Mary Sue Williams and Cathy Miettunen lived just a few blocks apart in a tree-lined, middle-class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota when both went through the Catholic Church's annulment process following their civil divorces.
Williams and Miettunen belonged to the same parish, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood, Minnesota, and both still do.
They sent their children to the same Catholic grade school, and both sacrificed to send them to the same Catholic high school.
Yet the similarities in the lives of these two active, always-willing-to-volunteer Catholic women didn't carry over into their experiences with the church's annulment process.
Williams, office manager for an insurance firm, describes the process with words such as "heart wrenching" and "impersonal."
Miettunen, a registered nurse, enthusiastically calls her annulment "a wonderful, healing, loving, and forgiving experience."
Williams feels the church was whitewashing her former husband's wrongdoing. Miettunen says the "very cleansing experience" not only brought closure to her first marriage but prepared her for and continues to help her in her second marriage.
The two women's divergent views about annulments and the annulment process depict just a portion of the viewpoints that U.S. Catholics hold on the subject. And it is a subject that is touching the lives of more Catholics as better than 50,000 annulments are granted in the U.S. each year.
In interviews with people who have been divorced, married people in their first marriage, priests, parents, and laypeople who work with the divorced and separated, some trends emerged:
Many Catholics are surprisingly uninformed about the church's laws and attitudes toward the divorced.
Some Catholics feel annulments are too easy to get; they say the fact that annulments appear to be so prevalent and readily issued feeds into the divorce mentality that has one of every two marriages failing, including Catholic marriages.
Both Catholics who are familiar and comfortable with the annulment process and Catholics who don't have much regard for annulments concede that despite its faults, the process is successful in keeping people connected to the church when so many others are walking away.
Many who are familiar with annulments feel the current process is too lengthy and legalistic and needs to be changed, if not replaced altogether.
The pastoral and spiritual care that the annulment process has provided to thousands-the possibility for healing, growth, and spiritual renewal-continues to be lost upon Catholics who are approaching divorce and annulment from an outdated sociological and theological point of view.
What are the benefits?
Education about church laws and about the annulment process and its potential for benefiting those who have been through the hurtful experience of divorce is among the top aims of both marriage tribunal officials and those who minister to the separated and divorced.
Father Ronald Bowers put 29 years of his life into making the marriage tribunal in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis a church structure that helped people in a spiritual and a human developmental way.
Retired in 1996 from his lengthy stint with the tribunal, including 19 years as the presiding judge, Bowers speaks with pride about his tribunal experience, seeing it as "a pastoral ministry, very much a priestly ministry." People he's worked with to secure annulments send him Christmas cards and photos of their children.
"That personal contact," Bowers says, "was what I've always felt was enlivening about the work for me."
The annulment process he worked on for so long, he says, took on the complex responsibility of promoting people's relationship with God and the church, freeing people from their ended marriages, and preparing them for their second marriages.
"Statistics show that far more people who go through the annulment process have success in their second marriages than those who do not," Bower says.
The St. Paul-Minneapolis marriage tribunal renders about 550 decisions a year. Only about 15 of those decisions deny the annulment. The 97 percent rate is skewed somewhat, Bowers explains, because, early on, the archdiocesan system weeds out cases that have little chance of being approved.
"We tell people right at the beginning if we don't think their case meets the criterion. So some cases die before the papers are even filed," he says.
"Our thinking there is that it would be very unkind to let somebody hold out hope for 12 to 14 months and then have their case be denied."
Some question the high rate of decrees of nullity, the church's official term for annulments.
Mike Fratto, a management analyst for the state of Minnesota, is one of several Catholics who says he doesn't know anybody who has ever been turned down. Fratto fears everyone is a potential annulment candidate, a sobering thought for him because he has only been married for three years.
"A priest I heard one time said that most marriages aren't valid for the first couple years with all the issues that come up during that time," Fratto says.
