The marriage tribunal was in session in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. Three priests sat at a large table, on which they placed a tape recorder. One took notes. A 30-year-old divorced social worker seeking an annulment sat before them, answering questions about her former marriage, her parents' marriage, her siblings' marriages, her childhood, her dating history, her sexual habits, her work habits, her drinking habits, and why her "union" had not produced any children.

"I felt like I was under an inquisition," the woman said last week, requesting anonymity because she is awaiting a decision from the priests. "After leaving that interview I almost said, forget it. It was just really a creepy feeling. It felt invasive. I thought, who were these people to be judging me?"

More and more Catholics are daring to ask aloud these days whether the annulment process is honest, fair or even necessary. Annulment is a ruling by a church tribunal that a couple's marriage was never actually valid under church law, raising emotional concerns for some about their family's integrity.

For every loyal Catholic who finds the process healing and helpful, there seems to be another who finds it painful and patronizing. Nine out of 10 divorcing Catholics simply ignore the process, even though those who remarry outside the church are not permitted to go to confession or receive Holy Communion.

The annulment controversy has been thrown into the spotlight by the former wives of two Democratic lawmakers from Massachusetts, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and Sen. John F. Kerry. Both women have publicly challenged the annulment efforts of their prominent ex-husbands.

These high-profile appeals have opened a window on what is a mostly modern, largely American and often misunderstood phenomenon in the Catholic Church. Before 1910, perhaps 100 annulment cases had been considered anywhere in the world, Catholic scholars say. In 1968, 450 were granted, and rumor spread that they were reserved for the well-known and well-heeled.

Now annulments are an increasingly accepted part of Catholic life in this country, for both the wealthy and the working class. In the United States, 54,463 annulments were granted in 1994, the most recent year for which statistics are available, out of 72,744 worldwide. The Catholic Church here spends well over $20 million each year subsidizing the operations of the marriage tribunals, according to the Canon Law Society, an independent association of church lawyers.

For its high annulment rate, the American church has come under criticism from Pope John Paul II, and from both ends of the spectrum. Conservative traditionalists say the process is too lenient -- one Vatican official called it a "grave scandal"; liberal reformers, meanwhile, say the church should drop the pretense, accept that some marriages simply fail and recognize civil divorce.

"There's got to be a better way," said the Rev. George R. Fitzgerald, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Boulder, Colo., as he leafed through a file of 15 annulment cases he is currently screening. "I know a lot of priests who really feel that we have to take another look at {annulments}, because there are so many people applying for them . . . You're really forcing people to do something that they in conscience don't believe in."

Tribunal judges say the typical case these days involves Catholics under 35 who have been married less than five years. Almost a quarter of those seeking annulments are divorced non-Catholics who want to convert to Catholicism or to remarry a Catholic. The rarer, and more difficult, cases are those involving a couple married a decade or more, who have children and obviously spent at least some happy years together.

"We're more reluctant to look at long-time marriages," said the Rev. David O'Connor, who serves on the tribunal in the Diocese of Washington and teaches courses in marriage at Washington Theological Union. "When people quickly separate, we almost feel by instinct something is wrong."

The issue has become front-page news in Massachusetts and a political embarrassment for Kennedy as he gears up for a possible run for governor next year. Sheila Rauch Kennedy is appealing the annulment of her marriage to the the Vatican's highest court. She and Kennedy, who have twin sons, ended their 12-year marriage in 1991, and the congressman later married one of his staffers.

Sheila Kennedy fought the annulment at every stage, a battle she describes in a new book "Shattered Faith." She writes that the church declared that her marriage "never existed," and that if she agreed she would be "lying before God" and before her children. Annulment does not make children illegitimate in the eyes of either the church or the civil society.

Kerry ended his 18-year marriage to Julia Thorne in 1988; they have two grown children. The senator, who in 1995 married Teresa Heinz, the widow of Sen. John Heinz, has applied to the Archdiocese of Washington to annul his first marriage. Thorne recently opposed the annulment in a letter calling the process "hypocritical, anti-family and dishonest."

In Catholic teaching, matrimony is one of the seven sacraments, which include baptism and penance, that form the principal liturgical rites through which humans experience the love and grace of God. A truly sacramental marriage properly performed in a Catholic rite is supposed to be indissoluble, even by civil courts. The teaching is based on a saying by Jesus: "What God has joined together, let man not separate."

Until recent decades, divorce was a terrible stigma among Catholics. Before 1977, U.S. Catholics who divorced and remarried without an annulment were automatically excommunicated. That has changed. But it is still true that divorced Catholics who do not receive an annulment may not remarry in a Catholic ceremony.

Only one spouse need apply for an annulment, but the other must be informed and allowed to respond. A finalized civil divorce is a prerequisite. Fees are typically about $450, but the church says they may be waived or reduced in hardship cases.

The applicant usually begins by talking to a parish priest, deacon or a field advocate, who tries to screen out cases likely to fail. More solid cases are forwarded to the local diocese's marriage tribunal, a panel of church lawyers. While once only priests sat on these tribunals, some dioceses now include women, both nuns and laywomen.

Some dioceses require a written essay or an interview. They are looking for evidence that the marriage was doomed to fail from the beginning. They can quiz siblings, parents, friends, co-workers, doctors and psychologists. Some applicants or their spouses are asked to undergo a psychological exam.

