What is an “annulment?” Is it a Catholic divorce? Does it declare all that is good of a broken marriage relationship as though it were false or illegitimate? Bringing clarity and honesty to these questions invites an explanation of a “declaration of nullity” (which is the more precise term) – and how it truly works for the good of those who pursue it.
In this context of considering divorce and annulments, we once more must appeal to Matthew 19:3-9 – as the question of divorce is plainly expressed and then answered by Jesus. We first remember verse 6 where Jesus says that what God has joined no human being can separate – which declares the impossibility of divorce in the sight of heaven. However, after the Pharisees persist that Moses allowed it, verses 8-9 give Jesus’ definitive reply: “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” These two verses are of central importance for our consideration of declarations of nullity for multiple reasons. First, as Jesus makes plain divorce goes against God’s intentions for marriage from the beginning of Creation. That divorce came to be practiced was a degrading of marriage and it was carried out due to “hardness of heart,” as Jesus says. Furthermore, that any who divorce and then remarry commit adultery also expresses that divorce is a false reality – and that in God’s eyes the original two remain joined, even if they (or a government) declare otherwise.
Finally (and central to our question) are Jesus’ words “unless the marriage is unlawful” in verse 9. What would be an unlawful marriage? Several examples could be given: two blood relatives being married; the use of force or coercion to bring about marriage; the physical or psychological inability of one partner to live the married life; etc.). In addition, questions of “how” the couple entered marriage and under what circumstances the marriage was contracted may shed light on whether or not it was a “valid” marriage – that is, a marriage that was truly contracted. It is in all these areas of detail (and more) the Church can investigate the cases of marriages when, after a civil divorce, one (or both) of the parties in a marriage submit a petition to seek a declaration of nullity.
A “declaration of nullity” may be granted when beyond a reasonable doubt proof is given that a couple who appeared to enter into marriage at a given time (the wedding) truly did not enter that marriage validly. There are many reasons why a marriage could be seen as invalid – as through one or more of details named above that make a marriage either unlawful and/or invalid. Note, however: the procedure of seeking a declaration of nullity does NOT invalidate any of the goods of marriage that were received or experienced by a couple. Particularly, any children who may have been born of marital relationship that is later declared invalid are NOT considered illegitimate, as it always upheld that at least one of the two parties brought about the children in good faith. For it is the circumstances or objective states that existed before the marriage and/or as part of the wedding itself (such as a baptized Catholic marrying outside the Church without proper permission) that lead to declaring a marriage as valid or invalid – not the actions within the perceived marriage.
Thus, an annulment is a not a divorce, but a declaration that a marriage was not validly contracted. Such declarations express the truth that no valid consent was given (as it is “consent” that makes marriage) while retaining the good fruits of a relationship.
For further reading: a good intro to is found on the website of the Diocese of Duluth on the Marriage Tribunal page: www.dioceseduluth.org/Off-T.