Catholic Annulment: Was a Marriage Valid?
Many people seem to misunderstand Catholic annulment.
Truth be told, back when I was entering the Catholic Church, I used to think of it as a sort of “Catholic divorce.”
But annulment in the Catholic Church comes from the great value we place on marriage. Annulment upholds, rather than undercuts, the Catholic teaching on the sanctity and permanence of marriage.
And if I learned to understand this, you can, too!
Here’s the whole point:
The rest of this article explains the details of Catholic annulment.
The value & permanence of marriage
To understand Catholic annulment, you have to understand marriage.
Marriage between a man & woman in the Catholic Church is a sacrament. It’s both a sign of the love between Christ and his Church, and also a participation in that love. Really! St. Paul calls this a “great mystery” in Ephesians 5:32.
Catholics believe that marriage is permanent, “till death do us part.” This teaching comes from Christ, as recorded in Scripture (See Mt 5:31-32 and 19:3-9, Mk 10:2-12, Lk 16:18).
Our marriage vows reflect this. We promise our spouse:
- Indissolubility (permanence)
- Openness to children
This is not a list of rules cooked up by the Catholic Church!
It’s simply a description of what marriage is. Real marriage, as God intended, as we feel naturally drawn to. As Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mt 19:6)
That’s why we say that the sacrament of marriage is indissoluble.
And even Catholic annulment can’t dissolve a valid marriage! Annulment simply says that a true, sacramental marriage was never created in the first place — it was never valid.
What makes a valid marriage?
Catholic annulment declares that a couple didn’t have some ingredient necessary for a valid marriage.
For a marriage to be valid — for it to be something “God has joined together” — a couple needs to…
- Be able to exchange consent, and do so freely and unconditionally
- Consent to fidelity, indissolubility, and openness to children
- Not have any impediments to marriage (see below)
- Follow the sacrament properly
Church law recognizes twelve specific impediments to marriage. They include things like coercion, being too young, already being married, blood or in-law relations, having received holy orders, being under vows of chastity, or being impotent (permanently unable to engage in sexual intercourse).
But besides these specific impediments, all four of the above requirements have to be met. If they are all met, then the marriage itself is valid. If not, it’s invalid.
A Catholic annulment simply declares that to be the case.
What if a marriage fails?
The Church knows that the world isn’t perfect.
In fact, that’s a basic point of our theology! We call it the “fallen world”, the result of our original sin. It means that things don’t always follow God’s original plan, and don’t turn out the way they should.
Sometimes this happens in marriage — even valid marriages.
The Catholic Church does not say that a couple should always stay in a failed marriage. Yes, we strongly encourage people to try to reconcile things, especially if children are involved.
But sometimes it is necessary to separate for serious reasons, and even seek civil divorce. This is especially true in cases where one spouse is abusing another.
But that does not change the fact that the couple is still married. God has joined them together, and that bond cannot be broken.
Don’t think Catholic annulment affects the bond of a valid marriage! Nothing can break that bond, “as long as you both shall live.”
Practically, this means that a separated or divorced person should live in a way that reflects the fact that they’re still married. They shouldn’t marry, live with, or even date someone else. To do so would be adulterous. Someone who is divorced or separated should be celibate.
I know: that sounds cold & unfeeling.
If a marriage fails, we want things to get better for ourselves or our friends. We want to be able to “move on.”
A lot of people think that’s what Catholic annulment is all about — the equivalent of Catholic divorce. It is not.
When we marry, we promise not to just “move on.” We promise to stay together through thick & thin, and to remain faithful. This is important not just because of that promise…
…but also because we’ve promised to be a sign to the world of God’s fidelity to us. Our marriage is a visible sign of the love between Christ and his Church. You know… where he remains faithful to us, even when we fail.
But marriage is more than just a sign — marriage is also the sacramental channel through which God gives the grace of fidelity and love to a broken world. Remaining faithful, even in a difficult or broken marriage, keeps that channel open.
Truthfully, this can be very hard to understand in a culture that doesn’t value promise, fidelity, or permanence.
Which is why that sign of permanence is so important today.
Annulment for an invalid marriage
Catholic annulment means that a couple was never married in the sacramental sense. God did not create that unbreakable bond between them because the sacrament of marriage was not actually fulfilled.
The term “annulment” is actually a little misleading. It sounds like the Church is actively canceling, or nullifying, the marriage. The proper term for Catholic annulment is “declaration of nullity”: the Church declares that the marriage never was valid in the first place.
This becomes clearer when we compare Catholic annulment to civil divorce.
- A divorce is effective as of the date of the divorce decree. Before that, the couple was still married.
- A declaration of nullity affects the period of time starting from the original date of the wedding ceremony. The couple was never married.
What makes a marriage invalid?
Some common reasons for annulment in the Catholic Church are:
- At least one partner didn’t fully & freely consent.
- Someone wasn’t mature enough to understand the full extent of what they were doing.
- There was never intent to be faithful.
- One or both partners did not intend to be open to children.
Obviously, the Church places a tremendous value on marriage. Couples seeking marriage are required to attend pre-marriage education sessions precisely so they can be fully informed about what they’re committing to.
Note that it’s important to distinguish between what the couple intends when they marry, and deviations later in the marriage.
If a husband has an affair, that does not necessarily mean he didn’t intend fidelity when he got married. Nor does a wife’s refusal to have more children later in a marriage mean that she didn’t really intend fertility when she made her wedding vows.
Sorting out questions like this is difficult.
That’s why the Church has a formal process for Catholic annulment to determine, on a case by case basis, whether an individual marriage originally met the criteria of a valid marriage.
The presumption is always that it was a valid marriage, and it is up to those seeking annulment to prove otherwise.
The process for Catholic annulment actually makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it is abused at times by those who just want “Catholic divorce.” But overall, it seems to be a good balance between upholding the truth about marriage and allowing for the imperfect way that people sometimes enter into commitments.
“Does annulment make our children illegitimate?”
No — children of a marriage that’s determined to be invalid by a Catholic annulment, are still legitimate. (Code of Canon Law, canon 1137)
When a couple marries, they assume the marriage is valid and was entered into in good faith. Children conceived under this assumption of a valid marriage, are considered to be legitimate.
This fact does not change even if the marriage is later found to be not valid.
In the United States, Catholic annulment does not affect any state civil laws. It is unrelated to civil concerns such as illegitimacy, child custody, alimony, visitation rights, or division of property.
A matter of status within the Church
Practically speaking, couples seek Catholic annulment when there is a need to clarify their status within the Church.
This often happens after a civil divorce, when one person wants to remarry.
More information about the annulment process should be available from your local diocese. The Diocese of Saint Cloud, Minnesota, has a good article on Catholic annulment (pops up in separate window). It contains numerous questions and answers.
This article is one of several about Catholic morality, sex, and marriage.
Also check our home page for more articles about the Catholic faith!