by Edward Peters
If I heard it once as a tribunal judge, I heard it a thousand times in marriage nullity cases: “How could I have been so blind?” All right, maybe a thousand times is an exaggeration, but I’m sure I (and other tribunal judges) heard it plenty of times, this heart-breaking question, not rhetorical, but real, usually posed by what canon law used to call “the innocent spouse” in an annulment case, but what might today be more accurately called the shell-shocked survivor of a destructive attempt at marriage. It’s the question that one spouse needs, in many annulment cases, painfully to ask himself (or herself) after three years, eight years, or a dozen in a marriage finally wrecked by alcoholism or drug abuse, chronic infidelities, physical violence, the squandering of finances, or often enough, a combination of these factors: How could he (or she) have been so blind?
Without wanting to give the impression that the dismal factors just outlined always lead to a declaration of nullity (because they don’t), and without minimizing the fact that in most divorces and eventual annulments both parties had a role to play in the failure or nullity of the marriage (because they do), there are a considerable number of wrecked marriages wherein the signs of these grave disorders were present prior to and at the time of the wedding, but were missed or grossly minimized by the spouse who, some years later was left asking: “How could I have been so blind?”
I think there is a good answer to this question, but to appreciate it requires one to step back from the immediacy of the crisis in marriage today, and look at problem from a wider perspective. Two points need to be borne in mind.
First, it helps to recall the image of the Church as our holy Mother, one whose love for us knows no bounds. Any mother worthy of the name wants her children to avoid harm and live happy lives. Thus, a caring mother gives direction and advice, she guides her children’s feet onto the good path, and warns them against the bad. But for the most part, a mother tends to spare her children the gory details of why bad things are bad, and even details as to just how bad they really are, lest her children be unnecessarily frightened, scandalized, or drawn by a prurient interest toward such behavior. I think there is some of this maternal attitude at work in the Church’s warnings against, say, drug and alcohol abuse. The teaching that such things are wrong is clearly given. At times, additional elaboration on the dangers of such activities are given, but like a good mother, the Church does not usually present the depth of the depravity that chemical addiction entails.
To be sure, the Church is, as Pope Paul VI put it, “an expert in humanity,” and no human secrets, however horrid, are hidden from her and her ministers who need to know. Moreover, as Christ said in the parable about the rich man who begged to have a message sent from hell to his wayward brothers lest they fall into the Pit as did he, the Church can rightly say to those who suggest that she show more graphically the degree of suffering involved in some marriage-destroying activities, “The law and the prophets should be enough for us, and even if someone were to rise from the dead to tell, some people would still not believe.” For all that, though, there are people preparing for marriage who view the Church’s admonitions against some types of behavior in themselves or their future spouses as mere formalism, rules imposed without any real connection to reality.
The second problem is similar to the first, and it usually is found, albeit ironically, among young people blessed to have been raised in more or less stable families. I speak of a certain naiveté.
When children are raised in homes where dad goes to work day in and day out, where mom sees to the basic needs of her children, where meals are predictable, holidays celebrated normally, issues frankly discussed, good times enjoyed with friends and bad times embraced prayerfully as the will of God, they tend to think that most everybody does these things too. What they, as children, cannot see is the myriad ways in which solid parental love, living faith, freedom from chemical and emotional manipulation, and the leavening strength of domestic stability prevents untold numbers of problems from ever arising in the first place, and enables the family to address, usually successfully, those problems that inevitably must visit, even if barely, every home. In other words, they simply cannot imagine (and God be praised that they need not!) how bad things could really get under other circumstances than the ones they are used to.
But, marriage to an active, abusive alcoholic teaches brutal lessons. Marriage to the victim of unresolved, long-term sexual or emotional abuse teaches brutal lessons. Marriage to a sexual or financial profligate teaches brutal lessons. Is there a way, though, to learn from those lessons, short of entering such a marriage? There is, I think, but it requires two acts on the part of one considering marriage.
Two key points:
First, one needs humility. One has to be willing to admit that are some things about people in this world that one just doesn’t know. No one wants to be considered naïve (though exactly why one doesn’t, I’m not sure), but after a decade in annulment work, I can tell young people, it’s better to admit some possible naiveté now than to enter a minefield marriage and have your cluelessness proven to all the world. Instead of being embarrassed by your naiveté, thank God for it. Thank God that you don’t know how bad this condition or that vice can be, in the same way that many people can thank God that they don’t know what deep hunger means, or how homelessness feels, or what victimization by crime is like.
Second, one needs trust. One has to be willing to take the Church at its word that certain things are destructive of happiness before marriage and after. One has to trust concerned parents, siblings, pastors, or friends when they express reservations or opposition to plans to marry so-and-so. Don’t assume that such reservations or opposition are based on dislike of your choice for marriage (even if such dislike is present). Rather, consider the possibility that the stance is based on love and concern for you.
One final but very important point to consider. While many, many people suffer from things that can directly and severely impact their own ability to marry and their potential spouses’ chances at happiness in marriage, few of them labor under such circumstances that cannot, with patience, prayer, and counseling, eventually be overcome or repaired. In other words, one’s frank recognition that, at present such-and-such a marriage is ill-advised, does not necessarily mean that the wedding can never take place. What it more likely means is that if the wedding takes place now, without the benefit of counseling or, if needed, personal reform, it will likely entail much unnecessary suffering for both parties and eventually children, and is even more likely finally to fail than are, sadly, most marriages today. I would hold that there is no such thing as a bad reason to call off a wedding. Surely we can suggest that there is no such thing as bad reason to put one off. A few months (such a short time!) may be all it takes to address effectively a situation that might otherwise result in a lifetime of unhappiness.
Sometimes, when a party in an annulment case asks: “How could I have been so blind?”, the plain truth is that the person had deliberately blinded himself or herself to the pre-wedding warning signs of impending disaster. But in many cases, no self-deception was at work. The person instead simply did not understand, and not understanding, too hastily shrugged off, the warning signs that the Church, parents, families or friends said, or perhaps hinted, were there. But marriage, more than any other decision the great majority of adult Catholics will make in life, is simply too important to enter with anything less than eyes wide open.
Dr. Peters served for many years as a Defender of the Bond and later as Matrimonial judge in various diocesan tribunals. He presently is professor canon law and liturgy for the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University in Ann Arbor, Michigan.