Some Reflections on Marriage and Annulments in the Church

Clarification of my Comments on Marriage and Annulments

Rev. Charles Zmudzinski, C.P.M., J.C.L.

It has come to my attention from my religious superior that my comments about how marriage difficulties are handled by Catholic lay people and Catholic clergy in an article on Mary’s Advocates website have been misunderstood by some. It is not my intention to in any way impugn the good reputation of my former colleagues at the marriage Tribunal where I used to work. I declare that the staff in that Tribunal is competent and professional in their manner of handling marriage cases, and while I might disagree with some of the opinions of some of the staff about matrimonial law, I defend their right to hold and express their opinions and act on them according to their conscience, just as I hope they would defend my right to hold and express my opinions and act according to my conscience.

My statement that “I am concerned that all too often the primary pastoral response to a troubled marriage is to encourage divorce and subsequent annulment, even in cases when such a course of action would result in a grave injustice against the abandoned spouse and the innocent children whose families and lives are broken by the divorce” does not mean that every priest and pastor in my area is guilty of prematurely resorting to the option of divorce and annulment. It simply means I am concerned that all too often it might happen. I think everyone can agree that if it happens only once, it happens too often. I do not know that a high percentage of troubled marriages are handled improperly by pastors. But as a priest who has some pastoral experience with spouses in difficult marriages and some experience working in a marriage Tribunal, I do know that it is easy for a pastor or Tribunal official to succumb to a mindset that emphasizes the subjective happiness of the spouse who wants out of a marriage over and above the objective value of marriage for society and the Church and forget there is another spouse and in many cases children whose rights might be violated by resorting to the divorce-annulment option too quickly.

I would like to direct the interested reader to Dr. Edward N. Peters’ apology for the American marriage Tribunal system that can be found here. He concludes that the statistical evidence on canonical marriage cases in America does not demand the conclusion that the American marriage Tribunal system has capitulated to the divorce mentality. I don’t disagree with his analysis, except for the fact that it leaves out one important statistic: The percentage of marriages declared invalid by an American Tribunal but reversed by the Roman Rota. In his book, The Annulment Crisis in American Catholicism, Sociology Professor Robert Vasoli analyzed two studies of marriage cases from America that were reviewed by the Roman Rota over a ten year period in the 1980’s and 1990’s. His analysis reveals what he called a “stunning” 92 percent reversal rate.

This statistic, ignored by Dr. Peters in his apology for the American marriage Tribunal system, should trouble any American Catholic who is concerned about the conformity of American jurisprudence in marriage cases to the jurisprudence of the Roman Rota. This statistic troubles me because I consider it necessary that marriage jurisprudence in America follow the Roman Rota’s jurisprudence if we are to expect that the American Tribunals will arrive at the correct conclusion in every case. I think we must be careful to not neglect the primacy of the Holy See in the American Catholic Church.

My opinion that the divorce-annulment establishment in the United States is in need of major reforms is based primarily on the fact that a high percentage of cases from America are reversed by the Roman Rota, coupled with the fact that before a person can petition a Tribunal for a declaration of invalidity, the person must first obtain a civil divorce. If it is true that American Tribunals are willing to declare marriages invalid based on facts that, according to divine law, cannot be declared invalid, then I would argue that American Tribunals have in fact succumbed to the divorce mentality by requiring persons who want a declaration of invalidity to first get a civil divorce and then petition for a declaration of invalidity in Tribunals that are not strict enough in defining the conditions under which a marriage can legitimately be declared invalid.

Regarding my statement about the need for major reforms, I wish to emphasize that this is my opinion, not the opinion of the Fathers of Mercy, and I realize I am not responsible or competent to make a definitive judgment about the need for reform in the American marriage Tribunal system. The purpose of this post is to defend my opinion as expressed on Mary’s Advocate’s website as an opinion that has a sound basis in statistical evidence that is readily and publicly available and also an opinion that is well within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.


  1. avatar Mrs. Sheryl Temaat says:

    Fr. Zmudzinski is absolutely correct in his analysis of the present situation. Priests and tribunals all across the United States are promoting divorce/annulment/remarriage as if it is the eighth sacrament of the Catholic Church since Vatican II.

