US Catholic Faith in Real Life

What are annulments for?

By Joel Schorn | Print this pagePrint |
"Why do I have to go through this?" The question sums up many other questions people have about annulments, the way the Catholic Church says a marriage is ended.

 "My fiance isn't even Catholic; why does he have to have his first marriage annulled? Other churches and religions recognize civil divorce; why not the Catholic Church? Isn't an annulment really just a hypocritical way for the church to let Catholics get around divorce? Why do I have to suffer the pain and humiliation of reliving my failed marriage?"

 People seek annulments to resolve a civil divorce in the eyes of the church, to be free to remarry in the church, or to open the door to having an existing marriage blessed by the church.

 The church believes it has the right to decide the validity of marriage because it also believes that when baptized people marry-Catholic or not-their marriage is a sacrament; hence the reason a civil divorce cannot, in the eyes of the church, end a marriage. The church also assumes the validity of marriages of non-baptized people. At the same time, the church is realistic and acknowledges that married relationships do end, and sometimes they end for definite and legitimate reasons.

 The church teaches that when two people marry, both parties must be in a situation to make a good judgment about the important decision they are making. They must be reasonably free of serious emotional or psychological problems. They need to believe in the sacrament of marriage, and they must be willing to commit to marry for life, to be faithful, to be open to having children, and to care about their spouse. They must be able to enter into marriage without fear or deception.

 If one or more of these conditions can be shown to have been absent for either or both of the spouses, the church can grant an annulment. An annulment does not say the couple did not love each other or did not have a marriage in other ways, or that their children were "illegitimate."

 It does say the marriage was "invalid," legal-sounding language meaning the married relationship was never fully a sacrament and lacked something crucial from the beginning, something the couple never found and something that proved fatal to the marriage.

 While each person's experience is different, taking another look at a failed marriage can help someone understand what happened and maybe come to terms with it a bit more. The process can also help a person deepen their understanding of the new marriage she or he is in or is contemplating. It can bring people closer to themselves and their past experiences, to their present spouse or spouse-to-be, and ultimately, through all these relationships, closer to God.

This article appeared in the June 2003 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 68, No. 6, page 41).