Null & Void?

When I married my third wife, after two divorces, we eloped, and the ceremony was performed by a Protestant minister. My wife is a woman of faith, an Irish Catholic who, despite misgivings about certain aspects of the church, still holds to its sacraments and prayers. She had had her first (and only prior) marriage annulled. After the two of us were married by the Protestant minister, she continued to attend Mass, but abstained from receiving Communion—since for her to be in full communion with the church, I would have to go through the annulment process myself. 

To be honest, as a Jew I did not understand why that was necessary, and the explanations offered by priest friends weren’t very convincing. Still, according to church law I needed an annulment before the church would recognize my marriage to my Catholic wife. And so I began the process.

My application arrived in the mail. The form was quite detailed. As a doctor and government worker I am all too familiar with paperwork, and carefully went about providing every required bit of information, lest it be returned on some technicality. After sending in the forms, I scheduled a meeting with the appointed priest. Driving to that meeting, I tried to resist the feeling of being summoned to the principal’s office. It had been a long time since I sat before someone for what felt like an assessment of my moral life. In fairness, the church was not forcing anything on me; I was the one knocking on its door and asking for approval. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that I had already beat myself up enough—and spent enough time and money on therapy—trying to figure out what went wrong with my first two marriages.

My priest-interlocutor was on time and welcoming. His mien was friendly, his manner thoughtful and learned; he was not at all the judgmental authority figure I had envisioned. Our conversation was reflective and kind, and when it was over, he indicated he would recommend that I be granted an annulment. As I drove away I wondered whether the experience had been akin to going to confession. I was baring my soul to a priest and asking for a type of forgiveness, so that I could go on with my life. I felt a bit cleansed, as though I had been able to see my limitations better and forgive myself for them.

Not long after that interview, the priest called to inform me that I would need not one but two annulments—and that I would need to contact each of my ex-wives (both non-Catholics) and let them know that our marriages were being annulled. In fact, in order for the church to assess my case, my exes had to fill out some paperwork themselves. 

I called my first wife. She could not have been more pleasant and accommodating. Time can heal. (She had one question: Would our adult son now technically be considered a “bastard”? Not in the eyes of the church, the priest assured me.) As for my second wife, she and I had had little contact, and the call to her proved more difficult, but with some assistance from friends—and from the ever-helpful priest—we got through it. At last my applications were complete and in order; the meetings and calls were done. The paperwork was dispatched to Rome. Now it was time to wait.

As it turned out, the waiting was mercifully brief. Three months later I was notified that as far as Rome was concerned, my first two marriages never existed. Not long after, my wife and I were married—again—in a Catholic ceremony witnessed by a dear friend, a monsignor from New York. Since I’m not baptized, we do not have a sacramental marriage, but it is still recognized as a valid marriage by the church. And so my wife is once again officially a member in good standing of the Catholic community. My faith affiliation, such as it is, remains the same. 

All in all, the process was not as harrowing as I had imagined. But I still think there must be a better way. From both a moral and a psychological perspective, the notion of annulment still strikes me as quite odd. With a stroke of the pen, the church has turned my wife’s and my prior marriages into nullities. Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the success and failure, the pride and the heartbreak, of a commitment and life together, rather than pretend it never happened?

Published in the 2013-02-22 issue: 

Lloyd I. Sederer is a psychiatrist and medical journalist.

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