Getting Annulled

The long arm of the Roman Catholic church reaches into Jewish marriages

The letter from the Archdiocese of San Francisco arrived on Halloween. “What is this?” I thought. “A joke? A costume party?” I was hurt and angry. How could something so absurd get to me like that?

The letter informed me that my “former spouse has requested this tribunal to investigate your former marriage to establish whether or not it is possible for the Catholic Church to issue a declaration of canonical nullity. Since you are a party to this marriage, the Church insists that your dignity and rights as an individual be safeguarded.”

“How considerate,” I thought, wondering why the Catholic Church had any interest in—or any jurisdiction over—a marriage that occurred years ago between two Jews.

The letter explained everything. The Church was not concerned with determining “guilt or responsibility for the breakup of your marriage,” but only with “determining whether or not you and your former spouse entered your marriage with the intentions, motives and capabilities of establishing the type of union which the Church believes marriage to be.” If we didn’t meet this standard, then the marriage could be annulled and either one of us would be free to marry in the Catholic Church. (“Oh, good,” I thought.) The annulment would have no civil consequences and the legitimacy of children would not be affected in any way.

I was amazed. My former husband, a physicist, had always expressed skepticism about the practices of all organized religion. We were married by a Jewish judge who, at our request, pronounced a Hebrew blessing over us after he finished the legal part of the ceremony. Could the man I once knew fairly well have changed so much?

The letter invited me to participate in the “gathering of evidence,” if I wished, or, if I preferred not to involve myself, then the proceedings would go forward without me. I could “participate” either by completing a written marital history (suggested topics enclosed), or by arranging for a priest from the Archdiocese to take my deposition over the telephone. The suggested ground for the annulment was a “defect in consent.” I was invited to call the Archdiocese if I had any questions.

I turned to the list of topics. The Church wanted to know about my family background, our courtship (how did we meet? what were our attitudes toward marriage and children? what did our parents think about our engagement? etc.), our wedding and honeymoon (nerves? fears? any uneasiness?), our married life (interests, goals, friends, leisure activities, finances, drug or alcohol abuse, physical, emotional or psychological mistreatment, infidelity, etc. etc.), the final separation, and whether there were other witnesses that the Tribunal could contact for further information.

After I got over my initial shock, I called several of my Catholic friends to ask them what they knew about annulments. “Save your breath,” they advised me. “Most of them go through. Nothing you say will make any difference.”

Nevertheless, I felt violated that these strangers—most of them men with values and experiences radically different from my own—should know some of the most intimate circumstances of my life and should dare to sit in judgment.

The truth. They wanted the truth? I would tell them the truth. I reached up to a high shelf in my closet and pulled out a frayed box of letters. Once, my apartment had burned down, and some of the letters were smoke stained. I had moved many times since then, but, always, had carried them with me. I reread them and began to write:

You have asked me to provide you with detailed information about events that happened more titan 30 years ago so that you can determine whether you can annul my marriage on the grounds of a ‘defect in consent.’

I am not a Catholic, so my understanding of church law and of the church’s rules of evidence is limited…. It is very hard to remember accurately what happened in the recent past, much less 30 years ago. However, I have several dozen letters that my husband and I wrote to each other at various times between 1958 and 1961 (prior to our marriage in 1962). I believe that these letters leave no doubt that we loved each other, that the marriage was not the result of coercion or threats, and that we were capable of understanding what we were doing…. Many of these letters are five or six pages long. They deal with events and people in our lives as well as with philosophy, science, religion, literature, and our ideas about love, sex and family. I have enclosed excerpts that seem relevant to the issues that you are examining.

I worked on this document for days and finally sent it off. Seven months later, another letter arrived from the Archdiocese. The “defect in consent” had become problematic, it seemed. Now, they wrote, the grounds were “relative incapacity to assume and fulfill the essential obligations of marriage.” My friends were right—nothing I said had made any difference. My marriage had been annulled.

The number of annulments granted by the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has gone up from 338 a year in 1968 to around 50,000 a year today. According to Time magazine (August 16, 1993), U.S. annulments represent 75 percent of all annulments granted annually. In the old days, annulments could only be obtained for extreme reasons such as insanity, impotence, bigamy or fraud. Today, most American annulments are granted for “psychological” reasons, which, according to Father Patrick Cogan, executive director of the Canon Law Society of America (a national professional organization of canon lawyers), means that “the person lacks the capacity or ability to validly exchange consent with a partner because he or she lacked the required level of judgment and maturity to uphold the marital obligations.”

