Recently, several people have asked me about annulments, so I thought it might be helpful if I addressed that subject in some detail here for the benefit of all of you.
God’s Purpose for Marriage
Rarely does one enter marriage with the intention of later divorcing. Yet, in recent decades the divorce rate in the US is sky-high and our society now accepts divorce as, almost, an expected outcome. That is not what God intended.
The nature of the marital union of a man and a woman
is distinct from all other bonds between human beings.
The nature of the marital union of a man and a woman is distinct from all other bonds between human beings; for there is no other union intended by God for procreation. That is the purpose which essentially determines the specific character of this union as distinct from all other forms of loving communions. It is the very means through which God shares His life-giving work with human beings. For this reason, Jesus said “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” [Mt 19:5-6].
The Catholic Church holds that all married couples are divinely-joined
(i.e., their marriage is “valid”) unless evidence shows otherwise to the
level of moral certainty.
The Catholic Church holds that all married couples are divinely-joined (i.e., their marriage is “valid”) unless evidence shows otherwise to the level of moral certainty [Canon 1060 of the Code of Canon Law]. Consequently, unless one's spouse has died, the Church requires a divorced person to obtain a declaration of nullity before marrying someone else.
The Centrality of the Promise
Sadly, many marriages fail these days because couples have grown up in a cultural and social setting that does not foster, indeed in many ways actively opposes, the level of self-giving called for in a valid marriage. In many ways, divorce is seen as a “normal state of affairs.” Each year, more than two million couples in the US start out promising each other: “I take you as my spouse … ‘till death do us part.” But nearly half don’t make it through eight years together. 1 What did they miss?
The Annulment process offers healing and an opportunity
for what God had intended in marriage.
To answer the question, what did they miss? we turn to the Catholic Annulment process for help. The Annulment process gives divorced persons a chance to see anew what they missed. It offers healing and an opportunity for what God had intended in marriage, either with each other, if they remarry each other, or if they marry someone else.
The words: “I take you as my spouse … ‘till death do us part” are an unconditional promise. There’s no “if you this then I’ll that” about it. As human beings, we’re not inclined to make such unconditional promises. We hang onto the idea of “assured fairness,” in our dealings with others. So, it takes something special, something God-given to live out such a promise.
Well, in the sacrament of Matrimony, when each one promises to love the other as God loves, without conditions, God is so pleased that He showers down on them all the graces they will ever need to live out that promise, if they will just trust in Him. God will make them channels of His blessings to each other that no one else in the world can be.
In Matrimony, it’s all in the promise, the promise the couple
makes to each other, the promise God makes to them.
Sadly, today many do not understand this, or they forget it, or they may not have known it in the first place. But this is the God-given something that will enable them to overcome the many challenges life will throw at them in their years together. You see, in Matrimony, it’s all in the promise, the promise the couple makes to each other, the promise God makes to them. Yes, at a wedding, it’s all in the promise not in the trappings.
If something is missing from the promise, at the time the promise is made, the marriage will be invalid - not in a civil contract sense, but in the divinely-joined sense Jesus spoke of in Mt 19:5-6. The Annulment process focuses on the time of the wedding promise, not the time of the marriage failure. In the Annulment process, there is no fault-finding, no rehashing of old wounds, no bitter accusations; rather it opens the way to see more clearly what the couple had overlooked at the start – a chance to learn from past mistakes, grow and heal from gaining new insights. The Annulment process can be and, for many, is a profound eye-opening experience.
The Annulment process is initiated by one of the divorced persons making a Petition to the office in the Church called the Tribunal to review the time of the Petitioner’s and their former spouse’s promise to determine whether the couple was divinely-joined or not.
The Catholic Church has relied, for many centuries, on
six necessary conditions for a couple to be divinely-joined.
So, what does the Tribunal look for in making a morally-certain determination? Clearly there is no heavenly record to consult, so the Tribunal must begin with the premise that all couples (Catholics, non-Catholics, no religion at all, etc.) have been divinely-joined, unless or until evidence shows otherwise. This is necessary because all people are children of God capable of doing His will and promising to love as He loves.
The Catholic Church has relied, for many centuries, on the following six necessary conditions for a couple to be divinely-joined: 2
1. both persons are free to marry;
2. both are capable of giving their full consent to marry;
3. both freely exchange their consent, each intending:
§ the good of each other, to marry for life and be faithful to one another;
4. in consenting to marry, each has the intention:
§ to be open to having and raising children;
5. their consent is given:
· in the presence of two witnesses, and
· before a properly authorized minister.
[if one or both are Catholic, the ceremony must be
in an approved location and the minister must
have proper faculties to perform the wedding]
It’s important that we notice the necessary conditions include the two co-essential ends, or intentions of marriage [Canon 1055 §1]:
· the good of each other, exclusive for the whole of life (called: bonum conjugum)
· openness to having and raising children (called: bonum prolis).
