ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Mary Beth Erickson's husband was not in court during their divorce proceedings in 1990. There was no testimony. She didn't get to give her side of the story.
As a result, after the divorce was final, she felt unsatisfied. Added to the pain of the separation itself was the feeling that something had been left unsaid.
Erickson wasn't interested in remarrying yet, but she sought an annulment from the Catholic church anyway.
In court, "I didn't have a chance to say what happened," Erickson said. "The annulment offered me a way to do that and get past it. It was a form of healing."
That healing was so profound for Erickson that the parish-center administrator at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church in St. Louis now volunteers as one of 250 advocates whom the archdiocese has trained to guide Catholics seeking annulments through the yearlong process.
"They're sharing information that was so intimate in their lives with people they've never met with, and that's really scary," Erickson said. "You're saying stuff you've never said to anyone."
American Catholics are seeking annulments — the church's declaration that a marriage was invalid — in large numbers. Whether, like Erickson, 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, in 2006 the church in the United States granted 60 percent of the world's annulments.
Pope Benedict XVI has indicated he believes that's too many, and some Vatican watchers say the church may decrease the number of annulments granted to divorced Catholics.
In a January speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican's highest appellate court, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the church's teaching on invalidating Catholic marriages, emphasizing the need to balance "justice" and "charity." He also cautioned church tribunals against allowing the growing civil divorce rate to dictate the number of annulments — called decrees of nullity, in church parlance — they grant.
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 only comes 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.
Most Catholics who seek an annulment do so in order to remarry in the church. Divorced Catholics without an annulment who remarry outside the church are barred from receiving Holy Communion because the church considers that marriage irregular. In his January speech, Benedict argued that the desire to be both remarried and able to receive the Eucharist should not come at the cost of the sacrament of marriage.
"Both justice and charity require love for truth, and essentially involve the search for what is true," Benedict said. "Without truth, charity slides into sentimentalism. Love becomes an empty shell to be filled arbitrarily. This is the fatal risk of love in a culture without truth."
Monsignor John Shamleffer, who heads the St. Louis Archdiocese's tribunal, said Benedict was "reminding tribunals not to fall prey to the direction of society."
The United States leads the world in divorces, according to the U.S. Census, which partly explains why the Catholic church here leads the world in annulments.
"You can't just (grant annulments) because you know that's what people want," he explained. "That decision has to be based on real understanding."
A pastoral tool
The pope's speech went to the heart of a pastoral challenge for church leaders presented with faithful Catholics in unhappy marriages: How to allow an individual Catholic another chance at marriage in the church (charity), while upholding the church's belief in the permanence of marriage (justice).
The speech may have also served as a subtle warning to the world's tribunals, especially those in the United States, that change could be coming.
Every Catholic diocese has a tribunal, and most of its members' time is spent investigating troubled marriages. Each tribunal reports its annulment numbers annually to the Apostolic Signatura, often called the Vatican's supreme court, now headed by former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.
If Benedict wanted the church to scale back on the number of annulments it grants, for instance, that message could be sent around the Catholic world through Burke's office.
"It certainly could," said the Rev. John Beal, a professor of canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington. "By making it clear that in the review process, certain things are going beyond the bounds of law and have to stop."
Bishop Frans Daneels, secretary of the Apostolic Signatura, said Burke was not available for an interview.
Canon lawyers also point out that the tribunal system in the United States actually works as it's supposed to and American bishops pour a lot of resources into marriage cases in the hopes of helping their flocks.
"We have more people working for the tribunal here in Washington than are working for the tribunal system for the entire country of El Salvador," Beal said. "There are just places around the world where the tribunal system is moribund."
The vast majority of a tribunal's work is investigating the validity of marriages. In 2009, about 350 people petitioned the St. Louis Archdiocese's tribunal for an annulment, Shamleffer said. About 250 of those were granted, while the other 100 were either still being investigated, or were rejected.
Annulments take between eight months and a year, on average, to adjudicate, and cost about $1,500 each. The archdiocese asks that the person seeking the annulment contribute $650; it subsidizes the rest.
According to the Canon Law Society of America, St. Louis Catholics spent $473,000 on annulments in 2008. The archdiocese contributed 68 percent of that total, or $324,000. By comparison, the Belleville, Ill., diocese paid for $52,000 of the $70,000 spent on annulments there in 2008, or 74 percent.
Some divorced Catholics feel the church shuns them. A group called Arise: St. Louis Divorced and Widowed Catholics numbers nearly 400 people and has support groups in five counties around the archdiocese.
Leo Schellert, a 65-year-old retired machinist is a Eucharistic minister at St. Cletus Catholic Church in St. Charles. Schellert says he's received two annulments — in 1985, and again in 2004 — and that the process was "pretty good" both times.
But Schellert, who is a leader in the 30-year-old Arise group, said the church "tries to force an annulment down people's throats too quick, while people are still dealing with the grief process."
"Younger priests especially feel people need to get an annulment right away after a divorce so they can get it over with," Schellert continued. "And sometimes it's too early."
"The church upholds and trusts greatly in the dignity of marriage, but what happens sometimes is the reality of divorce," Shamleffer said. "The church doesn't recommend it, but knows that reality happens."
Annulment investigations are often brutal, entailing a painful retelling of the story of a failed marriage and demanding advocates who are combinations of legal guides and shoulders to cry on.
"That's part of our ministry too," said Mary Beth Erickson. "You're giving people a chance to say what happened, and then move on."