In order to determine a person’s psychological condition at the time of the marriage, many tribunals have the testimony in the case reviewed by a psychological expert. Sometimes that person is a staff psychologist, employed by the Archdiocese. Sometimes outside consultants are called in. Their evaluation may be based on the written testimony of the participants or on information that was gathered in face-to-face or telephone interviews.

Given the fact that psychology is not a black-and-white matter, I wonder whether any marriage that ended in divorce could, by definition, also be annulled.

“That question is certainly raised,” says Father Cogan. “Given the broader grounds for annulment, are many marriages vulnerable?—and I think that is a tightrope that the judge has to walk to make sure that we’re not labeling all these broken marriages and saying that there was a psychological incapacity at the time of marriage. Of course, this is not a foolproof process.”

According to Father Cogan, 90 percent of the marriages that are reviewed by a Tribunal are found to be invalid. “See, this whole tribunal system is designed to uphold a very important Catholic doctrine, that is, the indissolubility of marriage. The marriage is permanent. Therefore, if we bind people to that principle—meaning no divorce—at the same time, we also have a responsibility to be able to recognize situations where people are not validly married so that they are not burdened unjustly by a principle that does not apply to them.”

I translate this to mean that the Catholic Church has painted itself into a corner by having an inflexible doctrine that’s pretty hard to sustain in the 20th century, so it finds a way to wiggle out. The only party that isn’t satisfied when it’s all over is likely to be the ex-spouse-and there are more and more Jewish women who are these ex-spouses-who objects to having an important part of his or her past obliterated. But he or she seems to be the most expendable participant in this drama.

Not Where I’m coming From

Sheryl Asch, the granddaughter of a rabbi, was married in a traditional Jewish ceremony, and for 23 years, she and her husband maintained a traditional Jewish home. They were active members of a synagogue, their two sons celebrated their bar mitzvahs—and when they divorced, they also obtained a get (a religious Jewish divorce). So she was stunned, appalled and furious when her ex-husband sought to have their marriage annulled so that he could re-marry in the Catholic Church.

“I was brought up in a very Orthodox home,” she says, “so this really hit me hard when it came, and my husband—my ex-husband—knows that. The timing was so unbelievable. When I got the letter, I thought it was a joke. They [the Archdiocese] kept saying to me in all the letters, ‘if you don’t want to participate, that’s O.K.’ and I kept saying to them, ‘I don’t want you to do it!’

“What surprised me more than anything else is that when I tried to get Jewish leaders to voice their opinion or to help me in some way, some of them said, ‘Don’t worry about it! It really doesn’t mean anything.’ Well, that’s true in theory, but it’s just that I feel that somebody comes into my religion and my life and, you know, just takes my marriage and destroys it in the name of the Catholic Church…! don’t really think that that’s nothing. Shouldn’t we, as a Jewish community, do something about that?

“One of the priests here in Baltimore compared my get to a Catholic annulment. Well, that day I went wild because that is not so. A get means that there was a marriage, it was recognized, and the marriage is over and it gives you the freedom to go on with your life and to remarry in your religion—but it doesn’t say the marriage never happened. It’s like a passage. It’s really a very interesting ceremony, and I think if more women realized that, they would get one. It has nothing at all to do with the Catholic annulment. You don’t have to prove that anybody is bad or wrong or crazy or anything like that. Although it was a very sad ceremony, it really put closure on a part of my life.

“This priest started quoting me canon laws. Well, that’s not my thing. They can do whatever they want with their laws and their sacraments. That’s not where I’m coming from.”

Pope Jokes

Ken Bass, a Reform Jew who had been married for the first time in a synagogue, initiated proceedings to annul his marriage to his first wife, Sharon, so that he could marry his Catholic second wife, Maria, in the Church. He and Sharon were married for more than five years and share joint custody of their two children.

“The whole annulment process is pretty strange stuff,” he says. “You give your whole life story, or at least the life story of your disastrous first marriage. You know, they have this fiction that the Pope himself is looking at this. They say it requires the Pope’s approval. It made Maria cringe a little bit, but then we started making Pope jokes. The Pope now knows all the seedy stuff that happened to me.

