Suppose that the Catholic Church is infallible, and that one or more of its bishops grants an annulment, which presumes that a legitimate ‘marriage’ never took place but only appeared to, when in fact it only appears that the marriage never took place, but it, in fact, did. This scenario seems plausible, at least on the face of it; the Bishop who granted the annulment may have done so only after having been lied to by those whose object it was to receive an annulment. Alternatively perhaps the Bishop, as the result of a morally confused but genuine care for the well being and happiness of the people in his care, declared a previous marriage annulled on faulty grounds. Notice that an annulment is different from what is called the “Pauline Privilege” (where two people who are married civilly, but not sacramentally – and neither of whom are Baptized, are released from their marital vows by the Church). On the presumption that the Catholic Church is Infallible, and that some annulment is granted by the Bishop when in fact a legitimate and indissoluble marriage had taken place, there are two possible options.
The first is to claim that the Bishops are protected from all error in exercising their pastoral office when it comes to annulments, such that even if it appears that they have erred, they have not. This view may not seem abstractly difficult, but it may lack plausibility for people who have experienced themselves or others go through annulment processes where what seems to have been a legitimate marriage was annulled.
The second option is to say that the granting of annulments is a discipline in which the Holy Spirit does not actively protect the Bishops from error. Instead, the Bishops simply act as moral guides for the sake of the health of the people of God. Thus, such mistakes are either the moral fault of the swindlers who misinformed the Bishop, or else the fault of the Bishop who was more concerned with appeasing people than protecting them from moral harm (if indeed the Bishop should have known better, and was not being misinformed). Thus the weight of the whole sin would be placed on the shoulders of the Bishop who granted the annulment which he should not have granted, rather than to the people who received it trusting in the Bishop’s decision. The hands of the ‘adulterers’ would be as clean as the hands of a woman who remarried after a wartime tragedy brought about her Husband’s ‘apparent’ death, even though her Husband was, in fact, still alive somewhere.