This is something that I just threw together to get it out of my head, because I have other stuff I need to think about, and I couldn’t as long as all this was taking up space in there! I really want to think all this through and give it a decent treatment, but I just don’t have time right now.
So it’s really messy and unorganized, but it gives a rough gist of what’s been going through my head recently. Forgive the sloppiness!
Greg Popcak has made several posts in the last several days that really resonated with me, and gave me a new direction to go in my attempts to understand Catholicism and marriage, and all the other stuff that been flying around the blogosphere recently.
One thing that has been niggling at the back of my logic for a long time, but that I could never put into words, is the assumption of validity: basically, that the Church assumes that all marriage are valid unless expressly proven otherwise in an ecclesiastical court. (Please forgive any errors I make in my understanding of the technical details of the annulment process.)
For me, and I’m sure for a lot of others, the knowledge that we have to ASSUME that our marriages are valid is a huge stumbling block; as a person on my way into the Catholic church, it is a huge hurdle to overcome when I consider that if I become Catholic, I have to (potentially) accept that I am bound until death to the man who abused me. I absolutely understand the resistance to this idea; I see why many people leave or don’t enter the Church, given this understanding.
But at the same time, I would read what the requirement are for a valid marriage, and it seemed crazy that ANY marriage would be valid under those expectations. Maybe for people who were born and raised devout, thoroughly-instructed Catholics, but even for people like me, who were raised very conservative, biblical Protestants, our understanding of marriage was NOTHING like the Catholic position. We didn’t believe in sacraments, we didn’t believe in graces, very often we believed that marriage was dissolvable (usually in cases on abuse or adultery); in other words, most Protestant marriage, as I understand them, by definition wouldn’t be considered valid by the Catholic Church!
And that’s devout religious Christians! What about the millions of baptized-but-not-religious, atheists, pagans, what-have-you, who don’t acknowledge God at all, much less specific goals HE has for marriage? If the requirements for a valid marriage are truly what the Catholic Church says, then how can any of those marriage be sacramental?
Why, then, do we throw this huge metaphysical obstacle in the way of people who want to join the Church? How can we tell them, “There are very specific things that we require for institution to be valid, but you had no idea that they existed when you contracted it. However, we are going to hold you to something that you either didn’t know existed, or explicitly rejected.”
My belief is that the current understanding of ASSUMING that all marriage are valid is gravely flawed, given our culture. At one point in time, our society viewed marriage very differently, so even non-Catholics had a better understanding of the true requirement of a sacramental marriage. But now that society’s understanding of marriage fundamentally rejects the necessity of procreation and permanence, much less things like divine grace, how can we expect people to contract true marriages when they had no idea what that means?
I fully agree with what Dr. Popcak says about the lack of consent/formation criteria for annulment: it is impossible to hold people responsible for something that they not only didn’t know, but could not even conceive of as a Protestant, or an atheist, or a pagan. At this point in our culture, the common understanding of marriage is an unfathomable distance away from the Catholic requirements; thus, people not explicitly formed in Catholic teaching are incredibly unlikely to stumble into the correct understanding of it.
Ultimately, none of this contradicts Church teaching: the requirements for valid marriage stay the same, as do the consequences of deliberately violating them. What changes is the assumption about the state of most marriages contracted in the West: lacking any understanding of the true nature of marriage, the vast majority of marriages ought to be assumed invalid from the beginning.
In fact, one could argue that even when a happily-married couple joins the Church, they should still have to undergo an extensive catechesis and have their marriage convalidated, because the chances that their prior views of marriage match Church teaching are tiny.