“It was important to Maria and to her parents that I get an annulment. Sharon’s reaction? She was very helpful. We did not have a very good marriage, but we had an almost locally legendary divorce.”

Inviting me to hang on for a second while he gets his annulment folder. Ken reconstructs the whole process from the day in January 1991 when he sent $50 to the Metropolitan Tribunal in Boston to get the ball rolling. (Annulments generally cost between $500 and $1000 to obtain, depending on where they take place.) In February, Ken and Maria went to the Tribunal office and filled out a number of forms. Ken needed to get three character references, and his parents had to be interviewed and fill out a form swearing that he had never been baptized. The Tribunal also wanted to hear from any counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist that either Ken or Sharon had seen before, during or after the marriage.

“They wanted me to describe the entire marriage,” Ken says. “They said 12 to 15 pages should be sufficient to describe my entire personal and marital history including my attitude toward sex and use of sex in dating. It was strange because you didn’t want to put yourself in too positive a light because if you look too good, how we can we allow this to be dissolved if you were totally responsible? But you also didn’t want to make it look too sleazy. After all, the Pope is going to read this!

“It took me months to fill out the papers and answer all their questions, including why I thought the marriage failed. It was not one of those things that I was thrilled about looking at. It was painful enough when I went through it, and I really had no great desire to dredge it all up. My past behavior made me cringe. I like to think of my.self as someone who’s pretty intelligent, but when I had to look at things I had done, I certainly didn’t look like someone who was behaving very intelligently at all.

“The annulment came through in November or December, and Maria and I got married as soon as we could after that.”

Like Believing in Santa Claus

Ken said that Sharon, his first wife, was “helpful” throughout the annulment process, but, unbeknownst to him, at some cost. “My marriage was not annulled,” she says with great feeling. “If they want to call it annulled because they’re Catholic, that’s fine—but I got divorced. My divorce was legal. This wasn’t legal.

“The only way that my ex-husband could get married in the Church^—that his wife could get married in the Church— was for the Church to decide that our marriage—or his marriage to me—was not really a marriage, and since I don’t believe in the Catholic Church and I’m Jewish, I only did this so that the Church can think whatever they want to think. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like believing in Santa Claus. It doesn’t mean a thing. The judges on these tribunals aren’t married or anything, and they probably don’t have a clear understanding of what it’s like—and yet they’re the ones passing judgment. It’s like they’re living in a dream world and they’re trying to pretend something just to fit it into their view of what marriage is. It doesn’t make any sense. I felt it was stupid, frankly. Really stupid.”

“Did you have any feelings around the word ‘annulment?’ ” I ask her.

“Yeh. I didn’t like it,” she replies. “Because of the children. It seemed to me that if you had a marriage annulled, it means that the marriage didn’t exist. If the marriage didn’t exist, what does that make the children? So it’s kind of an insult. I don’t think Ken realized that I felt that way. It was an imposition, but I did it for him, and that was fine. We have an interesting relationship. We get along well—and I don’t want to do anything that would be bad for him, and I knew he wanted to get married. They kept asking me if I was baptized or if my children were baptized. It’s such hypocrisy that Ken and Maria couldn’t get married in the Catholic Church unless he was never married. Now. come on. We’ve got two kids. We were married—and now they’re going to pretend like he wasn’t married? They’re going to annul it? If you were a rational person and you thought about this, you would think, I don’t understand this. What is this? Why do I have to do this? But Ken did it because Maria believes in it.”

“Did you know that Ken had to describe every facet of your marriage in detail?” I ask.

“No,” she replies. “I guess he was sparing me. I’m sure he didn’t like that. It probably was very painful for him to relive it. I feel bad for him—and I’m sure his wife wouldn’t have wanted him to go through that unless it was really important to her. She’s not like that. She’s really, really nice.

“There are certain things you don’t tell people, and there are certain things you don’t want to talk about,” she adds..

