What is an Annulment and How Does it Differ From Divorce?


I realize that many of my Catholic readers are grappling with the possible end of a relationship and wondering about divorce and annulment, so I thought I’d let an expert answer some of your questions.

In the words of Msgr. Pope:

There are some today who speak of annulment as “just another name for a Catholic divorce.” However, this is not correct.

An annulment (more technically described as a “Declaration of Nullity”) is a recognition by the Church, based on evidence, that what may in fact have seemed to be a marriage, wasn’t—due to some intrinsic flaw at the time the vows were exchanged. A marriage may have been a civil marriage entered into in good faith by one or both of the parties, but something essential was lacking in the intentions or understanding of one or both parties. This made the marriage invalid, meaning a true marriage never existed in religious terms. 

Thus there is nothing to divorce, since no marriage existed. “Divorce” is a term of civil law and the Lord explicitly teaches that he will not be bound by the decision of some civil judge (see Malachi  2:16 ; Matthew 19:1-12, among others).  However, not every couple who goes through a marriage ceremony does so validly, and that’s the key matter in question in the process of annulment.

It’s actually our Lord Jesus himself who makes this point at the the very moment He teaches against divorce. Let’s look at what he teaches.

(©Keariel Peasley Photography, used by permission)

In regards to marriage, Jesus says: “What God has joined together, let no one divide” (Mat 19:6). On the face of it, divorce and any sort of annulment would seem forbidden by this verse, but the text actually serves as a basis for the Church’s allowance of annulment under certain circumstances.

The text clearly says, what GOD has joined together cannot be divided.

Just because two people stand before a Justice of the Peace, or a minister or even a priest and swears vows, does not mean that what they do is a work of God.

There must be some standards that the Church insists upon for us to acknowledge that this vow is “of God.”

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Situations such as prior marriage, consanguinity (too close in the blood lines), minor status (too young), incapacity for the marriage act, and lying or failing to disclose important information to the future spouse, all need to be considered.

Further, it is widely held that when one or both parties are compelled to enter the marriage or that they display a grave lack of due discretion on account of immaturity or poor formation, that such marriages are null on these grounds. All these are ways that the Church, using her power to bind and loose, comes to a determination that what appeared to be a marriage externally was not in fact so based on evidence. Put more scripturally, the putative marriage was not “what God has joined together.”

I answer that, the Church is in fact the one to whom the Lord, through the ministry of Peter and the Bishops, entrusted the power to bind and loose (Mt 18:18) and to speak in His name (Lk 10:16).

As noted, a decree of nullity from the Church is a recognition, based on the evidence given, that a marriage in the Catholic and Biblical sense of the word never existed. Since a person has not in fact been joined by God they are free to marry in the future. In such a case a person does not violate our Lord’s declaration that one who divorces their spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf Matt 19:9).

While it is clear that the Church has some pretty clear canonical norms regarding marriage, like any norms they have to be interpreted and applied. Certain American practices and norms have evolved over the last forty years that some question as being too permissive and thus no longer respectful of the binding nature of marital vows. I am not without my concerns that we may give too many annulments, but there is nothing intrinsically flawed with the Church teaching. Concern is directed only to the prudential application of the norms.

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Often it isn’t as blunt as somebody coming in and saying, “Well, I got rid of my first wife and now I’ve found another I want to marry, let’s get the paperwork going, Father.” It’s usually far more poignant than that.

Now, years later after the divorce they have found someone who is able to support them in their faith. Perhaps they met this person in the parish. Should a previous marriage that was entered into when young and foolish and lasted all of six months preclude them from entering a supportive union that looks very promising? Should being abused in the past mean they are destined to never experience authentic, self-giving love in the future?

Obviously not.

However, they were married 15 years ago in a Protestant Church to their current spouse who had been married before. Now, mind you, their current marriage is strong and they have both been drawn to the Catholic Faith. They have four kids as well. What is a priest to do? Well I can tell you that this priest will help the one who needs an annulment to get it. I can tell you a lot of cases come to the Church this way. It’s hard and perhaps even unjust to say to someone like this that there is nothing the Church can do for them, they will never qualify for sacraments. No, we just don’t do that, we take them through the process for annulment and see if there can be evidence that the first marriage was null.

During that time he or she did some pretty stupid stuff including getting married and divorced, sometimes more than once. Now they show up at my door in a current marriage that seems strong and helpful and which includes children. The person is in desperate need of confession and Holy Communion. What is a pastor to do? He takes them through the process of annulment to get them access to those sacraments if possible.

The current instinct of the Church, given the poisonous quality of the culture toward marriage, is to be more willing to presume there were problems.

If you are in a second marriage, please consider contacting your parish priest. Don’t presume you’re unwanted, or can never receive the sacraments. The tribunal process isn’t that difficult and the Church stands ready to assist you.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, a vibrant parish community in Washington, DC. A native of Chicago with a bachelor degree in computer science, his interest in the priesthood stemmed from his experience as a church musician. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and was ordained in 1989. A pastor since 2000, he also has led Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and at the White House in past years.



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