I opened the mail this week to discover that 26 years and two days of my life had disappeared. Poof. Evaporated. It never happened.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee officially annulled my marriage. Legally, it ended April 15, 2010. But, according to some religious tribunal, it ended in God’s eyes on March 5, 2020.
I immediately called my three adult daughters to see if they disappeared, too, because their presence on earth certainly serves as proof that the marriage did, in fact, exist.
But, I was still left with a nagging question: Which marriage was annulled?
Was it the marriage officially ordained by a judge on Friday, April 13, 1984, at 13:13 in his chambers inside the Dane County Courthouse in Madison, Wis.?
Our best man and maid of honor served as witnesses to the historic event that took place a few days before I reported to my first U.S. Air Force duty assignment. So I know that happened.
Was it the marriage officially sanctioned by the Catholic church on Saturday, Oct. 6, 1984, in Wauwatosa, Wis., before a crowd of nearly two hundred people, including six bridesmaids and six groomsmen? I was there, too.
We got married in April that year because my wife was going to leave her job a few months later as she prepared to join me in New Mexico, and we wanted to ensure she was covered by my Air Force insurance. But my wife, and especially her family, wanted us to have a church wedding, so we planned that, too.
Was it the marriage renewed before a Catholic priest during a Marriage Encounter weekend in 1997 at a Roman Catholic retreat center in Rockford, Ill? Surely, there is a record of that somewhere in the annals of the church.
I had become a Christian two years earlier. The men in my small group at the Evangelical Free Church I attended highly recommended that my wife and I attend the event to strengthen our relationship.
It worked, for a while.
Was it the marriage renewed before a Catholic priest during a Retrouvaille weekend in Madison, Wis., the fall of 2007? That retreat was designed to reconcile couples in deeply-troubled marriages so broken they were on the brink of separating.
That program was also highly recommended by the men in my small group following the testimony of one of the guys who had gone through it and saved his marriage. It was so successful at restoring our relationship that we joined the program’s board of directors to help rescue other marriages. There has to be a record of that in the minutes somewhere.
But, the impact of that exceptional program eventually diminished as we fell back into our old destructive habits.
So which marriage was wiped away in the eyes of God and the church? Truth be told, none of them were because, in God’s eyes, we really were married and renewed those vows several times.
The decree I received from the archdiocese informed me that “both parties are declared ecclesiastically free in accordance with the prescriptions of the sacred canons and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church.”
That means we are free from the duties and obligations to each other in the eyes of the Catholic church. But, biblically, that’s not the case.
In Matthew 19:5–6, Jesus himself said, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
I suspect that includes church tribunals as well.
In Luke 16:18, again Jesus said, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
In fact, just before that quote, Jesus noted it was easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of his law.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10–11, Apostle Paul explains, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”
In the eyes of God, there is just one way for a marriage to end, and it’s not by vote of a religious court.
Romans 7:2 notes, “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.”
Despite the wishes of many, I’m not dead yet. Still, I have to wonder whether my wife and I were ever connected to the Catholic church.
Before we could get married, I had to agree to premarital counseling. Not both of us, just me. Why? Because I was not Catholic.
So, my “premarital counseling” consisted of four weekly three-hour sessions with a priest while going through advanced training in the Air Force.
That’s 12 hours of “counseling,” which was centered solely on explaining how the Catholic church works and what was expected of me as a non-Catholic husband. I learned about all the sacred obligations, specific masses, special prayers and seven rites of Catholicism.
Not one minute was invested in preparing me for the crucible of marriage. We didn’t talk about the major challenges every couple faces, like finances, sex, communication, in-laws, children and the like.
The sole purpose of “premarital counseling” was to cram years of catechism into a few weeks so I would understand “where my wife was coming from.”
Compare my experience to that of our youngest daughter when she got married. Not only did the couple have to go through weeks of counseling together, but after the wedding, they were matched to an experienced, successfully married couple who served as their guides during that critical first year.
The two couples met monthly to discuss the major problems that can bring down a marriage. Then, once a month, the guys would meet separately from the women where free-flowing conversation was encouraged along with questions about every topic.
But, as far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, our marriage would be a free-for-all as we had to navigate through those difficult waters alone and certainly without a spec of support from any church members.
In fairness, after we had moved to New Mexico, neither of us attended any church, nor did we seek out opportunities for help with our marriage. I don’t know if we were ignorant or arrogant — or both. At that time, I was a die-hard agnostic and my wife was a non-practicing Catholic. We didn’t need help because we were “made for each other.”
It could be that the Catholic church had left a bad taste in my wife’s mouth for many years after our wedding. Because we were married by a judge before we were married in a church, things got nasty.
When we showed up to the church a few days before the wedding to go through the ceremony’s rituals, the priest discovered that we had already signed a marriage license. He was irate.
I was dismissed from the room and he proceeded to berate my wife for “committing adultery,” lying before God and sinning against the church.
The fact that he chose to engage my wife over this issue without including me, officially sealed the deal for me. I would never be a Roman Catholic. I could not see how we were being dishonest before God by marrying each other and living 1,500 miles apart for five months.
Which brings me to the true crux of the annulment.
It takes two to destroy a marriage
No marriage fails on the actions of just one person. A marriage involves two people, both of whom are sinners and often diametrically opposed to each other.
Men speak and think differently than women. Their attitudes toward sex are generally polar opposites. It takes two people to communicate, and it is unrealistic to expect one person to be fully responsible for the happiness of another.
But, not so in the Roman Catholic Church. The marriage failed and it was entirely my fault. According to the annulment decree:
“Considering the essential elements and properties of the Sacramental Covenant of marriage, it would be necessary for Gregory Joseph Gerber to demonstrate with the priest or deacon preparing for any future marriage that he is not only capable of perceiving and understanding, but also fulfilling those obligations and responsibilities which are essential to the covenant of marriage.”
There was no such obligation imposed upon my ex-wife.
Unforgiveness and stubbornness
Regardless of what the Very Rev. Paul B.R. Hartmann, J.C.L., the judicial vicar, may think, it really does take two people to destroy a marriage, and a lot of unforgiveness and stubbornness on behalf of both parties to kill the relationship.
I am not going to bash my ex-wife in any way. She doesn’t deserve that, and neither do I. We are both responsible for the failure. In fact, I wish her the very best of luck with her new husband as they both pursue a second chance to enjoy a happy, successful marriage.
If she’s like me, she learned a lot through our shared experience and she will use that wisdom to avoid the same pitfalls that destroyed our relationship.
However, more time was invested by more people “investigating” the dynamics of our marital relationship to determine if it ever existed at all, than the Catholic church ever invested in helping us to grow as a couple and thrive.
Contrary to Catholic thinking, the indulgence of annulment doesn’t mean a single thing in the eyes of a holy God — and certainly not after 26 years and two days of marriage.