Mark Piekarczyk, a warehouse manager from Columbus, Ohio, says the ease with which annulments are granted conflicts with the church's teaching and his own belief that marriage is forever.
Piekarczyk, the married father of two, says annulments are "too easy to get. I think it sends the message that you really don't have to work at marriage because you can get out of it.
"My wife and I have been through some hard times in our marriage," Piekarczyk says, "but I was brought up to believe that once you make the decision to get married you stick with it. As a good Polish Catholic, that was bred into my head.
"I was always taught that your marriage is what you make of it, and if it's not working, you must be doing something wrong and you'd better change. Annulments seem to make it too easy to throw in the towel."
Sandy Williams, a pastoral care minister who works with separated and divorced Catholics in the suburbs south of Minnesota's Twin Cities, doesn't see the process as quite so automatic from the cases she has seen.
"It's clear that the tribunal folks are taking their time and judging each case individually and not just granting blanket annulments," she says.
The 12 to 14 months the annulment process averages in the Twin Cities area should be evidence that the tribunal doesn't have a "fast food mentality," Williams says. What is her explanation for why so many annulments are granted?
"Perhaps the church is more aware of personality dysfunctions or the things that can happen between human beings in a marriage situation. I feel strongly about the sacrament of Matrimony and the commitment in trust, love, and compromise," says Williams, who has been married for 31 years and has three adult children. "Any relationship has to have come out of a sense of mutuality.
"It's God and the two parties getting married, and the priest or deacon witnessing," she says. "You have to acknowledge that God was present at that marriage, but whether or not the individuals, the other two contracting parties of the triangle, were as much present as God is the question."
To answer that question the church in the United States has been using the American Procedural Norms since 1969.
Bowers says those relatively new annulment norms "allowed U.S. tribunals to respond efficiently" to the needs of Catholics in regard to the sacramentality of their marriage.
"It says right in the front section of the Code of Canon Law that people have the right to know whether their marriage was sacramental."
The annulment process is put in motion not to determine if the couple had a marriage, but if the marriage lacked at least one element the Catholic Church teaches is essential to marriage. Civilly, if a couple has a marriage license, they have a marriage; any children born of that marriage are legitimate, and the church wouldn't want to leave the impression that those children might have been born outside of marriage, Bowers says.
"When I look at the church's teaching on marriage, I consider it a primary teaching," he says. "If it is determined that the marriage was a sacrament, there is no process on earth that can dissolve a sacramental bond."
The tribunal's task, as he sees it, is a discerning task. It tries to determine if an apparently valid marriage was actually valid right from the beginning, especially before, during, and soon after the couple exchanged consent to marry.
To determine if any impediment or conditions existed either before a marriage, at the time of the wedding, or during the marriage, marriage tribunals gather evidence in person from both marriage partners and interview other witnesses who may have insight and information-in the best situations, anyway.
"In some dioceses the process can be just an exchange of papers and affidavits," Bowers says. The St. Paul-Minneapolis tribunal is one of many around the country that works on a more personal basis.
It asks the couple to write a personal history and assigns a field advo-cator to help. Some parishes also provide legal assistance. St. Monica Parish in Santa Monica, California has a retired lawyer walk people through the annulment process.
Bowers says the process is designed to protect the rights of both parties. "We get statements from both parties and from witnesses because that way you get more than one viewpoint. That balanced picture is what we're looking for.
"I always compare a case to a jigsaw puzzle," he adds. "We get the pieces in order to be able to put together the whole picture." The result, Bowers says, gives the tribunal much more information about the couple and their marriage than one could get by observing them through their kitchen window.
The tribunal rules on the validity of the bond, then each case is automatically appealed by to a tribunal in another diocese.
The Archdiocese of Miami, for example, sends its cases to the Diocese of Pittsburgh for its automatic appeal. The time the entire process takes varies. In Miami cases average from eight months to a year. That's how the procedure is set up. But not all people see it working that way.
