Q. When Is a Marriage Not Really a Marriage?

Article excerpt

FRANK SINATRA HAS ONE. SO DOES FORMER Chrysler Corp. chairman Lee Iacocca. New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato may need one; Sen. Ted Kennedy reportedly got one, and his nephew Joseph P. Kennedy 11, a congressman from Massachusetts, hopes to get one. Four of these men are divorced and remarried--Sinatra several times over. What each man has or is seeking is a marriage annulment from the Roman Catholic Church.

Cynics call it divorce, Catholic style, especially for wealthy, high-profile members of the church. But celebrities are by no means the only Catholics who win annulments of church marriages. Each year, canon lawyers estimate, 50,000 American Catholic marriages are declared null and void. About 90 percent of all petitions received by the church are approved. That's a far cry from 1968, when the church courts granted only 450 annulments to American Catholics. In the last 20 years, the grounds for granting annulments have been greatly expanded, and many of the 189 American dioceses now have marriage tribunals better run than the civil courts.

For many Catholics whose marriages have fallen apart, this liberalizing trend is good news indeed. With an annulment, they are free to remarry in the church; without one, remarriage means they are barred from receiving holy communion -- the heart of the Catholic religious experience. "I wanted to date Catholic women and have them not feel they were dating damaged goods," says Daniel Kane, 48, a manager for the Chicago Transit Authority whose five-year marriage was annulled in 1986. "It seemed like the method to the madness is to really get you to take a look at what you did, second-guess yourself and prevent you from making the same mistake again."

This liberal attitude does not sit well in Rome. Vatican officials have repeatedly complained that the church's marriage tribunals--especially in the United States-have become far too lenient. Just last month, Pope John Paul II himself warned the Roman Rota, the church's appeals court for marriage cases, not to rely on the evaluations of psychiatrists who do not accept the Catholic doctrine on marriage. other churchmen complain that the annulment process is demeaning and hypocritical for an institution that still opposes divorce. "We get criticism from all sides," says Father Patrick Cogan, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America. "Even some theologians think we are simply creating legal fictions."

Jesus himself was quite clear on the matter. When asked whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, be replied: "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder." In Catholic doctrine, marriage is much more than a legal contract: it is primarily a sacramental bond uniting two people until the death of one of the spouses. Unlike a civil divorce, which the church does not recognize, an annulment is a declaration that for some reason the marriage was not valid in the first Place. "If we are going to hold people to the permanence of marriage," says Father Cogan, "then justice demands that the church should declare which persons are not bound because they are not in a valid marriage."

In the past, the grounds for granting annulments were limited and obvious. Severe mental illness. failure to consummate the marriage and refusal to have children were common reasons for "a degree of nullity." But today, says Father James Provost, chair of the canon-law department at the Catholic University of America, most annulments are based on psychological factors at the time of marriage, such as immaturity or unwillingness to assume the responsibilities of married life. …