Let’s now consider an example of something essential that might be missing at the time of the promise. Say we have a young man and woman at their wedding ceremony. At the moment of her promise, in her mind, the young woman is excited to be getting married, but she has decided that she is not ready for children, not yet - maybe later. [In the Catholic Rite of Marriage, the minister specifically asks each one of them ”Will you accept children from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church?” The minister waits for an affirmative reply from each one of them.] In our example, the vows were exchanged, and the ceremony ended with great joy and hope.
But, if she was not ready for children yet, then she was not ready for marriage yet either. A valid marriage involves total giving of self. The young woman did not promise to love as God loves, with no conditions. She entered the marriage withholding her fertility from their union. Consequently, the couple was not divinely-joined. They have begun an invalid marriage.
The abundant sacramental graces God offered were not accepted. An essential element of the promise was missing. They may be in a valid marriage according to civil law, but they are not in a valid marriage according to God’s plan for mankind, as entrusted to the Church by Jesus Christ: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” [Mt 18:18].
The Annulment process is not adversarial, it is enlightening and healing.
It’s important to stress that there is not a matter of fault here. The Annulment process is not adversarial, it is enlightening and healing. It’s quite likely that neither the young woman nor the young man was aware of the defect in the consent at the moment of the promise. In recent times, we have been sorely lacking in our preparing young people, well before they become engaged, for undertaking valid marriages and what is required of them.
If later the couple divorces, they may have ended their civil marriage but, in the eyes of the Church, they are still married to each other, unless or until evidence shows otherwise. Here is where the Annulment process can be of great help and healing for them. In our example, the defect in the consent, just described, is clear grounds for an annulment. Using the assistance of a nullity minister in their parish, one of them, called the Petitioner, may petition the Church for an annulment, citing the grounds just described. The other member of the couple is called the Respondent, since they are asked to “respond” to a notice from the Church that an annulment of the marriage has been petitioned.
The Petitioner is asked to provide the Church with several witnesses who knew him/her well at the time of the wedding, The witnesses then provide to the Tribunal written testimony addressing the grounds cited by the Petitioner. If the Tribunal finds the testimony sufficiently convincing, the Tribunal can then make a morally certain determination that the couple was not divinely-joined and issue a decree of annulment. The two people are then able to carry on in life, healed of their heartbreaking experience with marriage, and with valuable insights into avoiding a future failed marriage and receiving in the future the abundant graces God showers on those who promise to love as He loves.
The stage of gathering written testimony from witnesses is
typically the most time-consuming part of the Annulment process.
The stage of gathering written testimony from witnesses is typically the most time-consuming part of the Annulment process. Unfortunately, there are witnesses who don’t respond, claiming they don’t want to get involved. For some others, their testimony is so vaguely worded that it does not adequately support the grounds the Petitioner cited. In the case of our example, the young woman may not have, leading up to the wedding, shared with anyone her intentions about not having children, so the witnesses could not honestly confirm the grounds she cited.
There are a number of ways in which there may have been
substantial defect in the consent at the time of the wedding.
If, after some reasonable amount of time and tries, the testimony gathered fails to convince the Tribunal that the couple was not divinely-joined, the Tribunal must decline the petition for annulment. Their judgement is final, with regard to the grounds cited in that petition. However, there are a number of other ways in which there may have been substantial defect in the consent at the time of the wedding.
Some of these require no witnesses at all, document evidence is enough. For example, Canon 1118 §1 requires that a marriage between Catholics or between a Catholic party and a non-Catholic baptized party is to be celebrated in a Catholic parish church. It can be celebrated in another church or oratory only with the permission of the local bishop or pastor.
In our example, if the wedding involved a Catholic and the marriage ceremony took place in a backyard garden or at some wedding venue destination, the marriage certificate alone would show that the ceremony did not conform to required “canonical form.” Under such grounds, an annulment would be granted; the Catholic party had not expressed their consent in the manner required by their Catholic faith. Matrimony is a sacrament [Canon 1055] and sacraments are celebrated in churches. In short, working in earnest with the parish nullity minister can surface the potential grounds on which to petition for an annulment.
An annulment is, then, an ecclesiastical pronouncement declaring that what was previously thought to be a valid marriage was not, in fact, valid. The couple may have been married in the civil sense (their children are legitimate, etc.) but they were not married in the divinely-joined sense. The Church believes that marriage is a lifelong bond [cf. Mt 19:1-10]; therefore, unless one's spouse has died, the Church requires a divorced person to obtain a declaration of nullity before marrying someone else or before actually becoming a Catholic.
It bears repeating, the Annulment process is not some legalistic chore to be endured by those who wish to remarry. It is a “chance to see it anew,” an invitation to healing of their heartbreaking experience with marriage, offering valuable insights into avoiding a future failed marriage and receiving in the future the abundant graces God showers on those who promise to love as He loves.
‘Till next time,
Dcn. Bob Evans
June 6, 2023
Matthew 19:5-6; Matthew 18:18; Matthew 19:1-10
1. Pew Research Center, Marriage and Cohabitation in the U.S., Nov 5, 2019.
2. USCCB, What is an Annulment? 2009.