Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Ten Questions About Annulment
Annulment is a thorny issue for many Catholics and
widely misunderstood outside the Church. In this Update,
we—ll take a look at questions that commonly arise and how the Church
addresses them. When it comes to how annulments are handled, it—s
important to keep in mind that practices may vary slightly from
one diocese to the next, but the overall rules of the Church are
the same. The doctrine of marriage is that of the universal Church.
The Church—s practices around marriage and annulment are aimed at
protecting the sacrament of marriage, in order to help Catholics
live a fully sacramental life.
The Catholic Church presumes that marriages are valid, binding
spouses for life. When couples do separate and divorce, therefore,
the Church examines in detail their marriage to determine if, right
from the start, some essential element was missing in their relationship.
If that fact has been established, it means the spouses did not
have the kind of marital link that binds them together for life.
The Church then issues a declaration of nullity (an annulment)
and both are free to marry again in the Catholic Church.
1 On what grounds does the Church declare nullity
for some failed marriages?
In technical language, the most common reasons are
insufficiency or inadequacy of judgment (also known as lack of due
discretion, due to some factor such as young age, pressure to marry
in haste, etc.), psychological incapacity, and absence of a proper
intention to have children, be faithful, or remain together until
These grounds can manifest themselves in various
ways. For example, a couple, discovering her pregnancy, decide to
marry; only much later do they recognize the lack of wisdom in that
decision. Or one spouse carries an addictive problem with alcohol
or drugs into the marriage. Perhaps a person, unfaithful during
courtship, continues the infidelity after marrying.
In cases like these, the Church judges may decide
that something contrary to the nature of marriage or to a full,
free human decision prevents this contract from being sound or binding.
I begin this formal annulment process at the parish
level for about a dozen petitioners each year. My suggestion to
them as they approach the multi-page, perhaps daunting questionnaire
moves along these lines:
—As you reflect upon the marriage, ask yourself:
Was there something missing right from the start, something radically
wrong from day one? Before the wedding, were there warning signals,
red flags which you may have dismissed simply as the cold-feet anxieties
rather common for couples prior to a nuptial service? Did you suffer
deep difficulties early in your marital life and worry about them,
but, never having been married before, judged they were merely the
expected burdensome part of marriage? Now, perhaps years later,
you view them as symptomatic of a much more serious problem, a radical
malfunctioning in your relationship.—
2 Why must a divorced Catholic complete a complicated
Church annulment process before remarrying?
Jesus himself had strong words about marriage. The
Catholic Church believes it has a responsibility to follow the words
of Christ, both in teaching and in practice. Jesus gave a quite
blunt answer to those who raised the issue of marriage and divorce.
In the Gospel of Mark (10:11-12) he declared: —Whoever divorces
his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and the
woman who divorces her husband and marries another commits adultery.—
In the Gospel of Luke (16:18), written after the
Gospel of Mark, Jesus— declaration is almost identical: —Everyone
who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. The
man who marries a woman divorced from her husband likewise commits
During the exchange recorded by Mark, Christ referred
to words from the Old Testament Book of Genesis: —At the beginning
of creation God made them male and female: for this reason a man
shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become as one.
They are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore let no man separate
what God has joined— (Mark 10:6-9). Most if not all Scripture scholars
today maintain that these were Christ—s original words.
The complicated process of annulment then is a response
to the strength of this teaching. The Church presumes that marriages
are binding and lifelong. The annulment process helps to determine
if something essential was missing from the couple—s relationship
from the beginning that prevented the sacramental union that the
couple promised to each other.
3 How can you require an intended spouse who
is not a Catholic to endure this annulment process?
In simplest terms, if a Catholic wishes to marry
in the Church when there has been a previous marriage, then either
one of the partners in the earlier union must have died or the Church
must have issued a declaration of nullity, an annulment of that
previous marriage. Why is this so?
The Catholic Church views all marriages with respect. It presumes
that they are true or valid. Thus, it considers the marriages, for
example, of two Protestant, Jewish or even nonbelieving persons
to be binding in the eyes of God, unions covered by the words of
Christ about divorce. Consequently, it requires a Church annulment
process to establish that an essential ingredient in the relationship
was missing from the start of the previous marriage.
