Early in 2016, I applied for an annulment with the Roman Catholic Church. Last month, I received a Decree of Nullity, which says my marriage to Lou “did not create a permanent and sacramental bond and therefore is not an obstacle to future marriage in the Church.”
I have to write about this, because I haven’t written in a long time, and I feel like I won’t be able to write about anything else before I get this part documented. So here goes.
For years before I had this blog, I wrote endlessly about religion. I agonized about whether I should be an Episcopalian or a Roman Catholic. I’d grown up Episcopalian, then converted to Catholicism at age 17. I got married as a Catholic, then went back to being an Episcopalian. Then I went back again to Catholicism, and Poppy and Ace were baptized as Catholics. Then I switched back again to the Episcopal Church. Back and forth, over and over, with hands-wringing and angst and Zoloft.
I was practicing as an Episcopalian when I got divorced. Afterwards, I realized that part of my angst was tied up with the two churches’ teachings on marriage. Catholicism says marriage is indissoluble, and remarriage after divorce is not allowed. The Episcopal Church allows divorce and remarriage.
I was afraid that if I became an Episcopalian, I would get divorced.
I never admitted this before my marriage ended, not even to myself, but I wanted out of it. Part of what kept me in the marriage was the Catholic teaching about divorce. I was afraid that if I removed myself from that indissolubility thing, if I embraced the Episcopalians’ teachings and rules, that I’d allow myself to consider divorce. And if I allowed myself that, then the thing that held me to Lou might slip away.
But I banished those thoughts from even entering my mind, and without regard for marriage and divorce, in 2011, I began an earnest journey in the Episcopal Church. It was sorely needed. My religious life had become stale and fragmented, my practice a source of dread and little else. My family joined a wonderful Episcopal parish where I discovered new ways to access my faith. My enthusiasm and zeal grew.
And then I did get divorced. Not because it was suddenly allowed, but because the things that weren’t working in the marriage continued not to work. They built and reached an apex.
It’s been my policy since leaving Lou not to write in detail about the dirty laundry of my marriage. I’ll write about my own thoughts and experiences afterward, but I feel a duty to Lou and to my children not to put the personal business of my marriage out there.
But it was never a secret to anyone who knew us that Lou and I did not share religious faith. Particularly when I was Catholic, we had little in common in the spiritual realm. It seemed at first we might have more to share in the Episcopal Church, but that turned out not to be the case, either.
So the parts of the marriage that were crumbling continued to crumble. And then, divorce was suddenly allowed.
And once I crossed that line–the divorce line, like crime scene tape around a family–I felt certain there was no way I could ever be Catholic again. I mean, sure, you can be divorced in Catholicism–you just can’t get remarried. Not without an annulment. And an annulment didn’t seem any more realistic than living the rest of my life alone.
In 2014, over a year after my marriage ended, I met Boudin. He and I had followed similarly winding paths in our religious histories, with trips both ways across the Tiber. When we began dating, we both were in the Episcopal Church.
And then a year or so into our relationship, Boudin wanted to go back to Catholicism. It was an impulse I knew very well. I didn’t share it, and I wasn’t exactly happy he was feeling it, but I’d certainly felt it many times myself.
So I agreed to apply for an annulment.
Now, an annulment is not just a “Catholic divorce.” It’s really not even accurate to say you “got an annulment.” The Church doesn’t annul your marriage. Instead, it decides whether what you had was a valid marriage in the first place. If not, you’re given a Decree of Nullity. Your marriage never existed, at least not in the way the Church defines marriage.
Catholicism sees marriage as indissoluble. But for a marriage to be valid, certain elements must be present. Among those are the couple’s freedom to marry, their freely given consent to marry (including their ability to give such consent), and their intention to be married for life and to be open to bearing children.
While a divorce is settled at the end of a marriage, a potential declaration of nullity is concerned with the beginning of it. In coming to this determination, the Church looks at the couple on their wedding day. It examines their frame of mind, their intentions, their motivations, and their plans. It looks at what brought the couple to that day, how their upbringing shaped their approach to relationships and their understanding of marriage. It studies each party individually and the two as a couple.
When I approached the Tribunal to seek a decree of nullity, I didn’t necessarily expect I’d get one. I knew what the rules were when I got married. I went through marriage prep. I wasn’t one of those girls who gets married in the Church for the pretty pictures.
And when I met with a Catholic priest to begin annulment process, I didn’t identify myself as a Catholic. But the first thing I had to do was complete a lengthy questionnaire that asked detailed questions about my childhood, my approach to marriage, and my relationship with Lou. I wrote 30 single-spaced pages. It took a long time.
By the time I was writing the end of it, I was able to say that I wanted to consider going back to the Church.
Then, amusingly, Boudin put the brakes on his Catholicism. But I’d already gotten a taste of it, of all the things I’d missed. I’d also begun to hope that I just might have a case for an annulment. Pope Francis had just announced his Year of Mercy and had reconstructed the process for applying for an annulment. Maybe it was a sign; maybe it was possible my marriage to Lou wasn’t valid. Maybe my divorce didn’t have to mean I could never be Catholic again.
The thing is, you can know all the rules for a valid Catholic marriage and still not be capable of entering one. Just like you can read a recipe and follow the instructions and still fail to bake a loaf of bread. You can measure the ingredients precisely and bake for exactly the right amount of time. But if the yeast you use is dead, your dough will never rise. The thing that will come out of the oven won’t be bread. It might still be edible; you might be able to make it into something else you can consume. Maybe you can cut it into croutons, and maybe they’ll be really good croutons. But you were intending to make bread, and you didn’t.
After I turned in all my paperwork for the annulment, it was a long wait to hear an answer. Lou had to do paperwork, too, and we each had to present witnesses to answer questions about the beginning of the marriage. We had to go in and be interviewed. I had to talk to a psychologist. And we had to wait. Fifteen months we waited.
As with so many things in life, I’m not sure I would have done it if I’d known in the beginning what it would entail. For that reason, I’m glad I didn’t know.
Because I’m so glad that I did it.
Boudin and I are both Catholics now. And it’s so different this time. When I left the Church in 2011, I felt more alone in the pew than anywhere else. This time, I’m not alone–and what’s more, the Church isn’t only in the pew.
Receiving the decree of nullity was surprisingly emotional. I thought about myself and Lou on our wedding day, baking bread that was actually only croutons. We tried, but that yeast was dead, and no amount of following the instructions would have made the dough rise.
And croutons are ok. But the annulment means I can call them croutons now. And I can have another chance to try to bake bread, this time with live yeast to breathe life into it.