Thrice Divorced, Once Annulled

Sarah Samuels came from a Reform family; her husband’s family was Conservative. They married in 1965 in a Reform ceremony. After their son was born in 1973, both she and her husband joined a Reconstructionist synagogue. In 1979 and 1980, they divorced, first with an Orthodox get, then with a civil proceeding, and finally with an egalitarian, Reconstructionist ceremony. Not long afterwards, Sarah received papers from the Archdiocese of Wisconsin informing her that her former husband had initiated proceedings to have their marriage annulled.

“At the time of the Orthodox get” she says, “our civil divorce was in the works. Since my husband was leaving town, the Orthodox Bet Din agreed to do it even though the civil divorce hadn’t yet come through.”

Sarah obtained the get because she thought that “down the line,” she might need one if she wanted to marry someone who was Orthodox. To her, it felt like “observing the past from the outside, observing history. It wasn’t meaningful in the sense that we believed in it, but we were treated well by the rabbis who performed the get.”

As far as the civil divorce, she says, “I felt the marriage was over. It was just a legality. He had already left town I signed some papers on my lunch hour. Afterwards, I had an ice cream cone. It was something that had to be done.”

Nevertheless, Sarah still felt that she hadn’t done anything egalitarian or active to symbolize, Jewishly, the end of the marriage. “The Orthodox get was handed to me,” she says. “I wanted to do something ceremonially that had meaning for me.”

That moment came for her in a Reconstructionist ceremony when two documents of commitment were drawn up and cut up. She and her husband, in absentia, granted each other a divorce. “I participated and had something to do with it,” she says.

She had nothing to do, however, with what happened next. A few months later, her former husband told her that he was going to remarry and needed to have their marriage annulled. Relatively calm and dispassionate as she described her marital history up to that point, her voice takes on an edge as she describes the annulment.

“The Archdiocese asked me to fill out a questionnaire.” she says. “I thought it was ridiculous. I thought it was insulting that they would say this marriage—which lasted 15 years—would be considered null and void. I asked my friend, a former nun, about it, and she said that she had never heard of annulling a Jewish marriage, and her priest had not heard of it either. I called and talked with someone in the Archdiocese where my former husband had moved. They told me that they weren’t questioning that there had been a valid civil marriage and said that an annulment would have no impact on the legitimacy of our son. My feeling was that since they were going to do it anyway, I wanted them to know my views on things. I undoubtedly gave them more information than they wanted. I told them about the affair my husband had with the woman he later married— and divorced. He is now married to his third wife.

“I STILL didn’t understand why they felt they needed to do it. It seemed from another world. It didn’t seem relevant. My Catholic friend was upset that I was upset. My feeling was that my husband and I had a marriage and it was valid when it took place. Our marriage certainly was entered into knowingly. They were finding a loophole. I felt puzzlement, skepticism and anger.

“Why did they make us go through that ordeal?”

I listen to these voices and I listen to my own heart. The annulment process was painful and intrusive, and as Sarah Samuels told me, something we didn’t “need, ask for or want.” As Jews, it meant nothing to us symbolically or practically, and it dredged up many sad memories.

The very word—annulment—denied our past. Each of us felt that our marriages existed, were valid, were entered into with the best of intentions, but for various reasons, didn’t work out. The idea that these marriages had never really existed was not only absurd but also cruel.

The Church seems to have put us through this exercise for its own reasons, in order to permit Catholics to remarry within its precincts. Despite repeated protestations of concern for us, who neither believed in nor understood their methods, we were bit players in this pageant, left to deal with our feelings of confusion and impotence as best we could.

If this annulment business was a forgone conclusion, it was a pretty elaborate charade. If it was a search for the truth, it was grossly deficient in its methods. Even the premise that there might be a clear-cut “truth” that could be apprehended by tribunals and their “experts” seemed a fiction.

As my former husband wrote to me when he was 19 and I was 17, in one of those letters that I forwarded to the Archdiocese: “We may often catch a glimpse of a truth, but when we try to set it into words, we find that all attempts lead to such restrictions that we lose the truth. Not only is it lost to others, but to ourselves….”

I wrote back. “When we agree that something is ‘true,’ we do so for our own convenience…Man’s imperfect perception apparatus has made it necessary for him to try to distinguish the real from the dream, and to affix labels….”

How true.

Terese Loeb Kreuzer’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, New York Newsday, The Boston Herald, and Caribbean Travel & Life. She is also a video producer and a graphic designer.