It is not at all uncommon, as the Tribunal processes the hundreds of cases which come before it each year, that Petitioners (the person requesting the declaration of invalidity) or friends or family members who are trying to support them in the process, make impassioned pleas on their behalf. These often take a similar form. They’re frustrated with the process. They can’t understand why the “annulment” is taking so long or has not already been granted. They think it’s purely discretionary – you’re a good person, a good Catholic, you’re seeking forgiveness, the Church should be in the forgiveness business, you need it so you can get on with your life in the Church, the Church should be doing everything it can to keep people in the Church – so why doesn’t the Church just adjust to the times, to the reality of divorce, and get on with it. These misunderstandings about the process often negatively impact people’s perceptions of the Church. In large part, this seems to be because people are evaluating “annulments” by current secular standards within an American culture where six percent of the world’s Catholics account for nearly half of all “annulments” worldwide. For that reason, we would like to try to clarify what is and is not happening in the process of determining the validity or invalidity of a marriage.
We can start with the basics of the issue. The Church, as are all of us, is forced to confront the reality of Jesus’ very straightforward teaching concerning marriage:
“He set out from there and went into the district of Judea [and] across the Jordan. Again crowds gathered around him and, as was his custom, he again taught them. The Pharisees approached and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him. He said to them in reply, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.’ But Jesus told them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.’ In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” [Mark 10:1-12, NAB]
Obviously, when God speaks, as is the case with Jesus’ teaching above, no one can ignore it, especially the Church. This, of course, runs headlong into the reality that marriages end, divorces happen. So, what is the Church to do?
The Church knows that a legal, civil marriage happened. We know that the marriage ended in a legal divorce. That is why, at the Tribunal, we do not use the word “annulment.” We are not undoing a legal marriage or saying it never happened. The Church is concerned only with the validity of the marriage in its sacramental sense. Now, the sacrament of marriage is unique among the seven sacraments because the couple, not the priest or deacon, are the ministers of the sacrament. The priest or deacon only witnesses the exchange of consent between the two parties who give themselves to each other fully and freely. In other words, the validity of the sacrament depends upon that full and free consent to a marital partnership of the whole life and all the essential duties and obligations that go with it. The Church assumes that when people exchange marriage vows their actions comport with their words. When two people say to each other, “until death do us part,” or “all the days of my life,” they are supposed to mean precisely that, so all marriages are assumed to be valid unless it can be proven otherwise. In order to prove the invalidity of the marriage, the Petitioner must prove that there was something at work in one or both of the parties, at the time of consent, that rendered the consent defective, thus invalidating the marriage, i.e., because the consent was defective or invalid, the marriage itself was invalid. Please note that we are not “annulling” a sacramental marriage that actually occurred. That is beyond anyone’s power. All the Church can do is issue a “declaration of invalidity” when it can be proven that the sacrament was never validly contracted. Elsewhere on this webpage we have provided an overview of the various grounds upon which a marriage can be proven to have been invalid. But it is essential to understand that, just because a marriage failed and ended in divorce does not mean it was invalidly contracted. So, for instance, when a couple freely and fully exchange consent and then, years later, things happen and the marriage fails, it is not within the Church’s power to say that this is merely the reality of life, stuff happens, and then declare the marriage invalid. It is not, as some would have it, “Catholic divorce.”
Thus, to summarize, declarations of invalidity are not discretionary. They are not granted because the Church thinks some people deserve them and others do not. They are not granted because some people can afford one, and others cannot. They have nothing to do with what you (or your former spouse) may deserve, or perceive you deserve, now. They are not about finding fault. They have everything to do with determining the truth and the reality of the subject marriage at the time of consent. Was the sacrament validly entered into by the couple at that time?