For better or worse, a rise in annulments has brought a new dimension to the question of marriage and divorce for American Roman Catholics.
About 75 percent, or about 55,000 of the 73,000 annulments granted worldwide in 1994 - the most recent year for which statistics are available - were in the United States. Before 1910, fewer than 100 had been granted worldwide.
Annulments have not escaped public challenge. For example, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, former wife of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts, wrote Shattered Faith, the story of her fight to block the annulment of their marriage.
Catholic Church officials in Georgia refused to comment on the Kennedy annulment but did talk about the process in general.
"We are dealing with a very painful reality," said the Rev. Jeremiah McCarthy, a canon lawyer who heads the marriage tribunal for the Diocese of Savannah as judicial vicar. "Three out of four marriages end in divorce, and Catholics are impacted as well."
whether a marriage ever existed, according to the laws of the church.
Divorced Catholics are forbidden to remarry unless they can obtain a declaration of nullity - an annulment - which says there was a defect in the marriage from the beginning, in other words, that the marriage was invalid.
The biggest problem is with the language, said the Rev. McCarthy. "If we grant an annulment, it seems we are blotting out five or 10 years of their life."
A declaration of nullity does not say that nothing existed. Catholics in this country are married according to both civil and church law. The church recognizes the civil dimension of the marriage, said Brother Joseph Teston, a member of the Marist religious order who spoke at the Rev. McCarthy's request. Brother Joseph serves as pastoral assistant at St. Mary-on-the-Hill Catholic Church and is the first contact for persons seeking an annulment there.
Neither does a declaration render children from an annulled marriage illegitimate - unless they are the children of royalty, where special laws regarding succession and inheritance apply.
It also says nothing about the morality of the persons involved. A guy could be a rat, but he still might be entitled to an annulment, said Brother Joseph.
What the declaration does say is that there was something fundamentally lacking in one or the other spouse's consent, ability to give consent or intention in marrying.
There was a bride and a groom and it looked like a wedding, but, in the eyes of the church, it was not.
Regardless of who initiated the process, an annulment is granted to both parties, Brother Joseph said.
While divorce divides possessions and assigns custody at the end of a marriage, an annulment looks back at the beginning - the wedding day - and asks: Was this a marriage according to the laws of the Catholic Church?
"Every stone is unturned," the Rev. McCarthy said. "People have to go back over a failed relationship and ask themselves, `What was the truth here?' And people don't like that sometimes."
Church law requires that a Catholic must marry a baptized person before a Catholic priest or deacon and two witnesses, unless permission has been given to do otherwise. Each must give consent freely, have the capacity to give consent, have the intention of marrying for life and be open to having children, among other things, said the Rev. McCarthy.
The Rev. McCarthy said the annulment process is more positive and helpful than negative. "We will always hear of situations of disappointment, but that is more the reality of marital breakdown," he said. "Hopefully, the church will bring healing."
The annulment process is also a learning process. "People are attracted to the same types of personalities," said the Rev. McCarthy. "It might help them see the pluses and minuses of the relationship so that it would not be repeated."
The church presumes that every marriage is valid. An annulment inquiry isn't started until after a divorce.
About one-third of the 80 to 100 cases presented to the Savannah tribunal a year are never concluded. "A lot of people may move to another part of the country and abandon the case, (or) witnesses will not cooperate," said the Rev. McCarthy.
Annulments may be resolved in a few months or several years.
Much of the tribunal's work involves baptized non-Catholics who have been divorced. The Savannah diocese, which includes Augusta, has some 74,000 Catholics in 90 counties. They are far outnumbered by non-Catholics, and there is a lot of intermarriage. Non-Catholics must resolve prior marriages to marry a Catholic or to enter the Catholic Church.
"Why would a Baptist have to undergo this? Once baptized, you have made a valid marriage," said the Rev. McCarthy.
Annulments start at the parish level. Most cases submitted are at least examined by the tribunal, although occasionally they are turned down right away. Total fees amount to about $300, said the Rev. McCarthy.
Church judges make a decision based on the facts presented and church law. Declarations are then reviewed by another diocese. In Savannah's case, the Archdiocese of Atlanta does the review.
Anyone dissatisfied with the decision can appeal to Rome; meanwhile, the annulment is suspended.
Last year, Savannah's tribunal approved about 80 annulments. Two requests were denied. Most annulment requests involved short-time marriages, he said.
Each case has to be decided individually. The church has tried to be faithful to the teachings of the Lord, said the Rev. McCarthy. "It is a thin line, (but) that is the way the church has decided to deal with it."