Why you should care
This is how the Roman Catholic Church can stay relevant.
It’s happened to all of us: You buy something online — maybe a pair of jeans or a juicer — but when it arrives it isn’t quite what you wanted. (Since when does “slim fit” mean “so tight you’ll live with a perpetual wedgie?”) Luckily, modern day brands know the value of happy customers, so they process full refunds with a smile on their face. But it wasn’t a big retail chain that pioneered returns: It was the Roman Catholic Church with marriage annulments. And where and how many people around the world are having buyer’s remorse might surprise you, too.
The United States still leads (or trails?) the way, with almost half of all marriage take-backs in the world, according to Charles Reid, a professor of law at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, who cites the Catholic Church’s statistical yearbook. But since the ’90s, American annulments have fallen off a cliff, from 72,308 in 1990 to 24,010 in 2012:
Percent that American annulments have fallen from 1990 to 2012
Hallelujah, Americans must be getting divorced far less, right? Eh, not so much. Credit not just the younger generation’s hesitation to get married in the first place, but also a big trust issue with clergy, courtesy of rampant and well-publicized pedophilia scandals, Reid says. The States were also issued exceptional rules, and have more lawyers and clergy to accommodate divorcées back into the church. The result: More than 90 percent of annulment petitions are granted.
In which case, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Poland to have the second highest incidence of annulments. The almost exclusively Catholic nation has a pretty harsh view on divorce, even going as far as likening it to pedophilia in its harmfulness to children. Nonetheless, over 2,000 annulment petitions were filed in 2012, which put it at half of the American rate. One possibility: In a country of 90-plus percent Catholics, there are not many other places for divorced (and thus frowned upon) believers to turn to God.
And then there’s Ireland. Out of a nation of 3.6 million Catholics, 327 annulments were filed in 2012. Why so few? It’s “shocking” considering 87,000 are divorced, says Reid. Again, credit mistrust of clergy caused by pedophilia scandals and general skepticism of marriage and religion itself, he says.
Fearing a mass exodus of divorcées from the church, Pope Francis has his eye on reforming the annulment process by making it quicker, cheaper and more accessible. He might even consider abolishing it altogether, like the Greek Orthodox Church has, suggests Reid. But the former is far more likely.
Until then, there are always other options for ex-lovers, like independent Catholic denominations, which have about 20,000 faithful in the States alone. One of the main reasons believers join the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, the largest independent denomination, is because they’ll marry divorced people, Francis Kebs, the church’s presiding bishop told OZY. “It’s people who feel excluded in sexual preference, gender or marriage history who are most attracted to us,” he says. Doesn’t really need a return policy at all, huh?