...In 1970, the bishops of the United States obtained permission from the Holy See to modify canonical procedures in the adjudication of marriage cases. One judge, and not three, could render a decision, and cases could be heard in the diocese of the person seeking the annulment; in addition, appeal of a declaration of nullity to another court became discretionary rather than obligatory. The latter provision lapsed with the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, which expanded the grounds of invalid consent: “they are incapable of contracting marriage…who are not capable of assuming the essential obligations of matrimony due to causes of a psychic nature” (canon 1095).
Partly for these reasons, the number of annulments granted annually in the United States soared from 338 in 1968, to 28,918 in 1974, to a peak of 63,933 in 1991. By 2004 the number had fallen to 46,330, and it fell even further, to 35,009, in 2007—a remarkable decline of 24 percent in three years.
Despite this decline, the United States, with 5.9 percent of the world’s Catholics, still accounts for 60 percent of the Church’s 58,322 declarations of nullity...
In their annual addresses to the Roman Rota, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have offered blunt criticism of the large number of annulments granted worldwide, particularly on the grounds of defect of consent.
“For the canonist the principle must remain clear that only incapacity and not difficulty in giving consent and in realizing a true community of life and love invalidates a marriage,” said Pope John Paul in 1987. “Only the most severe forms of psychopathology impair substantially the freedom of the individual,” he said the following year, as he called upon defenders of the bond to prevent “tensions and difficulties, inevitably involved in the choice and achievement of the ideals of marriage, from being confused with the signs of a serious pathology.”
In 2009, Pope Benedict, quoting Pope John Paul, spoke of the “urgent need” of “preserving the ecclesial community from the scandal of seeing the value of Christian marriage being destroyed in practice by the exaggerated and almost automatic multiplication of declarations of nullity, in cases of the failure of marriage, on the pretext of some immaturity or psychic weakness on the part of the contracting parties.”
“We concur with those statements by both popes,” says Leary. “The current statistics on annulments mandated by US tribunals are truly a scandal, and I have appreciated the popes making these statements…Save Our Sacrament receives many, many requests for help from mostly women respondents. Many of these respondents are good, upstanding Catholics who have three or more grown children, and whose husbands are simply going through midlife crises and want an easy way to remarry in the Roman Catholic Church, which is, more often than not, granted.”
“Scandal is an attitude or behavior that leads others to do evil,” says MacFarlane, whose husband left her and pursued a civil divorce without her consent. “Tribunal judges give scandal to the general public, priests, and dissatisfied spouses.… Exaggerated multiplication of annulments is diocesan-sanctioned cooperation with the evil of no-fault divorce.”
“When tribunals require civil divorce, and then issue nearly automatic annulments, the public concludes the Church has no objection whatsoever to divorce,” MacFarlane adds. “Dissatisfied spouses are scandalized by the prevalent annulment mentality of local tribunals. Therefore, they choose divorce rather than persevering through difficult times.… Priests and deacons are scandalized if they are taught by their local tribunal staff that any spouse who feels his or her marriage has ‘failed’ has a right to an annulment on the basis of immaturity or psychic weakness. These priests will erroneously counsel a dissatisfied spouse to get divorced, which results in the mutilation of an intact family.”
“I do not believe that either Venerable John Paul II or His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI was pointing his critiques at the United States specifically,” Strickland says. “Instead, I believe that both pontiffs were addressing those disreputable canonists around the world who will proudly assert that they can find grounds to annul any marriage.”
Bishop Olmsted, on the other hand, believes that “it is very likely that both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have in mind the United States when making these kinds of comments, particularly in light of the busy activity of American tribunals and also the influence of the American Catholic Church in the last few decades in the English-speaking world.… The popes have been vigilant in their duty to remind bishops and canonists that there is no such thing as an ‘automatic’ annulment. Moreover, the popes have recently reminded us of the immense harm that is done when seemingly all annulments are granted affirmative decisions...”