5 Things Catholics Need to Know About Annulments (From a Canon Lawyer)

annulment definition

Annulments can be misunderstood. Even by well-formed Catholics.

Believe it or not, I made it to the end of my undergraduate studies without ever having heard a comprehendible explanation of what an annulment really is. And I majored in theology!

Now, having completed a license in Canon Law and with a few years of experience of service to the Church on this topic, I’ve realized that maybe if we spoke more about the marriage nullity process, commonly referred to as the annulment process, it’s possible the topic wouldn’t be muddled in so many of our minds. Am I right?

Talking About Annulments

So, here it is. Let’s talk about the marriage nullity process. The first time I meet with a petitioner or someone inquiring about the process, I make a point to cover five key points. I think these can be helpful to all of us. Because, let’s be real, how often are we put on the spot on this very topic and haven’t a clue how to answer? Or, we want to be helpful so we speak up only to later to realize that we have provided false guidance on the topic.

5 Things to Know About Annulments

If you store these key points away somewhere in that already full and brilliant mind of yours, these could really help a loved one or new acquaintance understand annulments at least a little bit more. These conversations may get them on the track to find peace in their relationship with God and regularity with the Church.

1. The purpose of the marriage nullity process is for the salvation of souls.

The taste of chocolate lingering in your mouth at the end of dinner is pretty much always glorious, isn’t it? Whether it be chocolate, a holy conversation, or a good cup of coffee, it is always more satisfying when we leave the table with an after-taste that is pleasing, even glorious. The Church and her law wants to be as generous as this!

The last canon in the Code of Canon Law is Canon 1752. The first principle of the law is reiterated in the last canon:

…always…keeping in mind the salvation of souls, which in the Church must always be the supreme law.

As sweet as chocolate and coffee is to be the law of the Church.

The first challenge in the marriage nullity process is to be able to see through the legalistic language and the technical procedures and know from the start that the Church is concerned about our salvation. This process, no matter how agonizing, is intended to keep or restore us to right relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ.

The difficult part

Divorce is humiliating. It makes people feel like failures. Many lose half of their friends or more. Then the Church asks them to tell their story of dating, marriage, and divorce in all its gory details. Before one makes their first contact with a tribunal, they need to try to set aside their shame and put on humility.

Scripture tells us that only those who are like little children will enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3). So, we humble ourselves in order that Mother Church can take care of us. Her goal is our salvation. Her goal is our communion.

It’s hard to be humble when we are hurting. It’s hard to believe that our salvation is the goal when tribunal personnel send legalistic letters that make no sense. The supreme law of the Church is the goal of every Christian: salvation. And, the purpose of annulments is the determination of truth which is sanctifying!

In an address to the Roman Rota in 1990, Saint John Paul II said:

People also have a right not to be deceived by a judgment of nullity, which is in conflict with the existence of a true marriage. Such an unjust declaration of nullity would find no legitimate support in appealing to love or mercy. Love and mercy cannot put aside the demands of truth. A valid marriage, even one marked by serious difficulties, could not be considered invalid without doing violence to the truth and undermining thereby the only solid foundation which can support personal, marital, and social life… The roads leading away from justice and truth end up serving to distance people from God, thus yielding the opposite result from that which is sought in good faith.

Don’t lose sight of the goal because of the details. But, let’s talk about some of these details.

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2. Marriages aren’t “annulled.” After study, marriages may or may not be proven to be invalid.

When one approaches a tribunal for their marriage to be studied, they aren’t asking the Church for a favor, but they’re alleging the nullity of their marriage and asking the Church to begin a trial to determine if it’s proven. The goal of the marriage nullity process is to discover whether or not marriage came into being at the time of consent. This is accomplished by hearing the story!

The story of the union is told by the spouses, witnesses, and even by other types of evidence, such as emails, letters, text messages, voicemails, counseling records, police reports, etc.

When all of these proofs are gathered, the Tribunal staff goes to work. An advocate may be chosen to help the parties involved. The advocates are there to help tell the story. The Defender of the Bond argues in favor of the validity of the marriage. The judges take all the information and come to a decision: the marriage exists or the marriage never existed. See the steps here.