    In my own case, 25 years ago the priest my husband and I trusted the most in our diocese advised us to divorce, seek nullity, and search for happiness because we were not happy at the time. Happiness is not what it is about; fidelity and the common good are. We have been setting the example for 50 years now, no thanks to the priest mentioned and with no help from the Catholic Church that Ed Peters represents.

    A dear sister-in-law, on the other hand, fell victim to the “eighth sacrament” and now fends for herself, severely crippled by osteoarthritis and in a wheelchair while her authentic husband lives with his newest wife, traveling extensively, complements of forced divorce/nullity/remarriage. There is no way that that situation and tens of thousands like it are blessed by the Lord. There is just no way.

    Catholics want to wear the label and do what everyone else does: contracept, abort, divorce, remarry, live with homosexual partners. . . . Which is what Obama and his health mandate partners have noticed and taken advantage of. True mercy may seem severe and harsh, but so are chemical treatments to cure cancer.

    • avatar Michael says:

      We are biased in our tribunal. Ungrounded Libellus being accepted. Allowed two grounds and judge picked final one to be tried on. Advocates forced on you. Advocate who says no they can’t suggest a legal, canon law acceptable, thing to the judge because it would affect her working relationship and the judge is quick to response negatively to such suggestions. Waiting for divorce?? We don’t recognize it, but we wait for it?? Retrovaille works with couples even then, but my tribunal would not suggest reconciliation, counseling, or retrovaille, simple based on what she say, not me. So the judge told me she had decided not to ask for reconciliation. They always ask do you think there is a chance at reconciliation, and I say yes. Then they lead in with all the reasons why they won’t ask her that. ?? Another advocate spent his last 1 hr phone call trying to convince me to drop going to Rome for second instance court. How is that marriage defended by my church? Using an advocate who is paid by my tribunal?
      No one could tell me the three purposes of marriage or exactly what factors determine a valid marriage. Is it that hard? Or are most of us that dumb?
      Our diocese wouldn’t let a canon lawyer be used as an advocate for a respondant. Why? Perhaps because he doesn’t work for the tribunal, and
      makes them do the right canon law steps to ensure fairness (?).
      I’m told by the defender of the bond, he seldom hears the results of cases.
      I have to sign away every possible secrecy agreement to even see the reasons why the court decided what they did based on evidence, some of which they don’t show me. Other diocese give away the full sentences per canon law.
      The more we hide, the more risk of wrongdoing. God is a god of Light.
      My JV won’t ask my spouse to stop living with someone else or to stop giving communion, and she scandalized our 14 yr old who lives with her. It is enough scandal that my 12 and 16 yr old stay at the home, but she won’t let them live with me, simple because they are old enough to tell mom they don’t like the scandal and won’t support it with living there. And the locat priest and head judge won’t say if they will talk with her.
      And now the case is going to rome to defend our marriage. And I don’t know if it went because they threatened not to send it until I paid $800. Which according to agreements between American bishops and the Roman Rota, are between them, and not to be passed on to respondants. We support the marriage, and we pay the price????

      You tell me why we get angry at loosing our wife, our children, our finances, our dreams, and then we even can’t get a fair shake at an annulment review, even once in the process. And then we pay for paperwork, while our wife’s live in sin and lead children done that path by bad example.

      We stand alone. And wonder if this is the Church of Jesus Christ, or a sub culture of American freedom without responsibility to society or families.

      Am I alone here in central Illinois, USA?


  2. avatar Mark Miller says:

    Thank you, Fr. Chuck, for having the courage and conviction to speak the truth! Praise God!

  3. avatar Bonnie Landry JCL says:

    Fr. You appear to be very opinionated when it comes to “statistics”. Statistics can be manipulated. In one particular statment, you assert: “now that almost every marriage that appears before the Church’s tribunals in the U.S. ends up being declared invalid”. This is trully an unfair statement. Statistically, in the Tribunal I work a “Declaration of Freedom to Marry” is difficult to receive and HAS TO BE PROVEN BY THE DOCUMENTATION AND CORROBORATIVE TESTIMONIES AS WELL AS EXPERT OPINIONS,” as defined by the Code of Canon Law. Furthermore,the number of cases from the US appealed to Rome is a small percentage of the number of cases received and adjudicated. They are overturned for various reasons, not always because of the proofs. Many are returned to the original court. Every case we have sent to Rome has been ratified by them. Several were Negative sentences.

