In days as a curate, an odd request came from a woman in the parish. Estranged from her husband and having three children of teenage years, she was surprised to receive communication that her husband was seeking an annulment of their marriage from the Roman Catholic church, to which he belonged. An annulment is a statement that a marriage was invalid through some defect in the process and therefore never actually existed. The grounds for annulment were that there had been mistaken identity and the person married was not the person intended; that the marriage was not consummated; or that the person lacked the mental capacity to give informed consent. The woman assumed her husband was claiming that he had been too immature when they were married and was therefore claiming he could not give the necessary consent.
The woman was not concerned at what the church might think of her, but felt that if the marriage never took place then her children would be perceived as no longer legitimate. A letter to a Jesuit friend brought the response that whilst the marriage might be anulled, the status of the children would be unaffected. It was an argument that seemed to require an extraordinary piece of mental gymnastics.
It was a moment that caused a questioning of the intellectual integrity of the church. How could it deny that something obvious to everyone had ever existed? The passing years, with the revelations of clerical child abuse and the appalling catalogues of crimes against young people committed within the residential institutions, have added question after question. The proffering of the idea of “mental reservation” as an excuse for the concealment of paedophile clergy seemed a last despicable effort to justify actions that were only about the church trying to protect itself.
The church’s engagement in the current debate on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which prohibits abortion, is a further piece of dishonesty. Whatever one’s views, abortion is a fact in Ireland. Each year, thousands of Irish women have abortions. They travel to England for the procedure and then return. The referendum on deleting the Eighth Amendment is over whether there will continue to be price rationing of terminations, whether choice will continue to be confined to those who can afford travel and accommodation. Whatever assertions the church might make, the reality of Irish abortions is obvious to everyone, just as it is obvious that annulments do not make realities go away.