Mary Sue Williams called the annulment process, "a hoop the Catholic Church makes you jump through." She found writing the story of her failed marriage painful and the whole process unsatisfying. "It's pretty gut-wrenching because you go through the whole deal again," she says. "There's a certain amount of pain involved with going through an annulment. I didn't need it; I'd already suffered enough.
"You spill your guts. Some people get that cleansing feeling. I didn't. I had to go to a psychologist to get my mind back."
Williams says that when she married she thought she was getting married for a lifetime and that her marriage was valid. But that it wasn't, according to the annulment decree she received in the mail. That, too, failed to comfort or satisfy her need to understand why her first marriage was dissolved.
"I was notified the annulment went through by letter, but there was never any reason given," Williams says. "What are the guidelines?"
To Williams the process seemed to be the church washing away someone's wrongdoing, the church looking the other way.
"It was as if the church said it's okay if you do these things-you get an annulment, and you're both equally washed away." Williams says when she needed the church the most, she didn't feel it welcomed her.
"You probably need the church the most when you're first divorced. But it's hard to go to church then.
"The last thing I had on my mind was how I looked in the eyes of the church. I had to take care of myself so I could take care of my two boys.
"Finally I decided: I'm going to church and I'm going to Communion because I need it. I'm the same person I always was, and I needed the church even if the church didn't need or want me."
Cathy Miettunen's story reveals a totally different experience.
"The first time I went down to the chancery for my first meeting," she recalls, "I'd gotten all the paperwork, and I was sitting in the reception room when the woman I was to do a personal interview with came out, put her arms around me, and gave me a hug-and that was the beginning of a wonderful experience."
Miettunen was not in another relationship at the time she applied for an annulment. She says she decided to go through with it out of a sense of obligation as a Catholic, but for some personal needs, too.
"I felt as a Catholic I needed to do the right thing; I needed to look into this. But I also needed some further closing to my first marriage besides divorce. I needed to explore what happened. In the end, it just brought beautiful closure to a horrible thing."
Miettunen doesn't deny that writing her personal history of her first marriage was painful.
"You write a little bit," she says, "you cry, you put it under the couch. You write a bit more, you cry some more, you put it under the couch."
But the end product of the painful effort was worth it, in her estimation.
"It made me say, 'Maybe I should have done better here. Maybe I should have had my eyes open there,'" she says. "I had to write down on paper what I failed at. Even today I find that I think to myself, I can remember pulling this before, or I can remember thinking this before.
"Dragging it all up released so much of it-I think it helped me not hang on to it for years and years," Miettunen says. "Sometimes when you write something down and rethink it and then give it to somebody else, it gives you permission to let go of it and not have to think about it."
Miettunen says an important factor in how she perceived the annulment process was the nonjudgmental reception she received at her parish when she went to explore getting an annulment.
"I had a very positive experience with our pastor," she says. "As a matter of fact, from the first time I walked into the parish center, I never felt guilty. I think the impression I got was that the parish staff felt sad for me. They didn't point a finger at me."
Sam Crawford sees that same kind of positive result as he helps people through the steps of the annulment process at St. Monica Parish.
"It makes a tremendous difference for people," Crawford says. "They have a new life, a new relationship most of the time, and this kind of helps along the way. They get a tremendous gratification that they can get on with their lives."
Crawford, the father of six adult children, says what seems to help people the most is the reexamination of their lives and their marriages. "They get a handle on why things didn't work, and it helps them handle the blame and anger issues."
Retired for five or six years from a general law practice in his hometown, Crawford has helped write briefs at the archdiocesan tribunal in Los Angeles. He now volunteers at his parish helping people get started in the annulment process, explaining the nature of the process, how tribunals work, the likelihood of success, "and how you deal with your life while all this is going on."
His law background helps, he says, "in the sense that you know how to work your way through all the legalisms. And, of course, canon law is legalism going off the charts."
It helps to have a knack for interviewing, getting information, and interacting with people.
"I wish I'd been a psychologist, though," he says. "It probably would have helped more," because so many cases today turn on psychological impediments to a person's having been able to make a free, mature decision to marry.
