Explaining an Annulment

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Fr. William Saunders

A Protestant friend of mine had a question about annulments, and after my explanation, said, "Sounds like Catholic divorce." Could you explain the matter better?—A reader in Annandale

Before addressing the issue of an annulment, we must first have a clear understanding of marriage. When the Pharisees questioned our Lord about divorce, He replied: "Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and declared, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one'? Thus, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God has joined" (Mt 19:3-6).

Given this teaching, we as Catholics believe that when a baptized Christian man freely marries a baptized Christian woman, they form an indissoluble, sacramental bond. This union is evidenced in the vows they exchange: "I tale you to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part" (Rite of Marriage). These vows express a love that is permanent, exclusive, faithful, self-giving and life-giving.

Moreover, we must never forget that marriage is indeed a sacrament. The Lord Himself gives the couple the grace to live the marriage. By turning to the Lord each day and imploring His assistance, by rejoicing in the countless blessings they share as well as sharing their crosses with Him, the husband and wife will have a strong marriage. Recently, a dear friend's father died who had been married to his wife for 66 years. Imagine, 66 years of marriage to the same person. This couple faced the regular routine of life , war and peace, economic depression and abundance, good health and medical problems; they faced burying one of their own children; and they faced their own personal and family difficulties. Yet, they had a strong faith in God and in each other. They never stopped believing in their vows. That faith and the grace of God kept their marriage strong. One could honestly see that "the two had become one."

Sadly, though, divorce does occur. The state court considers marriage as a contract, not as a sacrament. The divorce decree establishes the rights of both parties, and now legally, the former spouses can marry again civilly. However, in the eyes of God and the Church, an indissoluble sacramental marriage is presumed to have occurred: "Marriage enjoys the favor of the law; consequently, when a doubt exists, the validity of a marriage is to be upheld until the contrary is proven" (<Code of Canon Law>, No. 1060). One cannot deny that the couple exchanged those vows before God, their family and their friends, and indeed the whole Church, and those witnesses presume the vows were freely exchanged and sincere , "until death do us part." Therefore, no one can just pretend that the marriage never took place and remarry.

The Church sincerely tries to help those individuals who have suffered the tragedy of divorce as well as to hold true to the teachings of our Lord. A person who is divorced may petition the Church to review the marriage and investigate whether a full, free-willed consent (as much as any person can give) was exchanged at the time of the wedding. The <Code of Canon Law> specifies that "matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman, through an irrevocable covenant, mutually give and accept each other to establish marriage" (No. 1057.2)

If the Church determines that a defect in the consent existed at the time of the marriage, then a Declaration of Nullity (an annulment) would be granted. Such a declaration proclaims that one or both parties did not (or could not), give a full, free-willed consent, and therefore no indissoluble, sacramental bond was established. Yes, a ceremony took place, but no sacrament occurred.

In investigating these cases, the Tribunal of the diocese carefully examines the circumstances of the couples at the time of the marriage; such circumstances include their age and maturity; a pattern of alcohol, drug or any substance abuse; physical or emotional abuse in their personal history and in their relationship; deviant sexual practices; any conditions placed upon the marriage or attempts to marry; and the ability to enter a permanent, faithful, exclusive union. In examining these circumstances and how they impact upon the couple's ability to make a full, free-willed consent, the Tribunal looks at the couple's relationship during the courtship, the time of marriage, and their life lived in marriage. The Tribunal will also ask for witnesses who knew the couple during this time frame and contact them to answer specific questions. Moreover, the proceedings are done under strict confidentiality.

Sometimes people ask, "If a marriage is annulled, does this make the children illegitimate?" The Declaration of Nullity simply states that a sacramental marriage did not take place and therefore both parties are now free to marry. The declaration has no civil bearing on the legitimacy of children.

Another question arises concerning the status of a divorced person in the Church. Since divorce involves a civil decree by the state and is not recognized by the Church, a divorced person remains in good standing and may receive the sacraments. However, if a divorced person remarries without a Declaration of Nullity, then strictly speaking, an act of adultery is committed; since the first marriage still is presumed valid, remarriage without an annulment places the person in a state of mortal sin. Therefore, the Church encourages a divorced person who may think he may one day remarry to see his parish priest and pursue the annulment process.

The Church must be very careful in administering this annulment process. In 1968, 338 annulments were granted in the United States; in 1990, 62,824 were granted. (79,067 Declarations of Nullity were granted for the entire Church throughout the world, revealing the disproportionate number in the United States.) Never should the Church give the impression that the annulment process is merely a burdensome, rubber-stamping, hoop-jumping game which eventually leads to a guaranteed annulment. No such guarantee exists. Never should a couple enter marriage thinking, "Well, if it doesn't work out, I can always get it annulled." Rather, we must teach and uphold that marriage is for life. Couples should be encouraged to spiritually prepare for entering the sacrament of marriage and for making a Christ-centered marriage.

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the May 16, 1996 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.