Marriage Is Indissoluble. The Church teaches, as does Jesus in Mt
19:9, that every Christian marriage is indissoluble except by the death of one of the
spouses. No power on earth can dissolve a ratified and consummated union of two baptized
Christians (one in which vows have been validly exchanged and which has been later
consummated by intercourse).
A valid marriage requires the proper intention at the time that the vows are
exchanged. The parties must intend to make a marriage, which by definition is a
life-long communion open to new human life. These are called the unitive and procreative
meanings of marriage. If either of the two meanings of marriage (an indissoluble union and
procreation) are excluded by the will of either the man or the woman no
marriage is made on the wedding day (canon 1096).
For example, someone who has no intention of being faithful cannot make a marriage
since at the very time of exchanging vows he or she precludes the life-long fidelity that
is intrinsic to marriage. This is often demonstrated right at the beginning, or shortly
thereafter, by infidelity. Or, someone who intends to exclude the possibility of children
does not validly marry. (Those who cannot have children due to age or infertility are NOT
meant here, but only those who could bear children but intend to avoid this marital
It should be noted that if a valid marriage is made on the wedding day later infidelity
or a contraceptive will would not invalidate it. It is only when the will of either party
in making the marriage contradicts the Plan of God from the beginning of marriage that it
is invalid. The Church accepts every marriage as valid until proven otherwise, however
What a decree of Nullity Is. An annulment, properly called a Decree of
Nullity, is a finding by a Church tribunal that ON THE DAY VOWS WERE EXCHANGED at least
some essential element for a valid marriage was lacking, such as, one of the parties did
not intend lifelong fidelity to the other person or excluded children entirely. Another
example would be that one of the parties was incapable of marriage (due to some
constitutional weakness, such as mental illness or some psychological condition that
prevented making the marital commitment - gross immaturity, homosexuality, etc.).
None of these conditions are assumed they must be proven. A Decree of Nullity does NOT
dissolve the marriage, it cannot. It is a reasoned judgement that one never existed, and
as such is capable of human error. If the tribunal is fastidious to Church law and
theology and the couple and their witnesses are honest, the decision can be followed in
good-faith, including a new marriage. If someone is ABUSING the process through deceit,
however, it would be a very grave sin for that person. A person who innocently enters a
second marriage would not be guilty of sin, but the person who abused the process to
fraudulently obtain a decree in order to remarry would commit adultery by remarrying.
An "annulment" does NOT concern whether the marriage was a happy one, whether
one of the spouses LATER became unfaithful, or LATER decided not to have children, but
only their INTENTION on the wedding day. If a marriage was made THAT day it is a life-long
bond, irrespective of what happened later in the marriage. To "annul" a marriage
based on "failure to achieve communion" or some other factor not recognized by
the Holy See (as has been done) is not a decree of nullity at all but a divorce. Such
decisions are a source of grave scandal in the Church and are both canonically and morally
The Tribunal Process. The process of obtaining a Decree of Nullity
entails submitting the facts of the marriage, with supporting witnesses, to the diocesan
marriage tribunal. Either party can do this. Then after a evaluation of these facts a
judgment on the validity of the marriage is made. A second court, usually a neighboring
diocese, must verify the judgment and it must be approved by one's bishop. Whatever
decision is made, it may be appealed to the Roman Rota (the Holy See's court for
Since this is a voluntary process most dioceses have a fee to cover administrative
costs. If this fee is a hardship an individual should ask that it be waived.
Marriage After a Decree. If a Decree of Nullity is given the couple
are free to marry, unless the condition that led to the invalidity (e.g. lack of
intention, mental illness, incapacitating immaturity) still exists. Then the person who
has that condition is still incapable of marriage, but the other person may marry.
Internal Forum. Sometimes it is suggested to individuals or couples
that they can resolve marital issues concerning a first marriage in the "internal
forum." This means essentially in the confessional or in the privacy of their
conscience. Someone who is divorced and remarried will be told that they do not have to
seek a Decree of Nullity to validate the present marriage, rather being convinced in their
own conscience that their first marriage was invalid they can return to the sacraments.
This is not, however, the case. Marriage is not a private affair but a social institution,
one safeguarded by the Church according to the will of Christ. The Holy See has ruled out
the internal forum solution as a valid way of resolving marital validity questions. Such
issues must be submitted to the Church's canonical processes (a marriage tribunal).
Questions? Anyone who is uncertain about his or her
marital status, wants to return to the sacraments after divorce and re-marriage (not
having first obtained an annulment) or desires greater clarity concerning such issues
should seek the advice of their diocese's Tribunal. The complexity of these issues
requires individual attention, such as cannot be provided by a Forum such as this.
Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL