"Always love virtue before you love duty; the reverse method produces dried souls, incapable of joy." (G.K. Chesterton, "The School Magazines," Res Paulinae)
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THE POWER TO BIND AND LOOSE: A SIMPLE BIBLICAL APPROACH TO ANNULMENTS FOR LAYMEN
Chesterton was a prophet. This quote from The Superstition of Divorce was prescient, "The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage. If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason." People have given up on marriage. They have embraced divorce.
Many churches have also thrown up their hands and given up on marriage. Divorce is felt to be an inevitable force that cannot be resisted. Speaking out against it might alienate a congregation, decrease donations, or offend people's sensitivities. Often pastors have been divorced themselves. Lay persons feel they must remain silent to avoid offending their own friends or relatives who have been through a divorce. Chesterton thought this acceptance of divorce illogical and bound to multiply failure, "So the unfortunate man, who cannot tolerate the woman he has chosen from all the women in the world, is not encouraged to return to her and tolerate her, but encouraged to choose another woman whom he may in due course refuse to tolerate...Just as [modern education] assumes that a child will certainly be loved by anybody except his mother, so it assumes that a man can be happy with anybody except the one woman he has himself chosen for his wife."
In the midst of this fog surrounding the integrity of marriage stands the unwavering beacon of the Catholic Church with its stubbornness and intractable stance on divorce. Catholics should take comfort in the fact that, "The religion that holds it most strongly will hold it when nobody else holds it." But I'm certain that you have heard it said that the Catholic Church doesn't hold its view of marriage so strongly. It has the annulment process which is simply a "Catholic divorce." Most of us when we do hear this, in order to be amiable, because we lack a firm understanding of annulments, or because we also believe an annulment is a divorce, simply nod or quietly acquiesce with a, "Yeah, I guess you're right." But I contend that the fact that the Catholic Church has a process for determining the validity of marriage is a testament, in itself, to its authority. The Catholic Church really believes it has the power to bind and loose. Protestant churches, however, fall silent in this regard. So before we concede the point that an annulment equals a divorce there are a few very simple and straight-forward things we should think about without having to understand the intimate details of the annulment process. These things come from Holy Scripture. They can be found in the words of Jesus. With a common sense reading of the Bible we can arrive at a reasonable idea of why annulments should be preferred to divorce.
Matthew 5:32: "But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."
Matthew 16: 19: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
Matthew 18: 17: "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church..."
Matthew 19:6: "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder."
In this time when divorce is much more frequent than in the past, and much more socially accepted, the scriptural references above tell us several things. The Church is the place one should go to deal with marital problems and the questions concerning separating a marriage. Secondly, because the Church has been given all the authority of Jesus then it has the power to create a process for discerning the validity of marriages and it can call that process an annulment. The name of the process does not matter. Even if we were to call an annulment a "Catholic divorce" then the Catholic Church still has the power to grant that "divorce" and it is the only entity with the power to do so. Jesus said you have the power to bind and loose and whatever you decide to bind and loose is beholden to you. Did Jesus mean what he said? He didn't say you have the power to loose this but not that. So it is certain that he gave the Church the power in some way to unbind relationships if it does not contradict his view of marriage as a life-long, loving, commitment between man and wife.
The Church has chosen to loose relationships with the process of annulment. By the power of Jesus handed down to the church, enough said. A Protestant seeking divorce, however, has no church process for doing so. He can follow Jesus' instructions to "take it to the church" by seeking pastoral counseling to save the marriage. But if that fails then so do his options for a legitimate solution to his problems because no Protestant churches grant a divorce or an annulment. If your church claims no power or authority in the marital relationship then you must turn to the state for everything. When someone seeks a civil divorce they are already starting off on the wrong foot. This is allowing too much church authority to be forfeited. This means a state, governmental power is attempting to undue vows bound by God and the Church.
