There's been some interesting discussion on Facebook over whether dioceses ought to structure marriage prep around the issues that the annulment questionnaire deals with. My own parents were annulled when I was 21, and I think that they would agree that having to deal with the annulment process's directed exploration of family history and past traumas before marriage might have saved everyone a great deal of suffering later on. I also know that as it was, they both married anyway with misgivings.
My canon lawyer friend, who has worked with his diocesan tribunal, takes a rather different view of the issue than the author of the annulment article. Here are his comments on it, stitched together into a sort of guest post with his permission.
First of all, [the author of the article] has a very tenuous grasp on what the tribunal process actually does....
Second, she is naive if she thinks that engaged couples will have the same views on things as divorced couples: most would view it as another hoop to jump through and write down whatever they're "supposed" to.
Third, I think it's become fairly obvious that the only marriage prep that really matters is what happens in the family.
Fourth, I would be shocked if anyone actually told her that ignorance is the common cause of nullity. That's just something people say when they don't understand the function of the will, or the function of the tribunal. I'd guess that ignorance is a ground in less that 2% of nullity cases. It suggests to me that she didn't actually do any homework before writing these ideas down.
To be clear, there is not "an annulment questionaire." Some (most) tribunals use written questionaires, but they aren't technically part of the process, and they are done in place of what the law says should be done, which is to interview the parties. The scattershot approach of the questionnaire is not consistent with the way the process is actually designed in law. Also, the questions tribunals ask are asked in marriage prep -- and the most important ones are asked in the rite of marriage itself. But people have more to say when they want an annulment. I've never met a couple who took immediate marriage prep seriously.
Here are the most pertinent canons. In the next comment, I'll offer some reflections on them:
Can. 1096 §1. For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.
§2. This ignorance is not presumed after puberty.
Can. 1097 §1. Error concerning the person renders a marriage invalid.
§2. Error concerning a quality of the person does not render a marriage invalid even if it is the cause for the contract, unless this quality is directly and principally intended.
Can. 1098 A person contracts invalidly who enters into a marriage deceived by malice, perpetrated to obtain consent, concerning some quality of the other partner which by its very nature can gravely disturb the partnership of conjugal life.
Can. 1099 Error concerning the unity or indissolubility or sacramental dignity of marriage does not vitiate matrimonial consent provided that it does not determine the will.
Can. 1100 The knowledge or opinion of the nullity of a marriage does not necessarily exclude matrimonial consent.
Can. 1101 §1. The internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words and signs used in celebrating the marriage.
In short: ignorance of the basic nature of marriage is a potential ground of nullity, but it must be positively proven -- the law of the Church presumes this knowledge in post-pubescent people, and I think, even in our society, proving its absence is a very difficult thing. And canon 1099 says that for error about indissolubility to be a ground, it must actively inform the will; i.e.; I must say to myself "I choose marriage precisely because it is not a permanent union."
With regard to indissolubility, what is often more common is a defect in the object of consent. Whatever I think of marriage intellectually, "I reserve to myself the right to end the marriage if I don't like it anymore," or "I reserve to myself the right to be unfaithful if I choose to." This is much more commonly proven, AND (this is important), I saw it as the case in many cases among people who definitely knew the Church's teaching, but chose something less, explicity or implicitly, at the time of attempted consent. No amount of teaching will help a person decide not to partially simulate his consent -- only forming people of integrity will do that.
Ignorance of a quality of the person can be a ground of nullity, but the quality must be directly and principally intended. If I say to myself "I wish to marry a Catholic, and therefore I marry Kate," and I later discover she is not a Catholic, the marriage might be invalid. But rarely can the direct and principal intention of one quality be positively proven.
The best marriage formation possible for your children will take place in your home. No short program the church can provide will overcome deficiencies there or undermine strength there. Of course we should do marriage prep. I just don't think we should do it the way she is suggesting and I don't think it's nearly as important as helping you to do your job for your children. Invalid marriages are usually a function of the will, not the intellect. Forming the will can't take place in an 8, or 12, or 52 week program very well. It has to take place over a lifetime. And I'm afraid that too much tinkering with the immediate marriage prep program will absolve the Church, at least in its own mind, from the MUCH harder task of forming families, and helping couples form children. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't think that facilitating an extra couple of discussions is going to do very much.