    Stop with the statistics…Evaluate each case as it comes before the Tribunal. Do not let your bias regarding divorce and the process place blinders on you. If you really felt that strongly about the opinion of members in your Tribunal why did you not stay and attempt to make it right. Running from others opinions is not going to correct your perceived notion of the courts “Divorce Mentality.”

    Furthermore, you stated “My opinion that the divorce-annulment establishment in the United States is in need of major reforms,” precisely what reforms are you talking about? In this tribunal the majority of cases received, the parties have been divorced over ten even forty years. If we receive a case that the parties are not divorced…we try in every way to inform and to lead them to marriage counselors who understand the sacrament of marriage. These cases have no bearing on the “statistics.” You have no idea the number of cases returned for “lack of grounds”. Statistics do not include these…I have a notebook full.

    Father, I deal with people every day who feel their ex-spouse has abandoned them and that the Church is siding with that spouse. The first presumption of this and any other Tribunal is “The marriage is valid until proven otherwise.” Just as in the confessional, we do not tell the world what is within the cases. Therefore the “Mary’s Advocates” can only view the marriages from their own painful perspective. These spouses ask the Church to do what they cannot, and that is ‘MAKE” the ex-spouse “obey.” Christ gave us freedom to choose the right or the wrong path. We as a Church try to uphold the sacraments. We try to hold people accountable for their choices. But we cannot MAKE them go back to the spouse they abandoned.

    In conclusion, know that most of the canonist which I work with Pray each and every day that the work of Christ is in our hearts, minds and the decisions we give. We do not advocate divorce. Nor do we advocate marriages that are detrimental to spiritual and well being of the parties. Be that as it may, we sometimes declare Valid a marriage we know in our hearts was not of Christ because of lack of proof.

    I hear “pain, anger, and revenge” in Mary’s Advocates. This in itself is harmful to the persons spiritual relationship with Christ. I will continue to pray for those who have been hurt by another and believe in the sacramental dimension of their marriage. I will also pray for the ex-spouse who has chosen to abandon the union. No one, not even the Church can change a person unless Christ is in their heart and he or she has said Yes to HI.

    I ask all who read this, and “Mary’s Advocates” to pray for the canonist who deal with petitioners and respondents. What ever the outcome, may the process bring the individual closer to Christ.

    Bonnie Landry JCL

    • avatar Bryan Hofmann says:

      Hello Ms. Landry,

      Part of the “divorce mentality” that has crept into our Church’s walls is that somehow a civil divorce is evidence that all possible attempts have been made to “save” a marriage (as if a marriage can be lost) and have “failed” and that there is no point in encouraging spouses to see the need be open to reconciliation (upon repentance of any grave sin that is occuring).
      This mentality is revealed in statements like the following one…
      “If we receive a case that the parties are not divorced…we try in every way to inform and to lead them to marriage counselors who understand the sacrament of marriage.”

      I pray that we are willing to see through this lie and not grant this power to civil divorce. For our God can soften the hardest hearts, even after a civil divorce. Those in your position, I pray, will choose to always be willing to be His instruments… even after a judge signs some paper.

      Another part of the “divorce mentality” revealed in your statements is the usage of the term “ex-spouse.” As Mrs. Temaat notes, this is not conducive to our Holy Church’s mission to help the world see that we cannot separate what God joins. If I call Michael Jordan an “ex-Chicago Bull” or “former Chicago Bull.” This is because he once was a Chicago Bull and no longer is a Chicago Bull. To call a spouse an “ex-spouse” insinuates that they were once a spouse and are no longer a spouse. Again, granting to civil divorce a power which it does not in God’s reality have.

      Lastly, you make the following comment…

      “These spouses ask the Church to do what they cannot, and that is ‘MAKE’ the ex-spouse ‘obey.'”

      I pray that you are willing to reconsider this. As you rightly point out, Christ does not “MAKE” us obey Him. True love must be freely chosen. Abandoned spouses who are remaining faithful to their marriages typically do not ask the Church to “MAKE” their spouses obey or love them. However, Christ was not unwilling to plainly speak of the consequences of choosing not to love Him. Abandoned spouses are typically simply asking for the Church to also plainly speak of the consequences of choosing to abandon their marriages.

      Hopefully the distinction can be seen?

      You have been called to a difficult vocation Ms. Landry. Many are praying for you and others to help fight against the various lies the devil is sowing in his constant attack on marriage.



