LEVITTOWN, Pa. (CNS) — There’s an inherent tension between upholding the indissolubility of sacramental marriage and bringing pastoral care to those whose marriages have failed, according to a canon law professor and ethics professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

American culture has rejected many aspects of the Catholic view of marriage, and the Catholic annulment process is poorly understood by many Catholics.

Father John Beal, a professor of canon law at the university, has spent 22 years there training people to work in diocesan tribunals, or church courts. He called the annulment process a triage method of dealing with “the victims of the culture wars,” an attempt to “pick up the wounded and bandage them up.”

But he noted that attempts to be pastoral are up against what is essentially a legal proceeding involving witnesses and objective evidence in an attempt to determine whether at the time of the wedding the couple was entering a valid sacramental marriage, and there are still some rough edges to that process.

John Grabowski, associate professor and director of morality and ethics at Catholic University, noted that if annulments are too easy to obtain — if the annulment becomes, as it is in the eyes of many, a “Catholic divorce,” just an extra hoop that divorcing Catholics have to jump through — our understanding of the indissolubility of marriage may be undermined.

And along with Father Beal, he noted that Jesus “was unequivocal on this,” pointing out that in all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus is cited as rejecting divorce. “We can’t ignore our Lord’s words,” Grabowski said.

Wider knowledge of the availability of the annulment process has, though, given divorced Catholics a sense that the church is open to their plight, and this goes back to reforms introduced under Pope Paul VI in 1972, Father Beal said.

When he began working in the tribunal in his home Diocese of Erie in 1980, the process had begun to really open up, and he and his colleagues were working with a backlog of cases dating back to World War II. The U.S. bishops had gotten permission to streamline the process, and couples who had previously been unable to get through the door of the tribunal were seeking reconciliation with the church.

This led to complaints in some quarters that too many annulments were being granted by the church in the United States. There are at least two reasons for the large numbers.

The first is simply that the country has a large population, and “we live in a culture that does not generally accept the Catholic understanding and expectation of marriage” — a lifelong faithful union between a man and a woman with having and nurturing children as one of its principal goals, Father Beal said.

“Of course there are going to be a lot of people who enter marriage” with ideas that differ from Catholic understanding, and those marriages are “therefore, from our point of view, invalid,” the priest said. “Our culture doesn’t understand marriage the way we do.”

The culture sees marriage as a union of two people who care for each other, who may or may not desire children, and who may hope to live “happily ever after,” but see the possibility of divorce if things don’t go well.

By that definition, allowing same-sex couples to legally marry has found growing support across the country. The Catholic Church teaches that marriage can only be between one man and one woman.

Another reason for the large number of annulments in the U.S. is that there tend to be more annulments in wealthy countries, just as there are more divorces.

Grabowski said there is an issue of justice in this fact, because it implies that countries too poor to support tribunals may not offer the possibility of annulment to a Catholic who might have ended an invalid marriage and desire an annulment to enter a valid Catholic marriage with another spouse.

He emphasized that an annulment is not a way “to break a marriage.” The church, he said, has no authority to undo a sacramental marriage. Sacraments, he said, are acts of Christ in the church and annulment cannot undo a sacrament.

Grabowski said he hopes a new panel established by Pope Francis to reform the annulment process and the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, opening Oct. 5, will look at the ways “we need to better minister to families” whether or not they have suffered divorce or obtained annulments, so that they in turn can be ministers of the new evangelization, not only as objects but as subjects of evangelization. And, he said, “so that they can experience the church as a place of healing and not a place of judgment and condemnation.”