By an Anonymous Protestant Convert Struggling to hang in there…
At one point in my youth, I gave up on Christianity altogether. It happened after I walked away from a Protestant Church that had become cult-like in its adherence to its pastor. I went looking for answers, and sought solace in things like the turgid ramblings of Whitely Strieber’s Communion. In the faint hope that there might be a spiritual dimension to human reality, I also pored over books by Jeff Kripal. I searched for signs forbidden to the Faithful, such as the synchronicities reported by alien abductees and other paranormal “experiencers.” But, like a car that had run out of gas, I stalled out, and was unable to finish my journey. And to my horror, I discovered that outside my car, lying in wait, were monsters of anxiety, anger, and crippling depression.
In 2016, while working the night shift as a patrolman for a municipal police department (my profession by trade), I would frequently listen to Coast to Coast AM in a desperate attempt to fill in the hole opening up within. When it’s just you and your partner at 3:00AM, the oddball paranormal radio show is a welcome diversion. An old rerun of the late Art Bell was on, and his guest spoke words that would change my life. That guest was Fr. Malachi Martin.
I know now that many traditionalist Catholics are leery of the man. I’ve heard that Martin, now deceased, was everything from a secret double agent sent by Communists and Jews to a Vatican II plant meant to lead the truly faithful astray by postulating half-truths mixed in with his own petty vendettas. I don’t claim to have the answers to any of it. I’m no expert. Not by a long shot.
But what I do know is this: what he said that night had a profound effect on me. For the first time, I heard Catholic theology (albeit on topic of the demonic) espoused by an actual Catholic. Curious, I went and looked him up. A quick Google search made me wonder if Fr. Martin was actually legit. A YouTube search led me to Dr. Taylor Marshall and his erstwhile companion Tim Gordon. Although I wouldn’t find the answers I was looking for about Martin until later, I would come to learn a lot about Catholicism in general.
In 2017, I started praying the rosary every day. About a year later, I moved to a new area, started a new job, and made the decision to find a Catholic parish and begin the process of RCIA.
There were 17 RCIA candidates in the fall of 2018, but only 8 of us would end up going through all the way. A casual glance around the room showed a typical cross section of middle class men and women of the American South. Transplants from the North, job transfers from the Mid-West, the smell of stale coffee ever present in an atmosphere punctuated with coughs and perennial questions about life and death. Mostly in our 30s and 40s with bachelor’s degrees years in the past, along with a string of professional certifications, for all our banal sameness we could have met in a doctor’s waiting room.
On the surface we seemed content. Careers that were on track, Master’s and PhD programs in progress, another child on the way here, a new home to move into there. Lives built upon hard work and the just rewards of labor.
The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), as explained to me by my friendly Priest, was meant to “on board” newcomers to the Faith. It was also explained that because I had been divorced and remarried before my conversion — at a time when I was not living by the light of Catholic teaching — I’d have to file for an annulment and have my current, invalid marriage validated.
“This should take just a year,” I was told. After all, it was “Catholic stuff.”
“What about my family and kids?” I had asked. “What about my current wife? Was she really my wife?”
“Not to worry,” I was told by my well-meaning priest, as he quoted a line from Disney’s The Lion King: “Hakuna Matata — don’t worry, be happy!”
He explained I wouldn’t be eligible to receive First Communion, and certainly not Confirmation. I was in fact, lucky that I had received a valid Baptism, or else that, too, would have to wait until after a ruling by the Tribunal.
The others in RCIA warmed up to me in time and began to share their stories. There was the atheist whose wife had cajoled and threatened him into “trying” Catholicism out. The fellow who referred to himself as a church jumper after explaining that he had joined, then defected from, no less than six different Christian denominations. Then there was the lady who argued with the fervor of a Bolshevik that women had a right to abortion. And the very liberally-minded couple that argued priests should be required by law to disclose criminal behavior revealed in the confessional.
I met other couples who had been divorced and remarried prior to joining the RCIA. They explained to me how they thought annulments were “medieval” and “legalistic” and how they had wisely chosen to check off the box indicating they’d never been married before – even though it wasn’t true.
“Why complicate it? What makes you need the approval of the Church?” One such person asked me.
“I’m not sure. I guess I just want to do this right,” was my response.
Things Get Complicated
The process of getting an annulment wasn’t nearly as easy as promised. I was told that my (putative) wife would need a declaration of “lack of form” pertaining to a prior relationship that wasn’t really a marriage. She jokingly says that she lucked out because she “didn’t do it right” — didn’t actually get married — and I did. From a bureaucratic standpoint, this eased her transition into the Faith considerably.
By mid-2019, there was still no word from the Marriage Tribunal. They later informed us that they had somehow lost the paperwork. The parish office, strangely, reported that their copy was missing as well, and could we please fill it out again?
More months passed.
By late 2019, my phone calls to the Tribunal were always returned promptly. The answers to my queries were always clinical and precise, but no promises were given pertaining to either decisions or timelines.
2019 slowly edged into 2020.
