to remarry and remain eligible to participate in the sacraments of Holy Communion and confession. But because the church does not recognize divorce, under current Catholic law the only way they can do that is to first procure an annulment through their local and regional church courts.

Given this hard line, many people see easy annulment as the church's well-intentioned attempt to address divorce and remarriage among its members. Yet the prevalence of annulments in the United States -- 90 percent of annulments decided in US church courts are granted; roughly 57,000 last year alone -- has also led many theologians to question whether the Catholic Church is truly protecting its marriage sacrament. In many cases, the process has become cruel, dishonest, and misguided, prompting church lawyers to caution that the procedure itself may violate Catholic law.

In the United States, the majority of annulments are granted on the basis of Canon 1095, a code in Catholic law that allows psychological factors to be taken into account when evaluating a marriage. Canon 1095, based on well-established Catholic law, states that a person must have the capacity to understand what he or she is doing by marrying and be able to meet its requirements. It stipulates that husbands and wives must enter into marriage honestly and freely, without fraud or duress, and be capable of consummating the union.

The closest parallel to 1095 in American civil law is the sanity requirement that stipulates a person be sane in order to be held legally accountable. Church courts in the United States, however, have broadened acceptable criteria for psychological incapacity to include almost anything, from personality traits such as self-centeredness, moodiness, or being eager to please to unproven "disorders," which may be embellished into full-blown mental illness, a practice that has prompted critics to refer to Canon 1095 as the "loose canon."

If the spouse tries to defend himself or the marriage, church officials often attempt to silence him, asserting, as happened at first in my case, that the proceedings must be kept secret. Officials may delve into one's childhood, relationships with parents, courtship, wedding, honeymoon, and even attitude toward the children the union produced -- most often referring to testimony from the spouse seeking the annulment. Psychiatric or marriage counseling records may be sought in hopes of uncovering a diagnosis to provide "scientific justification" for rendering the marriage invalid. Unless the person defending the marriage has help from a legal expert independent of the church court, or learns that he or she can appeal to the Vatican, the annulment is almost invariably granted.

There has to be a better way to protect the sanctity of marriage and show compassion to Catholics who wish to remarry after divorce. Invalidating marriages and dragging their defenders through psychological mud is hardly a Christian act.

Perhaps an answer is closer than we think. The Catholic Church might look to its sister institution, the Orthodox Church, and to Catholic marriage rules in other situations for a solution to the divorce dilemma. In the Orthodox Church, marriages may be viewed as valid without being "sacramental," a distinction the Catholic Church currently makes when its members marry people who are not baptized Christians. In such cases, after pastoral counseling, the Catholic spouses are still welcomed to Communion and confession.

Such an approach may not be perfect, but it's preferable to the sham of easy annulment.

Sheila Rauch Kennedy, who wrote this column for The Los Angeles Times, is author of "Shattered Faith."

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