    • Bonnie says “We do not advocate divorce. Nor do we advocate marriages that are detrimental to spiritual and well being of the parties.”

      Apparently your Catholic tribunals exists to annul marriage. How dare you claim to be able to determine the spiritual and well being of the parties? You are not there to hear Confession, nor give absolution. You are there to determine if the couple could and did commit to marriage.
      You sound disappointed that you could not declare a marriage invalid, even though in your heart you believed it is. You are supposed to approach the entire process convinced in your heart that the marriage is valid. Sounds like the petitioners and respondents have grounds to have you disqualified as a judge.

      We should be able to have tribunal personnel replaced with personnel from the Roman Rota.

  4. Hello Bonnie,

    Mary’s Advocates is not asking the Church to MAKE anyone do anything. Marital abandoners who renege on their obligations have free will.

    When Cardinal Raymond Burke wrote about denying pro-abortion politicians Holy Communion, did anyone criticize him by accusing him of trying to MAKE publicly professed Catholic politicians do something?

    Mary’s Advocates is asking the Church to do what scripture describes in Matthew 18, Ezekiel 33:7-9, and Timothy 2:22-26: admonish the sinner, prevent scandal, and teach.

    We are also asking the Church to adjudicate it’s own law as described in Exegetical Commentary from University of Navarra (translated into English, French, original Spanish) and recommended by the President of the Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts.


    4. Malicious abandonment
    The concept of malicious abandonment as a sufficient cause for separation is not expressly provided by current legislation. Its autonomous treatment and character regarding the other concepts of separation is the result of a work of jurisprudence and doctrine with the intent of specifically protecting compliance with every conjugal and family duty, and penalizing their omission.

    Malicious abandonment is differentiated from other causes of separation in that, while causes expressly defined in the CIC contemplate positive conduct – “occasions grave danger of soul or body to the other or to the children, or otherwise makes the common life unduly difficult” – malicious abandonment contemplates noncompliance with every conjugal duty. The party abandoning his or her spouse violates his or her matrimonial duties, that is, he or she fails to comply with the principle foedus nuptiale servandum est, because the spouse’s attitude consists precisely of a dissolution, in the sphere of social reality, of the conjugal consortium.

    Malicious abandonment constitutes a cause for temporary separation, based on a principle distinct from those that are the basis in other causes of temporary separation: violation of the principle foedus nuptiale servandum est. While the criterion for admissibility of a factual situation as a cause of separation is none other than that of implying a clear and unequivocal violation of one of the five principles informing married life (see commentary on c. 1151, 2), and cc. 1152 and 1153 are deduced from an analysis thereof, malicious abandonment is defined as the break-up of the conjugal consortium on the plane of social reality.

    With the concept of malicious abandonment, one is not seeking separation, because in fact it already exists; nor is there danger to the spirit or body of the other spouse, which can be involved in cohabitation, in that there is no longer cohabitation. With invocation of the concept of malicious abandonment, there is an attempt to declare guilty the spouse who has maliciously been absent and to obtain the legal declaration of separation for the one who has been abandoned.

    Because of its importance as a cause for separation, which requires fault on the part of the absent spouse, jurisprudence indicates the following requirements for malicious abandonment:

  5. avatar Mrs. Sheryl Temaat says:

    Dear Ms. Landry,

    You say that tribunals cannot make the “ex”-spouse obey. First I take issue with your using the term “ex.” If the marriage is valid, it’s spouse, not ex. Tribunals routinely use the terminology of the civil courts which sends the message that the marriage is over when it is not.

    Second, I have to assume that you have used every teaching of the Church to urge reconciliation of valid marriages beginning with Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that it is a mortal sin to break a vow. (Summa, Q. 88, Art. 7)

    I also have to assume that you are familiar with and stress to your clients the seven canon laws of the Church that urge forgiveness and reconciliation with the separated spouse: 1152.1, 1153.2, 1155, 1446.2, 1676, 1695, 1713.

    And, of course, you let the unwilling spouse know that eternal salvation depends upon keeping one’s marriage vows: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice (CCC 1033).

    Forgive me, please, Ms. Landry. I am quite sure that none of the above is mentioned because it’s not the modern way. But when it was, Catholics abhorred Hollywood’s version of marriage; now they embrace it.