Finally, I received a letter in the mail from the Tribunal. Apparently there had been a personnel shakeup. More delays were to be expected, and the finish line was moved to some hazy point in the far future.
Meanwhile, RCIA had long since trundled on without me. First Confession passed by, then First Communion, and finally, Confirmation by the Bishop. I recall sitting in the pews during Communion and watching as the atheist went up to receive, and then the lady who was so stridently and publicly supportive of abortion. The couples that skipped the annulment process altogether by lying about their previous marital status were always in line, too.
But I wanted to do things the right way. So I kept on waiting.
Then, early this year, COVID hit our Diocese. The parish office closed down, and the Tribunal did, too.
Everything ground to a halt.
Sometimes, when I’m kneeling in the “penalty box,” as I’ve heard someone call the interminable place of waiting for those who can’t receive Communion as their eligibility is sorted out, I feel the old Lutheran fear of the Catholic Church as a legalistic monstrosity re-emerge. There’s an antique woodcut depicting the Church as the Whore of Babylon bestriding the world, saddling her followers with a burdensome yoke. This is the image that pops into the minds of my Protestant friends when I explain what this process is like.
I’m part of a secret Facebook group where ex-Protestants discuss annulments. You hear some pretty horrific stuff. Stories of ex-spouses opposing the annulment with a squad of cannon lawyers, and offering to pull back if the petitioner would only give-up all future child support. Stories of converts held hostage by ex-spouses who believe the Catholic Church is actually a false church ruled over by none other than Satan himself. Respondents utilizing well-meaning Catholic lay advocacy groups who defend marriage and appeal the petitioner’s annulment all the way to the Roman Rota, a process that could take years. These same respondents then offer to withdraw their appeal if the Petitioner would grant spousal support, more visitation rights, and demands of financial payment. Many of the petitioners end up leaving the Catholic Church, as they don’t have the stomach to hand an abusive and manipulative ex-spouse the perfect tool to wage an all out war against them.
This appears to mean virtually nothing to the Tribunals, which focus only upon the relatively short time span before the marriage, during the ceremony, and shortly after the marriage.
There is a common trope, particularly among traditionalist Catholics online, that obtaining an annulments is a ludicrously easy process, and one that is constantly abused. “The annulment mill,” as I’ve seen it referred to. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are replete with online experts who opine about the “lack of discretion” on this issue, and how the handing out of annulments like candy at a parade is all the result of post-conciliar Modernist operatives with the goal of undermining the entire Church.
Casual judgments are tossed around by outside parties:
“He lied and cheated then got an annulment.”
“She took his kids and the Church helped her by getting an annulment.”
“They didn’t even look at the facts or interview the witnesses.”
“What about the kids? The Bishops need to excommunicate the guilty party!” (Because, somehow, that’ll bring families back together, just like burning down a city ends racism.)
Are the naysayers right? I don’t know. Again, I’m not an expert. When I see Catholics sounding off on annulments, I sense genuine hurt in many of their comments. Perhaps they, too, have been hurt by broken marriages. On the other hand, I’m confronted with those same people posting depersonalizing memes on the topic while heaping scorn upon their targets. I’ve even see Catholics I admire exhorting their followers to “infiltrate” Marriage Tribunals. In all of this, I wonder (as do many converts I’ve spoken with) if these people secretly hate the lot of us, and wish we’d never come into the Church in the first place.
If annulments are such a piece of cake, I’d like someone to explain to me why it’s now 2020, and my annulment is still working it’s way up the labyrinth of the Diocesan Tribunal process. So far, two RCIA classes have passed through my local Parish while I’ve waited. Of the original 17 in the fall of 2018, like I said, only 8 went on to Confirmation. One couple, who were told they, too, would need annulments, slipped away around February of 2019, lured by the siren call of Eastern Orthodoxy. Another couple simply dropped out after the daunting process stretched over a year.
Of the divorced couples seeking annulments in our original RCIA class, the mother of my children and I are all that’s left. At times, I wonder if our situation would make the online trads happy.
I don’t have any answers. If you’re the sort of Catholic who thinks annulments are widely and wickedly abused, perhaps you probably think me and my family and are part of the problem. I know that marriages are broken everywhere, the Church is in a sorry state, and that many annulments are granted. The system is certainly sometimes abused. But for those seeking legitimate recourse, it can also be cripplingly slow, without so much as an answer forthcoming, all while we do our best to honor what the Church asks of us. My marriage was deemed invalid, so I live chastely with the woman I thought I married, and whom I think of as my wife, but whom I am not yet allowed to validly marry. We live as brother and sister, in separate rooms. We have done this for two years as we wait for an answer that never comes. It’s hard on us. It’s hard on our children.
In the end, converts like us are only doing what we’re told to do. I know there are a lot of personal stories out there. I know there are people who are hurting because a spouse filed for an annulment and left them without recourse. But please also remember this: the world outside the Church is groaning for a savior, and the people hoping to board the New Ark are all terrible sinners slugging through the purgative way. Many of us are drawn to the riches of Catholicism, including the TLM. We hope to join your communities and live the faith alongside you. It’d be nice to know you had some compassion for us, too.
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