Such a requirement often represents an unpleasant challenge to
Protestant, Jewish or nonbelieving persons who wish to marry a Catholic
after the civil termination of a previous marriage. They may have
no difficulty with remarriage after divorce and even feel resentful
about the prospects of a Roman Catholic formal annulment procedure.
I would never try to explain or resolve this thorny and emotional
issue over the telephone, but only face-to-face. The explanations
above may help to clarify the issue, but negative feelings often
remain. After hearing their often painful stories and explaining
the Church—s procedures, I offer a comment along these lines: —The
only reason you would go through this process is out of love for
your prospective marriage partner. Without the annulment, marriage
in the Church is not validly possible. This is a prospect that will
trouble your intended spouse now and in the future. For you to complete
the procedure would be a great act of self-giving love.—
4 Who else besides the couple seeking a declaration
of nullity will be questioned during the annulment process?
The ex-spouse or respondent will need to be contacted,
but not necessarily by the spouse or petitioner seeking the annulment.
The diocesan tribunal office will make that written contact with
the ex-spouse, with the name and address provided by the petitioner.
The respondent—s cooperation is welcome, but not
essential. Simple justice, however, requires that an ex-spouse at
least be made aware that the petitioner is seeking an annulment
and that the respondent may be part of the procedure. It is only
fair that both persons have an opportunity to present their sides
of the marriage.
In formal cases the petitioner needs to supply the
names and addresses of several people who are familiar with the
petitioner—s earlier marriage. They must be able and willing to
complete a brief questionnaire about the petitioner—s earlier marriage.
Many years ago, a man approached me about an annulment
because his wife had left him, moved to San Francisco and was living
the life of a —flower child,— a 1960s phenomenon. As the process
progressed, the tribunal sent her the standard letter of announcement
with an invitation to participate. There was no response. The office
followed up with a registered letter to her. The post office returned
the letter with a notation, —Refused.— His case then proceeded to
a successful conclusion, and the tribunal granted the desired annulment.
The petitioner and the tribunal had done all they could to solicit
the input of the ex-spouse.
5 Does an annulment make the children illegitimate?
No. The parents, now divorced, presumably once obtained
a civil license and entered upon a legal marriage. Children from
that union are, therefore, their legitimate offspring. Legitimate
means —legal.— The civil divorce and the Church annulment do not
alter this situation. Nor do they change the parents— responsibility
toward the children. In fact, during annulment procedures the Church
reminds petitioners of their moral obligation to provide for the
proper upbringing of their children.
Nevertheless, persons pondering the Catholic annulment
process do often express this concern about the legitimacy of the
children after that procedure. It—s a persistent rumor.
6 Is money involved in the annulment process?
No and yes. Money does not affect the speed of the
procedure or its successful completion. Nor does the inability of
a petitioner to share part of the costs of the process interfere
with the possibility of obtaining an annulment. Diocesan tribunals
make special arrangements for people.
There are obviously extensive costs involved in
maintaining an agency for annulment procedures. The annual budget
of our tribunal exceeds $150,000 and covers items like rental space,
salaries, office equipment and supplies. Income from annulment fees
covers most but not all of these expenses.
There is a certain value, too, in the petitioners
sharing part of this procedure—s cost. Similarly, it—s considered
good practice to expect counseling clients to pay for counseling,
or to expect college students to work for some portion of their
financial aid. Paying something can help one develop a personal
commitment to the process.
Some Case Studies
7 Joe, a lifelong Catholic, had a miserable first
marriage that ended in divorce. He now seeks to marry Joannah, who
is Catholic too, but has never married. They are deeply in love
and want a Catholic wedding. What if Joe—s previous marriage was
—outside the Church,— say, by a justice of the peace?
The Church requires that a baptized Roman Catholic
marry before one of its representatives, usually a priest or deacon,
unless special permission was granted otherwise. When a Catholic
does not observe this requirement and marries —out of the Church,—
and eventually divorces, the annulment process involves two steps.
The first is securing the Catholic—s baptismal record,
a copy of an official document indicating the location of the marriage
and the person who performed the ceremony, and the divorce papers.
The second is completing a relatively brief form that seeks the
above information and asks a few additional questions about circumstances
concerning the celebration of the marriage.
