Annulment 101

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the Catholic concept of annulment, even among Catholics — even among Catholics who have gotten one!  The topic — and the misunderstandings — comes up a lot on some of the blogs I frequent, so I’m writing a little primer here that I can point to when it does.  I should say that I’m not a priest or any sort of authority on the subject.  I’m just a person who has been through the process, studied it, and thinks he knows the score fairly well.

First of all, the correct term is “declaration of nullity.”  The word “annulment” is misleading because it sounds like you’re taking something that used to exist — a marriage — and making it null.  That isn’t the case.  “Declaration of nullity” means that the Church (usually the diocese, though some cases are passed to Rome) looks at the situation and declares that the marriage was null from the start.  It hasn’t been ended; it never existed in the first place.

This means that the reasons for a declaration of nullity must have preceded the ceremony.  Things that happen after the ceremony can’t retroactively invalidate it; it was valid when it happened or it wasn’t.  Impediments may include:

  • A shotgun wedding.  If the vows weren’t given freely, it didn’t happen.
  • Marriage between siblings or certain other relationships.  Prohibited by the Church, so it didn’t happen.
  • Marriage outside the Church without permission.  This can be done with permission under certain circumstances, but if you didn’t get that, it didn’t happen.
  • One or both parties are already married, even if only civilly.  That marriage must be declared null (if possible) before the new marriage can take place validly.
  • One party previously has taken a vow of chastity.
  • The man is impotent and knew this but did not reveal it.  The primary purpose of marriage is procreation, so while married people aren’t required to have children, a man who speaks the vows without telling his wife about this would be lying about his intentions.
  • Too young: under 14 for women and 16 for men, I think.
  • One party isn’t baptized.
  • One party wasn’t truly capable of taking the vows.  Traditionally, this meant cases of significant retardation, or perhaps someone who couldn’t understand the local language being used.  Today, this is the loophole through which many difficult cases pass: can you convince a tribunal that you or your spouse didn’t really know what you were vowing to do?

There are more, but those are the main ones I can think of.  As you can see, there are a lot of reasons a marriage could be null, and most Catholics don’t know about many of them.  Mixed marriages — marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics — probably account for the majority of them.  They are the most complicated ones, because of the promises that must be made about raising the children Catholic and not interfering with the practice of the Catholic’s faith.  If those promises weren’t made in good faith or weren’t understood by both parties, the dispensation may not have been valid, and that’s where you get some of the grayer-area cases.

Many annulments are quick because there is no question about them.  You got married to a non-Catholic without a dispensation: null.  Your spouse was already married and civilly divorced: null.  Those are easy, and they happen all the time, because people don’t know (or care about) the rules when they’re getting married in the first place.  So the idea that tribunals are rubber-stamping many annulments is true, but justified.  Many are that simple.

Then you get the more difficult ones, where none of the obvious impediments existed, so they’re left trying to figure out whether the people understood the vows well enough to commit to them, and that sort of thing.  It’s easy to see how that could be stretched to accommodate nearly any case — if your husband beats you, did he really take the vow to love and honor? — and yet a significant number of requests are still turned down.

So the system is warped, but not broken.  If we want to reduce the number of annulments, especially in the Catholic Church, part of that will mean getting stricter about the requirements again.  But more important than that, we have to get stricter about the requirements for marriage again.  We need to get back to teaching Catholic children that marriage should only be to other Catholics.  We need to teach them that marriage without a priest’s blessing is invalid.  We need to stop pushing couples through the marriage process because they’re already shacking up or procreating, as if marriage puts an OK stamp on sin.  Couples need to go into marriage with their eyes wide open and all their “impediment” ducks in a row, so that annulments can go back to being for rare cases of real subterfuge again.


6 thoughts on “Annulment 101

  1. . We need to teach them that marriage without a priest’s blessing is invalid

    Does the Catholic Church teach that 2 nonCatholics (neither of whom have prior marriages) who get married in a nonCatholic ceremony, are actually just fornicating?

    If a nonCatholic married couple — Protestants, Buddhists, atheists, whatever — converts to Catholicism, must they marry each other again, in the Church, before they have sex again?

    Not trying to argue, just want to know.

  2. Again, I’m not a canon lawyer, but I’m pretty sure on your second question they would have to get their marriage blessed, after being baptized if they weren’t already. I’m not sure if they count as fornicators before that, because there are differences between invalid and illicit, and I didn’t get into all that. It also makes a difference whether it’s two non-baptized persons (called a “natural” marriage rather than sacramental) or one baptized and one not.

    There are more details here (including Scripture references):

  3. Would like to hear Anon’s take on the explosion of annulments since the mid 60’sm the vast majority of which have been adjudicated based on defective consent pursuant to canon 1095

  4. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts regarding the spouse who later joins the Church. Did their marriage never really happen simply because someone wasn’t baptized and/or wasn’t a Catholic? Correct me if I’m wrong, but my own understanding of what made the sacrament was the consent to joining as one– the priest doesn’t create the sacrament.

  5. Well, it gets complicated depending on whether both were baptized (not necessarily as Catholics; basically, all Trinitarian baptism is considered Catholic and valid) or just one or neither. All those are different cases. But yes, as you say, the marrying couple confer the sacrament on themselves; the priest only witnesses it. If both are baptized but marry outside the Church, then (I think, this is one of the tricky ones) the marriage may be valid but illicit, which gets into some legalisms beyond my level. On the other hand, if both (or maybe one) are not baptized, the Church considers that a “natural” marriage, not sacramental, and that’s a whole different thing.

    Anyway, in the case where a spouse later joins the Church, it would depend on how they got married. If the Catholic got a dispensation to marry a baptized non-Catholic, and a priest witnessed or blessed the nuptials, then there’s no problem with their marriage. If they just ran off to the Justice of the Peace or got married in the non-Catholic’s church without a dispensation, that’s an impediment of form and we’re back to that invalid/illicit thing again.

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