The person seeking the annulment is assigned an "advocate" to argue their case. On the other side is the defense attorney for the marriage -- the "defender of the bond." The ultimate decision is made by as many as three judges, depending on the diocese, and automatically reevaluated by an appeals court. The whole process can take from a year to 18 months, and longer if it is contested.

Until 30 years ago, the church mostly granted annulments in unusual circumstances such as mental illness, bigamy, failure to consummate the marriage or refusal to have children.

The man who laid the groundwork that essentially unleashed the liberal ization of the process is now the theologically conservative bishop of Arlington. In his 1964 doctoral dissertation in Rome, then-Rev. John Richard Keating of Chicago wrote that psychological factors could cause the bride or groom to be essentially incapable of assuming the responsibility of marriage, an approach solidified at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

"The courts in Rome began to take into account the findings of behavioral sciences and apply that to understanding the qualities necessary to exchange consent in marriage. It told us much about how the human psyche works," said the Rev. Patrick Cogan, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America. "There may be a basic incompatibility in the beginning and the couple didn't realize it."

"Lack of due discretion of judgment" is the basis for about 75 percent of American annulments today, including that of Kennedy. Divorcees can claim that as a bride or groom they were emotionally immature, or incapable of commitment or fidelity.

Many Catholics see the church's shift in approach as compassionate because it enables previously shunned people to stay in the church. For some Catholics, an annulment is "therapeutic" because the church absolves them of blame or guilt, said Mary Ann Spina, 46, a pastoral associate at St. Symphorosa Church in Chicago, who initially resisted when her husband sought an annulment after 10 years of marriage.

"It helped me get to the point of saying, I'm a good person and he's a good person. We were just not right together. And it helped me to let that go," said Spina, who now helps the diocese screen annulment cases. "It was very painful while I was doing it, but it really helped me to see things."

But it is precisely the necessity to claim retroactive incompatibility that troubles so many Catholics. They say the process essentially forces people to lie. Twenty-three Catholic reform organizations signed a statement in February calling for the church to return to "the tradition of the first 1,100 years that allowed divorce and remarriage in appropriate circumstances."

The church's current policy is "rank hypocrisy," said Charles N. Davis, 64, a retired intelligence analyst from Virginia who drafted the reform statment. Davis's marriage broke up after 17 years and four children, but he refused to seek an annulment. "I am in no way going to go and say there was an impediment that could be discerned from the beginning. If you see that at the beginning, you wouldn't get into the marriage."

"I was married 19 years, and I can't honestly say I didn't know what I was getting into," said Lisa Grambow, 47, of Fairfax, a physical therapist and divorced Catholic who refused to get an annulment and will remarry next month outside the church. Her fiance, David Hepburn, 48, also a divorced Catholic, said that since most Catholic parishes insist that couples attend intensive marriage preparation sessions, it is "absurd" to later claim they didn't know what they were doing.

Sometimes the spouse who caused the breakup leaves the partner feeling twice victimized, said the Rev. Patrick R. Lagges, adjutant judicial vicar in the Diocese of Chicago. "You have marriages where a woman put up with a guy's drinking for years, finally he left, abandoned her, and he turns around and applies for an annulment on the basis of his alcoholism. I hate those cases."

Almost half of Catholic marriages end in divorce, the same rate as for other Americans. Of those who applied in 1992 in the United States, according to Vatican statistics, 83 percent received annulments and 2 percent were denied. Fifteen percent of the cases were abandoned by the applicants.

So what becomes of the 90 percent of divorced Catholics who don't bother with annulments? The Canon Law Society says there are "several million baptized and remarried Catholics" estranged from the church because of their marital status. They go to non-Catholic churches, or they don't go to church at all.

And there are an uncountable number of remarried Catholics who remain in the Catholic Church and knowingly violate the rules by taking Communion. They find a parish where no one knows their background, or where the priest is sympathetic. Some priests will hear the confessions of parishioners who have refused to seek annulments and grant them absolution. This informal "good conscience solution," also known as the "internal forum," was formally proposed by three German bishops in 1993. The Vatican quickly squelched the suggestion. "Obviously I don't make it a point to announce my status to every priest I deal with," said one remarried Catholic in Virginia who ignored the annulment procedure but says he has never skipped a Sunday Mass. His parish priests know his status, he said, but "they're not following the rules either." CAPTION: GOING BACK TO THE BEGINNING Following are excerpts from a questionnaire from the Diocese of Arlington for those seeking annulment :

Were there any problems during the courtship and engagement which should have signaled future marital problems?

Were either of you pressured in any way to enter this marriage, e.g. parents, pregnancy, escaping from difficult home situation, long-term dating or cohabitation?

At the time of the marriage, did you (answer Yes or No) intend to marry for life? to remain faithful to your spouse? to have a family?

If there were no children born from the union, is there an explanation for this?

The following behavioral defects often appear in troubled marriages. Please check whether you feel this problem was yours, the respondent's or both. You may incude a brief comment on the major problems listed.

Immature attitudes Selfishness Inability to communicate Over-dependence on parents Family/parental interference Unreliability Irresponsible behavior Extreme mood swings Restlessness Frequent change of address Extreme nervousness Infidelity Sexual problems Unreasonable jealousy Unreasonable distrust Physical abuse Verbal abuse Drug use/abuse Excessive drinking Excessive gambling Excessive spending or misuse of money Erratic employment Preoccupations outside home, i.e. recreation, workaholic Homosexual tendencies History of family problems Health problems Excessive use of medication