This form and the supporting documents showing who
witnessed the wedding are sent to the bishop—s office or, more specifically,
his diocesan marriage tribunal. It ordinarily processes the application
in a few days and returns the petitioner an annulment or declaration
of nullity based on the —lack of canonical form.— The individual
is now free to pursue subsequent marriage within the Church.
8-9 What if Joe, for his first wedding years
ago, had sought permission from the diocese to be married at his
first wife—s Protestant Church? Or what if Joe—s first wedding had
occurred in a Catholic church, before a priest or deacon?
In the first case, the situation of special permission
generally occurs when one of the persons seeking to marry is not
a Catholic and, for good reasons, wishes to wed in her or his own
Church and by her or his own clergyperson. During my 45 years in
priestly ministry, I have participated in many of these arrangements.
Sometimes it meant standing next to the minister
during the ceremony in his church; at other times, I stood by the
side of a rabbi in a restaurant or hotel; at still others I even
assisted as a judge conducted the service in a home. Occasionally
I was not present at the ceremony, but only completed in advance
the necessary paperwork.
In all of these circumstances, however, I met with
the couple ahead of time, filled out the required documentation
and petitioned the bishop for a dispensation from canonical form
(marriage in the presence of a bishop, priest or deacon and two
witnesses). This special permission allowed the Catholic to marry
before a minister, rabbi or even a judge according to the desires
of the other party in the marriage.
In these cases where the first marriage was either
a Catholic wedding or a non-Catholic wedding with special permission
to be married before someone other than an ordained Catholic minister,
the annulment process is more involved.
The annulment process in these circumstances, termed
a formal case, examines not so much where the marriage took
place, but what happened in the marriage. The procedure takes
longer (six months to a year, or more, depending upon the diocese)
and is more complex than the —lack of form— annulment mentioned
in question seven above. The Church in these cases researches not
merely the location of a wedding, but also the relationship between
spouses before and during the marriage. That—s a bit more complicated.
A fact sheet covering the basic details of the failed
marriage begins the formal case procedure. However, the practice
in the United States is that a person may start the process only
after obtaining a legal divorce that terminated the marital relationship
under civil law. The petitioning individual then works through an
extensive printed inquiry that explores the childhood of both persons,
their courtship, the early years of the marriage and what the petitioner
considers the major cause for the marital breakup.
The petitioner will likewise need to secure certain
official documents—proof of Baptism, if pertinent, a marriage record
and the divorce papers—and provide names and addresses of the— former
spouse(s) as well as several witnesses who could share their observations
and experiences of the courtship and marriage.
Once all the materials have been assembled, the diocesan
tribunal examines the case, usually interviews the petitioner, often
seeks the counsel of a psychologist or therapist, and makes a decision.
The office then sends its initial judgment to a different tribunal
for confirmation. The Syracuse Diocese, where I live and minister,
for example, normally refers its cases to the Interdiocesan Tribunal
of New York, an agency which covers all of New York state.
If both tribunals agree that there are sufficient
grounds (see question 1) for an annulment, the diocesan tribunal
communicates a declaration of nullity to the petitioner. Respondents
who are interested and who have cooperated in the process are also
notified about the declaration of nullity.
Sometimes cases receive a negative response, or
petitions for an annulment are rejected. It is probably safe to
say that a majority of formal cases in the United States receive
positive judgments and the annulments are granted.
The Positive Results of Seeking a Declaration
10 What are the benefits of annulments?
The first benefit, of course, is that the petitioners
may now celebrate a marriage in the Catholic Church or have an existing
marriage —blessed— or recognized with the Church. There can, however,
be a deeper and much more spiritual benefit.
Divorce is a kind of death experience, with the grieving
that normally accompanies life—s end. Thus a divorced person may
know the typical grief feelings or conditions of denial, anger,
bargaining, sadness and acceptance. But divorce in some ways is
worse than death. It can involve rejection and self-doubts. The
divorced person may ponder questions like, —Why me?— or —What did
I do wrong?— or —How did I fail?— There also may be resentment toward—
The thorough reflection, writing and discussion with
trained Church ministers involved in the annulment process, while
often revisiting painfully sensitive areas, can ultimately help
heal wounds and bring about closure. The petitioner may view the
overall past marriage in a new light, let go of hurts or doubts
and move on to a new, more productive and more peaceful life.
Next: Advent Day by Day (by Phyllis Zagano)