He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
One of the reasons I think that people get upset about the question of divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion is that they don’t understand what’s happening. I’d like to look today at the question of what an annulment is, and I want to do so by way of an analogy. Like all analogies, it is imperfect. Still, I think it sheds light on the overall situation.
An Otherwise Decent Guy Gets Into a Mess
Imagine you’re a young man in your twenties. Like many young people, you were a tad promiscuous during college, something you shouldn’t have done, but, well, you did. One Saturday morning you answer the door and one of your college girlfriends is standing there, with a darling little boy at her side. He’s the spitting image of his mother.
Your ex-girlfriend explains that the boy is probably yours. She apologizes for not informing you sooner, and appeals to your better self and asks you to do the right thing. The boy needs his father to be in his life.
A Decent Guy Becomes a Stand-up Guy
After you recover from the shock if it all, you do exactly what she was hoping: You agree that of course you will do your best to be a good father to any child of yours.
This isn’t going to be easy. There are good reasons you and the boy’s mother stopped dating each other. There will be lots of complications to work through. You are now going to have to devote a massive amount of time and income and emotional reserve to the rearing of this boy. You’ll have to reorganize your career and personal plans to make sure you can give this boy the attention from you that he deserves. It’s not easy to be a parent, and it’s even harder when you aren’t married to your child’s mother.
But you are a decent human being, and the least you can do in this world is be a good father to your own child. It’s not something you have to think about. Of course you’ll do it, you tell her.
Except There’s This Other Guy
There’s one hitch though: Neither of you are 100% sure you’re the father.
The dates all work out, but honestly? She was a tad promiscuous herself. There’s at least one other college friend who might be the father instead.
Your ex-girlfriend thinks it’s more likely that you are the father, which is why she came to you first. She asks you to take a paternity test, which will clear up all doubt. You agree that’s a good idea.
Why Does Paternity Matter?
Let’s review two important facts:
- It’s quite likely you are the father.
- You have every intention of being the best father you can to this little boy, if he is in fact your son.
But still, it’s important in this complicated situation to ascertain paternity if possible. Why? Two reasons:
- It’s important because the boy has a right to be reared by his own father, if possible. There are many situations in which, unfortunately, a child cannot be raised by his own biological parents. But if it is possible, he and his parents will both rightly want that to happen.
- Likewise it’s important because the responsibilities of a man towards his own child are significantly different than his responsibilities towards children in general.
You’re a stand-up guy. If the boy isn’t yours, you’ll still wish him and his mother well, and you’ll do all the things that any decent man does to help the children of his community. But it would not be fair to you to expect you to rear a child to whom you have no particular connection, and it also would not be fair to the boy and his real father.
The two of them deserve the opportunity to be father and son, if that is possible. It would be an injustice for you to step in and presume the rights that properly belong to some other man.
What’s a Marriage Tribunal?
A marriage tribunal is something like a paternity test. A paternity test attempts to answer the question: Am I the father of this child? A marriage tribunal attempts to answer the question: Am I married to this person we’ve assumed until now was my spouse?
As with paternity tests, we don’t examine the validity of marriages except in difficult circumstances — situations where there is reasonable doubt. If you are separated or divorced, the question might reasonably come up. Whatever circumstances led to the separation might hint that no valid marriage was ever contracted in the first place.
Like a paternity test, the purpose of a marriage tribunal isn’t to give you the answer you want, its purpose is to give you the truth: Do I have a solemn and irrevocable bond with this other person, or do I not?
Photo: The Beirtan house for divorcing people, via Wikimedia. The photographer’s description explains: “This small building stands next to the church of Biertan (Birthälm). There was the habit to close there for two weeks the couples that wanted to divorce. Inside there was only a bed and the necessary to eat. It actually worked because in 400 years only one couple eventually decided to break up.” By Alessio Damato [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0].
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