3. The marriage nullity process can take time!

Discovering the truth can take time. And now that you know what the marriage nullity process really is you can see why it shouldn’t be rushed. The marriage nullity process can take up to a year or more. Many personalities and roles impact the timing. Factors include whether or not both spouses participate, how quickly proofs/evidence are mailed into the Tribunal, how quickly interviews are scheduled, whether or not all witnesses are willing to participate, etc.

When the details of the marriage are presented, the first job of a tribunal is to determine the right process. Some cases are considered “formal.” These cases take longer.

There are also “lack of form” cases which take a shorter time to process. Lack of Form cases are for Catholics who marry outside the Church without the Church’s permission. For example, when a Catholic gets married before a Justice of Peace in Las Vegas. The marriage does not come into being because the Catholic did not follow the laws of the Church for marriage.

Worthy of note: The abbreviated process for annulments that Pope Francis promulgated in 2015 can take somewhere around forty five days. However, this process is used for rare circumstances at the discretion of the bishop.

What is the new abbreviated process?  Read more here.

4. No, you don’t “buy” a declaration of nullity. Yes, sometimes there is a fee or a suggested donation for the marriage nullity process.

One cannot purchase a declaration of nullity. Again, the marriage nullity process has everything to do with our salvation… money can’t get us into Heaven!

It is a reality that tribunals have offices with employees and they have all of the expenses like any employer. Fess may accompany the application to be processed or provide a small wage to one’s advocate.

However, the inability to pay a fee ought never to stand in the way of someone approaching a tribunal for help. Tribunals will do everything they can to help individuals in their financial difficulty, including waving any fees.

What is the cost? Read more here.

5. What about the reception of Holy Communion?

This is one of the more difficult and emotional topics for Catholics. Being divorced does not affect one’s communion with the Church or necessarily one’s ability to receive Holy Communion.

However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1650 explains:

[t]oday there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.

A priest may suggest that when separation is impossible that the parties live together as “brother and sister,” which is abstaining from sexual acts proper to marriage. This is for extraordinary situations, including when parties are unable to separate because of the need to raise small children, or if one of the parties are sickly and/or elderly and depend on the other party for care.

Can a divorced or remarried person receive the Sacraments? Read more here.

Annulments Exist for Our Eternal Good

Canon Law and annulments can sound daunting and intimidating at first, but at the end of the day, they exist to help and protect us, and most importantly guide us as we make our way to eternal life.

Again, if you remember just a few of the main concepts provided here, you may be able to make a world of difference in someone’s life who is currently struggling with the topic.

For more information, visit the Diocese of Madison Tribunal.

Have you had an experience with the marriage nullity process? Maybe someone has asked you to explain it to them. How did the conversation go?  

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Amanda Zurface is the Catholic Campaign Coordinator for Covenant Eyes. She holds a License and MA in Canon Law and a BA in Catholic Theology and Social Justice. Amanda has served in various roles within the Catholic Church both in the United States and internationally. She is the co-author of Equipped: Smart Catholic Parenting in a Sexualized Cultureand Transformed by Beauty. She resides in Zanesville, Ohio, where she also serves as the Director of Faith Formation at Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.

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  • Reply
    April 25, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    Great article!

  • Reply
    Susan n padilla
    July 11, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    2 yrs my friend had been waiting Witnesses didn’t come through they said they would and then they didn’t so all he could do was get to character Witnesses and one witness which was his mother and it’s taking this long

  • Reply
    September 18, 2018 at 1:29 pm

    Then Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan…” (Matthew 4:10). While chatting before class at Seminary a peer once commented that laity sometimes have to have Faith that God means for our “Yes” to actually mean…wait for it…”Yes,” even in the face of the fallibility of “man” (or the Cross) and cannon laws (Yes, that includes St. Peter). May our God, in Love, take my imperfect prayer, full of my humanity, and make it perfect. Through the Cross into the Light, brethren. Wait for Truth, in Faith…while waiting, do some works of Love 🙂
    An old priestly monk once said to me that everyone seems to forget about the Resurrection…

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