A Protestant has three choices when experiencing trouble in his marriage: repair his marriage, divorce and commit adultery be re-marrying/beginning another relationship outside of marriage, or divorcing and remaining celibate. A Catholic has four choices: repair his marriage, divorce and commit adultery by re-marrying/beginning another relationship outside of marriage, divorcing and remaining celibate, or going through the annulment process and re-marrying. Jesus told us not to divorce so if the only process you have in place to fix a marriage gone wrong is a "divorce" then you truly have no valid option.
It should be noted that the annulment process is a much more difficult way to end a marriage than a divorce. This truly does distinguish it from divorce no matter what critics say. This is a good thing when marriages should be preserved and protected. Some characteristics that set it apart from divorce are the three member tribunal that presides in contrast to the one judge presiding over a divorce. There is a lengthy, thorough, and intimate questionnaire that must be completed by both parties that scrutinizes a couple's life in a way that the divorce process can't attempt. Witnesses that are family, friends, and possibly counselors are sought to give testimony concerning the relationship. But perhaps the most crucial difference between a divorce and annulment is the power of the tribunal to deny an annulment. In spite of abuse in granting annulments there was never meant to be a rubber stamp that gives blanket approval to breaking up relationships. The power to loose is wedded to the power to bind in keeping the truth of Jesus' command not to divorce. A judge, on the other hand, would have a difficult time denying a divorce in this day and age being that all states have some form of no-fault divorce.
The times when a relationship professed by vows should end should be very rare. Much of this rests on a question we must all ask ourselves, "When a man makes a vow until death, rescinds that vow, then makes it again to another woman, can that second pledge mean anything?" But we all know through personal experience or seeing the trials of others that there are certain times that two people should not or cannot remain in a relationship. The Church's process of annulment is a moat to protect marriage but also a bridge over troubled waters if there is no other way. But if someone tells you that an annulment is a "Catholic divorce" then correct them with the Gospel of Matthew. Show them that the Church, and only the Church, has the power to bind and loose relationships. And the Church should use serious discretion and only annul a marriage as a last resort.
For additonal insights on divorce from a Chesterton perspective then see Dale Ahlquist's brief but excellent essay here:
More Chesterton quotes on divorce and marriage from The Superstition of Divorce:
"The shortest way of putting the problem is to ask whether being free includes being free to bind oneself."
"...Marriage is an affair of honour. The sceptic will be delighted to assent, by saying it is a fight. [Ha!Ha!] And so it is, if only with oneself; but the point here is that it necessarily has the touch of the heroic, in which virtue can be translated by virtus. Now about fighting, in its nature, there is an implied infinity, or at least a potential infinity. I mean that loyalty in war is loyalty in defeat or even disgrace; it is due to the flag precisely at the moment when the flag nearly falls. We do already apply this to the flag of the nation; and the question is whether it is wise or unwise to apply it to the flag of the family. "
"Now I have already pointed out that most sane men do admit our ideal in such a case as patriotism or public spirit; the necessity of saving the state to which we belong. The patriot may revile but must not renounce his country; he must curse it to cure it, but not to wither it up...In short, everybody recognizes that there is some ship, large and small, which he ought not to leave, even when he thinks it is sinking...We may curse the kings, we may distrust the captains, we may murmur at the very existence of the armies; but we know that in the darkest days that may come to us, no man will desert the flag. Now when we pass from loyalty to the nation to loyalty to the family, there can be no doubt about the first and plainest difference. The difference is that the family is a thing more free. The vow is a voluntary loyalty; and the marriage vow is marked among ordinary oaths of allegiance by the fact that the allegiance is also a choice. The man is not only the citizen of the city, but also the founder and builder of the city. He is not only a soldier serving the colours, but he has himself artistically selected and combined the colours, like the colours of an individual dress. If it be admissible to ask him to be true to the commonwealth that has made him, it is at least not more illiberal to ask him to be true to the commonwealth he has himself made."
1 a fidelity, constancy b sincerity in action, and utterance 2a (1) the state of being the case: fact (2) the body of real things, events, and facts: actuality (3) a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality
1 a tenet contrary to received opinion 2 a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true
definitions taken from Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
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