Also, one other thing that I think is very important is that people have a right to marry. People are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage, and Catholics are only required to observe ecclesiastical form by virtue of merely ecclesiastical law.
I agree with the comment that couples don't take marriage prep seriously. In our case, and in the case of everyone I've talked to (anecdotal evidence, yes), the marriage classes were seen as an obstacle to be endured, not a positive source of wisdom and Church teaching. Darwin and I, who still have never had a fight, wrote notes to each other through a Pre-Cana class in which the teachers bragged about how often they argued and gifted us with the strategies they used to curb fighting. Our premarital counseling consisted of filling in 100 bubbles on a questionnaire about how compatible we were. Answer: 100%. The priest in charge asked if we'd cheated and said he'd never had a couple score as closely as we had.
Some of that was basic. Yes, we'd talked about finances. Yes, we'd discussed our families' marital histories and religious assumptions. We liked to talk to each other, and we tried to be as honest as possible and cover every subject that might matter to our future marriage, because the strength of that marriage mattered greatly to us. We both had strong examples of marriage at home: his positive; mine negative. But we'd also both been raised strongly Catholic, and in the same moral and behavioral framework, and that contribution from our parents was more important than the example of their own marriages, possibly.
All that is aside, though. Darwin and I are the kind of couple who could have been an arranged marriage and only met on our wedding day, and we still would have been happy together. That our personalities mesh well enough that we have very few disagreements on any topic is a matter of good fortune, not our own contrivance. Perhaps that makes it easier to grow in virtue together. It did, however, put off the inevitable realization that no matter how much you love another human, no matter how perfectly matched you are, no person can possibly satisfy every need and desire of someone else. The space between one heart and another can only be bridged by God. I will tell you that I could not have understood in marriage prep that human happiness can be as perfect as it can be, and still not be enough, because at that time it seemed like enough.
What we begin to understand, darkly, as through as glass, is that marriage is a path to God. It is not a path to another person. It is a sign and a precursor of the union we will all have with God in heaven, and, in that union with God, with all creation. No amount of hard work on earth, no amount of loving another person, can create a total union that can only exist in heaven. There will be voids and suffering in every marriage. I used to think that when spouses hurt each other, it was because they were trying to be unkind, or because they were doing something wrong. That's not so. Only God can fulfill every desire for love. Even my noblest strivings cannot fill every crevice of Darwin's heart. Even his most heartfelt efforts can not bring me total happiness. And that falling short is an invitation to turn to God, to unite my lack with his completeness, and to beg his grace to perfect my finite efforts.
I often think of absent friends and pray that God would bring those friendships to fruition in Heaven. I pray that now for my marriage. I have the happiest marriage that is earthly possible. But marriage ends with death, and I want my friendship with Darwin to continue for eternity. Our earthly compatibility doesn't have much significance without the spiritual unity that draws us not to each other, but together to God.
I often think I would be a bad marriage prep teacher, because marriage for me, in general, is the path that is easy and the burden that is light. I am the stereotypical "good kid". Darwin and I made good choices and have seen temporal rewards from following the law. But the reason to follow that law is not because it brings temporal blessings. For some people, following God's law only seems to bring heartbreak and suffering. And yet the longest psalm is Ps. 119, a lengthy paean to the beauty and lovability of the law. It seems unbelievable that anyone could wax eloquent for 179 verses about how precious the law, of all things, is. And yet, when we love someone we burn to do something for them, to learn what they want and then do that. The law is what God asks us to do. We beg God, in love "Show me what I can do for you! Give me some way to prove my love to you!" And there it is: his law, intensely practical, seemingly aspirational. The Orthodox Jews follow a very stringent version of the law, like a lover who begs for difficult, almost impossible tasks to prove his devotion. I have not, and do not, always feel that way about God's law, but I sometimes hover now around the realization of what it means to say:
How can the young keep his way without fault?
Only by observing your words.
With all my heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
In my heart I treasure your promise,
that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes.c
With my lips I recite
all the judgments you have spoken.
I find joy in the way of your testimonies
more than in all riches.
I will ponder your precepts
and consider your paths.
In your statutes I take delight;
I will never forget your word.