Crawford was one of several people who mentioned the name "Kennedy" in talking about the prevailing myth that you have to be wealthy or a celebrity Catholic to receive an annulment. "Sinatra" was another name that came up often.
While the annulments of high-profile Catholics tend to get media play and leave the impression that there is something corrupt in why and to whom the church grants annulments, Crawford and others say it is everyday Catholics whose marriages are most often annulled.
"The people getting annulments are John and Jane Does," Crawford says. "You don't have to be a celebrity, and you don't have to be rich. In Los Angeles the church will even let you pay the fee over time. They'll work out any kind of plan financially."
But while the expense- $450 in the Twin Cities and in Miami-and red tape can be a factor keeping some Catholics from seeking an annulment, something else is at play that observers from several viewpoints comment on: many Catholics just don't think going through the annulment process matters in their relationship with God and the church.
Catholics in good standing
Some, after divorcing and remarrying, continue to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist although reception of the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics is outside the bounds of church teaching.
They continue to be active in other parts of their faith lives and take an active role in parish life. They don't see themselves as outside the church.
Bill, who asked that his real name not be used, says he was devastated by having to go through a divorce. A parish support group for the separated and divorced helped him somewhat, he says, but just talking with his friends seemed to help him work through the issues he had to deal with. "I talked to a lot of people, and I got the help I needed," he says.
Bill, who has since remarried and is a regular at Sunday Mass and Communion, admitted that he doesn't know much about how the church deals with divorce and annulments.
He didn't feel the need to get the church to "wash off" his first marriage through an annulment.
Jennifer (also a pseudonym) says she went through the annulment process because her former husband wanted to get remarried and his new partner wanted a church wedding.
"He was upfront about it, at least," Jennifer says. "He said it was something he had to do-a formality."
Jim Miettunen, Cathy's second husband, acknowledges that her wanting their marriage to be in good standing according to church teaching was a significant factor in his seeking an annulment of his first marriage.
He says that he had been intending to go through the process and finally did so out of "respect for the teachings of the church" and his own need for healing.
"The thing that kept coming back to me was something I remembered from a parish mission a few years ago: 'There is no hope for the future if the past remains unreconciled.'"
Miettunen describes his anxiety about his divorce as a "slavery."
"I'm the first one to mask my feelings," he admits, "but God's grace brought me to the point where I had to risk being comfortable with that. I had to get into the uncomfortable and unpleasant.
"It's hard to get into the past when you want to forget that part of your life ever happened."
Miettunen says writing the personal history required in St. Paul-Minneapolis wasn't easy for him, and he wanted the process speeded up. But he really wasn't complaining.
"The one thing I learned was that it takes at least as long to put things back together as it took for them to break down," he says.
"Given that we had to struggle a bit, I think Cathy and I both have much more appreciation for the sacrament of marriage," he adds.
Dick Mitchell saw annulments from another point of view. The retiree is the parent of a son who went through a divorce. Having the annulment process as an option is a way to help people who have made a mistake and then to be able to continue to touch their lives.
"Some marriages are entered into hastily," Mitchell comments, "and if there is sufficient reason to declare that they never were a sacrament, then I think it's legitimate to do so.
"But from a practical standpoint, I don't think we as a church want to lose these people," Mitchell says. "If they are going to get remarried anyway, isn't it better that they remarry as part of the church community?"
Mitchell says the annulment process allowed his son to be part of the church in his second marriage, and that was important. "It was painful, but he really needed a second chance," Mitchell says.
Archbishop John R. Roach, the retired archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was instrumental in establishing a ministry to the separated and divorced in 1976. Asked to speak at the group's fall conference during its 20th anniversary year, he says he decided that the archdiocese should have that ministry and should subsidize its services because the church is for all.
"The Catholic Church is a church for everyone," Roach says. "Inclusion in the life of the church of those going through this very hurtful experience is very important work for those who profess to be followers of Christ."