What Catholic Tribunals Know about Autism and Marriage

I’m not Catholic. I didn’t know what a tribunal was until last week when I called an archdiocese and started asking questions.

I called because I’d heard through the grapevine that the Catholic church annuls marriages when one person has autism. I wondered why one church would be aware of the incompatibilities in mixed-neurological couples while other churches, the court systems and mental health professionals have almost no awareness that these marriages exist.

I had the opportunity to talk to an incredibly kind and wise “father” for about an hour. He did his best to explain the Catholic church’s stance and his personal experiences with autism and marriage to a non-Catholic — me.

I learned a few things.

First, the Catholic church understands autism and marriage and divorce because true believing Catholics can’t get remarried within the Catholic church after divorce unless they receive an annulment. Catholic annulments can be offered for all sorts of things that show that “something essential was lacking at the time of the exchange of vows.”

(See the Archdiocese of Vancouver question-answer page. Vancouver isn’t the archdiocese I called, fwiw.)

This means that there are a lot of divorced Catholics around who want a second chance at marriage within their religion and that need their church’s permission in order to proceed. So… they go and tell the tribunal what happened in their marriages and ask the tribunal to make judgements in their favor. After a while, the tribunals begin to be experts on the different kinds of conflicts that occur within marriage.

The Catholic tribunals use a Code of Cannon Law to guide cases they hope will help their members, when appropriate, find peace and move on with their lives after divorce.

One of their codes allows for annulments when people have some sort of condition that interferes with marriage. And that’s where high-functioning autism comes in: autism is a condition that interferes with marriage.

In a nutshell, the Catholic tribunals know about autism (while the civil court systems don’t) because the Code of Cannon Law takes conditions like autism into account and because Catholics seeking remarriage after divorce will report autism as one of the reasons their past marriages failed.

The father I spoke to knew a lot more about autism and marriage than most of the autism professionals I talk to. It was clear that he was a rare expert at dealing with mixed-neurological conflict, whether or not he liked it.

Here are a few highlights of what the father told me he had experienced while trying to determine whether or not annulments could be granted when typically developing partners claimed autism prevented their marriages from being “a call to mutual self-giving for the good of the spouses and the nurturing of children” (Archdiocese of Vancouver):

  1. Often the partner with autism isn’t diagnosed and won’t seek or accept a diagnosis. At the same time, the typically developing parter insists that the diagnosis is accurate.
  2. Annulments that include autism are very contentious.
  3. The mixed-neurological divorces are also very contentious in civil courts. Many of them are fault divorces. The partner with autism is generally the one who files fault and aggresses first in court.
  4. The civil divorces take a long time to complete.
  5. There are a lot of confusing back-and-forth claims by both partners that the tribunal must try to make sense of.
  6. When the tribunal makes a judgement against the partner with autism, the partner with autism may go so far as to appeal to Rome.
  7. The parter with autism can’t understand the way he or she is contributing to the conflict and feels like a victim without taking into account the way that he or she is victimizing the other partner. This demonstrates the lack of self-awareness in marriage that the Catholic church believes justifies annulments even when no diagnosis is claimed or made.
  8. The fathers have come to conclusion that they need to do whatever they can to support the partners with autism through the trauma of the process because it is so difficult and overwhelming for them — and that sometimes supporting them means challenging them and telling them that they’re wrong.
  9. When reviewing the histories of the marriages, the fathers can see that the partners with autism were not able to connect with their typically developing partners in a manner that demonstrated they were capable of the “mutual self-giving” expected in Catholic marriages.
  10. The fathers can see that the way partners with autism are behaving in the tribunals indicates that annulments for autism are justified.
  11. The fathers can see that the partners with autism remain unconvinced that they are doing anything wrong even while they are hurting their ex-spouses and that they continue to blame all the problems in the marriage on their ex-spouses rather than looking at themselves.
  12. When an annulment for autism can’t be made because the partner with autism does not accept a diagnosis, annulments can be made based on the partner with autism’s inability to be self-aware within the marriage.

From what I gathered, the father’s experiences with mixed-neurological divorces were fairly extreme. His opinion was that the Catholic tribunals became places where vindictiveness came to fruition when the civil court systems didn’t allow enough leverage.

At the same time, he was very kind and wise. He could see that both partners were sincerely suffering and in need of support and help. The typically developing partners needed an opportunity to heal and go on with their lives and the partners with autism needed support in letting things go and in understanding that winning a fight isn’t really winning when your ex-partner gets hurt.

I left the conversation feeling a great deal of respect for the father who was trying hard to help people in difficult situations and for both members of the mixed-neurological couples who are doing their best without enough understanding or support.

I also left with an affirmed commitment that any system, civil or religious, that promotes conflict through establishing any incentive for ex-spouses to blame each other and fight — including the incentive of an annulment — is harmful to families.

I am not Catholic, so perhaps it’s difficult for me to understand why a tribunal needs to be held and why fingers need to be pointed at all. From my vantage point, the efforts spent on tribunals would be better expended in healing and providing resources and support for both partners.

Partners with autism need help understanding how autism causes problems during divorce so that they recover more quickly and easily. Typically developing partners need rules that protect them from conflict rather than rules that promote it through systems that allow for fighting and fault.


I provide support for mixed-neurological divorce. Learn more:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *