What is an annulment?
“Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic Church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.
For a Catholic marriage to be valid, it is required that: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they are capable of giving their consent to marry; (3) they freely exchange their consent; (4) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (5) they intend the good of each other; and (6) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by Church authority.
Why does the Church require a divorced Catholic to obtain a declaration of nullity before marrying in the Church?
In fidelity to Jesus’ teaching, the Church believes that marriage is a lifelong bond (see Matt 19:1-10); therefore, unless one’s spouse has died, the Church requires the divorced Catholic to obtain a declaration of nullity before marrying someone else. The tribunal process seeks to determine if something essential was missing at the moment of consent, that is, the time of the wedding. If so, the Church can declare that a valid marriage was never actually brought about on the wedding day.
What does the tribunal process involve?
The process begins by meeting with a Parish Pastoral Advocate who will explain the process. The Advocate’s role is to assist you (petitioner) in the process of completing and submitting the required documents and forms to the tribunal. Based upon the information that was submitted, a tribunal official will determine the process that is to be followed. Regardless of the selected process, both the petitioner and the respondent (ex spouse) will be able to read the testimony submitted, except that protected by civil law (for example, counseling records).
If the tribunal decides in favor of the nullity of the marriage, the parties are then free to marry in the Catholic Church, unless an appeal of the decision is lodged or the decision includes a prohibition against one or both of the parties marrying until certain underlying issues have been resolved.
If a marriage is declared null, does it mean that the marriage never existed?
No. It means that a marriage was not valid according to Church law. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship existed. It simply states that it was missing something that the Church requires for a valid marriage.
Why does the Catholic Church require an intended spouse, who is divorced but not Catholic, to obtain a declaration of nullity before marrying in the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church respects the marriages of non-Catholics and presumes that they are valid. Thus, for example, it considers the marriages of two Protestant, Jewish, or even nonbelieving persons to be binding for life. Marriages between baptized persons, moreover, are considered to be sacramental. The Church requires a declaration of nullity in order to establish that an essential element was missing in that previous union that prevented it from being a valid marriage, and thus the intended spouse is free to marry.
This is often a difficult and emotional issue. If the intended spouse comes from a faith tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage, it may be hard to understand why he/she must go through the Catholic tribunal process. Couples in this situation may find it helpful to talk with a priest or deacon. To go through the process can be a sign of great love of the non-Catholic for the intended spouse.
My fiancé/e and I want to marry in the Catholic Church. He/she has been married before and has applied for a declaration of nullity. When can we set a date for our wedding?
You should not set a date until the tribunal’s decision has been finalized. First, the petition may not be granted. Second, even if the petition is eventually granted, there may be unexpected delays in the process, e.g., if your fiancé/e’s spouse wishes to appeal the tribunal’s decision.
How do I begin?
To learn more about annulments or make an appointment to begin the process, please contact our Pastoral Advocate, Bob Laquerre, at 561-276-6892.
Information reprinted from the USCCB.