The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.
As a pastoral counselor, I often work with people who are either going through divorce or who have been recently divorced. Often these individuals have very important questions about the annulment process: What is it? Should they seek one? What difference does it make? The following are some of the common questions I encounter about annulments. I hope the simple answers I provide can offer you some food for thought.
1. What is an annulment?
An annulment–or “declaration of nullity”– states that, on the very day of the wedding, something was missing that prevented an actual marriage from taking place. For instance, perhaps the wedding was not conducted by the proper kind of minister (e.g., a priest or deacon–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop) or in the proper setting (i.e., a Catholic church–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop), or the couple was either incapable (because of a physical, mental, or emotional barriers) or unwilling for some reason to fulfill all the responsibilities required of him or her by a Catholic marriage (e.g., to stay married for life, to be open to life, to be faithful to one’s vows). In order to enter into a valid marriage, a couple has to know what they are doing, be able to do it, and commit to doing it freely and without reservation. If something got in the way of any of these dynamics on the day of the wedding, then there may be reason to question the validity of the marriage.
2. Isn’t an annulment just a “Catholic divorce?”
No. A divorce claims to dissolve a valid marriage. This is impossible. Man cannot divide what God has joined. In contrast to a divorce, an annulment says that a marriage never occurred in the first place. Despite what some people may think, this isn’t a small or legalistic difference. Analogously speaking, it is the difference between saying, “We’re taking away your license to practice medicine.” (Divorce) and “We just realized you never went to medical school and you shouldn’t have been given a license to practice in the first place.” (Annulment).
Divorce claims to undo what was validly done by God–which impossible for any human. Annulment, on the other hand, acknowledges that a very serious condition, present on the day of the wedding, prevented the marriage from occurring in the first place.
3. After an annulment, are children considered illegitimate?
Absolutely not. Illegitimacy is a term used in civil law–NOT church law. It has to do with whether you can naturally inherit or not. The Church has nothing to do with this. All children are welcome and “legitimate”–so to speak– in the eyes of the Church.
4. Why does the Church make me get an annulment after I am divorced?*
Because civil divorce is, basically, just a tax document. It doesn’t actually change your marital status in the eyes of God and therefore, you are still married as far as God is concerned. The state cannot speak for God , or claim to undo what God has done. Unless something, on the day of the wedding (as explained above under questions 1&2 above), prevented God from creating a valid marriage at your ceremony, then you are still married in the eyes of God even after a divorce. That is also why dating or attempting to get married after a divorce without the benefit of an annulment is considered the sin of adultery. Despite what the state may claim, you are still married in the eyes of God.
That’s why the annulment process investigates whether something was going on at the time of the wedding that would have prevented God from joining this man and this woman together in Holy Matrimony. There are many reasons why this could have happened. A tribunal looks at all the possibilities so that the couple can understand what may have gone wrong and–assuming an annulment is granted–gives the man and woman a chance to correct those problems so that any future marriage (between them or with other potential spouses) would be valid in God’s eyes.
5. If the Church doesn’t grant an annulment, does that mean I’m stuck with my spouse for life?
A valid marriage is for life. If the Church does not find grounds for an annulment, you are still married in the eyes of God to your spouse regardless of the possible changes in your tax status or place of residence brought on by a civil divorce.
Christians believe that marriage is holy because Jesus says it is a sign of the way God loves us (Ephesians 5:32). The fact is, sometimes we don’t make it easy for God to love us. We reject him. We are unfaithful to him. We betray him and act out against him. And yet he still loves us. If the Church cannot find valid grounds for an annulment despite your civil divorce, then that means that God is calling you to be a visible sign of his constant love despite our best efforts to reject him. Obviously this is not an easy call, but just as obviously, it is an important call that is close to God’s heart. If this is God’s call in your life, not only will he give you the grace to fulfill it, he will greatly honor you for both your fidelity through trial and for the sacrifices you make in service to this very important call.
6. Should I seek an annulment even if I’m not planning to get married again after my divorce?
Strictly speaking, whether or not to seek an annulment is entirely a decision you must make for yourself in prayer. That said, I would encourage every divorced person to go through the annulment process. Why? Because it is never good to discern serious questions–like the nature of your vocation–on your own. It is always best to enlist the Church’s help in discerning God’s answer to the big questions in your life. Seeking an annulment doesn’t mean that you are giving up, or failing, or any of the other negative things people think. It means you are actively trying to hear and respond to God’s unique call in your life and you are inviting the Church to be your partner in figuring it all out. That is as truly humble and grace-filled a response as you could possibly make to a terrible situation. The truth is, as painful as this time in your life can be, God wants to use all of it for your good and his glory. The more you allow him and the Church to be part of your decision, the sooner he will help you make peace with whatever his call is in your life.
Let God and his Church be a help to you in this time of pain and confusion. He will give you the clarity and peace you seek.
If you are struggling to understand God’s plan for you after a divorce, check out a copy of The Life God Wants You to Have: Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our Catholic tele-counseling practice.
*Divorce prior to annulment is not a requirement of canon law. It is diocesan policy in the US and a few other countries as well. Couples have a right to petition for an annulment without a divorce, but despite knowing many who have tried, I don’t personally know of anyone who succeeded at this.
For my thoughts on reforming the annulment process, see…
Reforming the Annulment Process–Brainstorming Solutions and Reforming the Annulment Process–A Continuing Conversation. (Or Why “Alienation of Affection” is a stupid reason to require divorce before annulment).