Until null and void do us part

The Roman Catholic Church doesn't believe in divorce. It does believe in marriage annulment -- maybe too much, if you ask some church leaders. Pope Benedict XVI made headlines, mainly in the Catholic press, when he addressed the issue in late January. As best I can determine, the pope's speech drew little, if any, mainstream media coverage outside of a short Associated Press report that noted:

The Vatican's concern largely is directed at the United States, which in 2006 had more annulment cases launched than the rest of the world combined.

But in the Midwest, under the Gateway Arch, one of America's premier Godbeat reporters -- Tim Townsend -- was listening when the pope hinted at a potential crackdown on marriage annulments. Or maybe a source alerted him to the significance. Either way, Townsend smelled a meaty religion story with real human drama and important ramifications for many readers in the historically Catholic city of St. Louis. And on Sunday, his excellent report appeared above the fold on Page 1 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Townsend boiled down the big picture this way:

American Catholics are seeking annulments -- the church's declaration that a marriage was invalid -- in large numbers. Whether ... they're hoping it helps them heal after a divorce, or allows them to get remarried in the church, annulments are in demand, and the church in the United States is granting them.

The St. Louis Archdiocese granted nine out of 10 requests for an annulment last year. American Catholics make up about 6 percent of the global church, but according to the most recent Vatican statistics available, the church in the United States granted 60 percent of the world's annulments in 2006.

Pope Benedict XVI has indicated that he believes that's too many, and some Vatican watchers say the church may decrease the number of annulments granted to divorced Catholics.

In general, GetReligionistas raved about Townsend's story.

But, like a disappointed Simon Cowell voicing regret over a favorite contestant who stops just short of a perfect moment, we have to keep it real: Townsend story's contains a pretty giant hole. His piece never really explains the ways in which a marriage can -- as Catholics see it -- be defective from the beginning and qualify for an annulment. This is as close as he gets:

Even after a Catholic couple gets a divorce, the church still considers the marriage valid. An annulment is a tribunal's declaration that a marriage was never valid to begin with, that there was a hidden impediment or "defect of consent" that kept the marriage from being legitimate.

That declaration comes only after a long and involved investigation that asks people to examine, in sometimes excruciating detail, the ups and downs of their marriage. The tribunal may conduct interviews with both parties, ask for details from friends and family members, search for documentary evidence of marital wrongdoing and order psychiatric evaluations.

That is good information, of course. But what are the realities that must be proven in these investigations? What are specific circumstances that would allow a marriage to be annulled after many years?

I also would be interested in more analysis -- from expert sources inside and outside the church -- on what the high number of annulments means. Despite claims to the contrary, is an annulment really the same thing as a divorce, particularly within the context of the U.S. church? If not, what makes it different?

I recall that former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, an outspoken Catholic, led an initiative to reduce that Bible Belt state's divorce rate, which at one time ranked as the nation's second highest. I wonder what he'd have to say about the number of Catholic marriage annulments.

Alas, I'm getting carried away. A reporter -- even one as fine as Townsend -- can cover only so much ground in a story. And, with a single glaring exception, he did a commendable job with this one.

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