  6. I think the Catholic church has no authority to nullify a marriage. Jesus says no divorce but conveniently, the bishops had power to do the opposite?? That is ridiculous.

    What angst that causes, when for a good reason people are divorced and die with guilt.

    I say, have no guilt, these men on earth have no authority. If you even believe in a creator, it is omnipotent, and human sinners should not stand in judgement.

    Clergy should teach a Way. Teach a man to fish. That’s it.

    God forgives sins, not people.

    The church is too big and cumbersome, politics, personalities, greed money, like the Jews around the time of Jesus.

    It needs to be seriously pruned back to a simpler form, and these deluded people that feel that they have special powers need to be gone.

    The pedophile priests etc prove that the church is comprised of a cross section of people certainly many have no business judging anyone else. And the Episcopalian church is completely gone to hell.

    People do not need an intercessor but Jesus. He built a church to educate. There is no mystical power transferred from person to person and there is no direct line to Jesus anyway.

    I love relaying the image of the poor old Irishman lying on his death bed, praying to God….oh please forgive me for eating a hamburger on a Friday one time, I don’t want to go to hell.

    Simplify the whole business, get the money and power out of it, go back to basics.

    If you were stuck on a desert Island, no priest, you’re screwed, you can’t have sins forgiven? Nonsense!

    • Dear Ken,

      Thank you for your comment, but I must say you are mistaken in your understanding of the Catholic Church’s teachings:

      First, Jesus, who is a Divine Person, did give authority to human beings: And when Jesus had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23). There are many other scripture passages to support the fact that Jesus did give authority on earth to human beings.

      Regarding your comment about pedophile priests, I would say they are very few in number, and their existence in the Church is not a just or valid reason for detracting from the good works of so many good and holy members of the Catholic clergy.

      Regarding your comment about there not being any mystical power or direct line to Jesus, I would reply to the first point by saying you do not have any faith in the power of Christ to give power and authority to human beings, and to the second point, I would simply point to the Catholic Church itself as the strongest evidence against your claim there is not a direct line to Jesus. The Catholic Church has continuously existed from the time of Christ to the present moment, and your comment just does not square with the historical record.

      Regarding your last comment about being stuck on an island without a priest, please check what the Church actually teaches in such a case before writing about it. You display your ignorance, because a person in such a situation can make a perfect act of contrition without a priest present and obtain the forgiveness of sins, as long as he has the intention of confessing his or her mortal sins to a priest as soon as possible. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1452.

  7. I’m happy to report that the wheel of justice turns slowly, but it does turn. I appealed my annulment granted in the U.S. in the first instance to the Roman Rota as the Second Instance. It took 12 years from the initial application for an annulment for their verdict, but the Roman Rota declared my marriage valid. It took a lot of perseverance (and written responses! 6 pages typed for my and what I knew of his background, 6 pages typed, small font, of my objections to his testimony and that of his ultimately 4 witnesses, all of whom were proven invalid, and finally 6 pages typed of my objections to the judge’s reasoning in granting of the annulment.). So hang in there and have faith. Truth will prevail.

    Older, wiser, and content

  8. To All,
    Thank God there are those, many here commenting tragically victims, who see the abuse in a great number of the tribunals in the United States. It is definitely a scandal in the Church in this country today. Using compassion for those who are seeking annulments to declare a marriage invalid without the proper steps according to canon law, is not love. God gave us the commandments so that we may love one another through the discipline of those commandments. Laws of God and of the Church are not ridged or harsh ways to help us gain the Kingdom of Heaven, on the contrary, they are the pathway to loving God and each other in order to gain Heaven. So,”yes” despite the ups and downs and sometimes very difficult struggles in marriage, it is for the common good that couples should remain together. Therefore, the Church must be there in to ensure that “until death do you part” is accomplished. Civil divorce, as civil marriage is not, should never be recognized as the end of a sacramental marriage. It so phenomenal that not many people connect the ugly act of numerous abortions, euthanasia and same sex unions as symptoms of the lack of reverence and defense of marriage. The Church is the one place where it should have automatically been understood. We will pray for the tribunals in the US and anywhere else in the world where there may be abuse to the sanctity of marriage. Hopefully, in our lifetime, we will see an end to this. However, be assured that the Holy Spirit continues to take care of the Holy Catholic Church.

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