Question: What is an annulment of a marriage? Why and how does one go about obtaining one?
Your question actually suggests a number of other questions people pose about the need for and process of annulment. Let's start with:
What is an annulment?
An annulment is a declaration by a competent church authority that a marriage is invalid. It is an official judgment that a marriage never took place, in spite of all appearances.
Just as the state requires certain conditions before two people can marry, so does the Catholic church. For instance, the state demands that two people be free to marry, are not already married, are of age, and marry before a licensed official of the state. The church also requires some conditions be met, or else there is no marriage.
So what are these church conditions?
Church law requires that the couple to be married be of age; be married before the legitimate representative of the church - ordinarily the pastor of the parish, and that they are free to enter into the sacrament of marriage. So, if internal consent of one or both of the parties was either missing or vitiated, there is no marriage; if the marriage has not taken place before the local pastor or his representative there is no marriage; or if there are major impediments to the marriage, there is no marriage and a "decree of nullity" could be sought.
Is an annulment a Catholic divorce?
No. A civil divorce is a permanent separation of two people who were validly married. A judge declares that reasons now exist to end the marriage. A civil divorce usually leaves the individuals free to marry again if they so desire. An annulment, however, is a judgment that there was no marriage to begin with.
Can a Catholic get a divorce?
Yes. There may be reasons for Catholics to obtain a civil divorce in order to obtain a variety of legal benefits. So yes, a Catholic could get a divorce for these benefits. However there is no freedom to marry again, unless the Catholic party has obtained an annulment. Note that a civil divorce must have been obtained before beginning the annulment process.
As stated above, the church, like the state, has certain requirements before its members can marry. Both church and state are concerned that marriages be stable. The well being of society depends on this. If any of these major requirements are lacking the grounds for annulment can be investigated. Two areas for investigation are impediments and consent.
Impediments are obstacles to a couple getting married. Unless these have been dealt with prior to the wedding, then some of them could invalidate a marriage.
There are a variety of impediments. Some have to do with previous relationships such as a previous marriage, blood relationships, etc. Others have to do with differences of religion and sex. A third category has received a lot of publicity in the recent past. It has to do with the area of consent.
What do you mean by "the area of consent"?
When the priest or deacon asks the couple questions before they take their vows, he is asking "consent" questions. During the ceremony the question is asked: "Do you take John/Mary?" Implied in that question are some very important facts. "Do you know who this person is?" "Do you know what marriage is?" If a person really doesn't understand that this is a faithful partnership for life, if the person is not freely entering into this covenant; if one of the parties is really not who the other thought he/she is then there is no consent. There is no marriage.
Is the area of consent a difficult area to investigate?
Yes. The other areas are facts relatively easy to prove: one did or did not go before a priest or deacon to get married; one was or was not related to another person. But it is not easy to prove that one did not marry for life, or that one had to be faithful. It's not easy to prove fraud or fear. It is not easy to prove that if one knew something at the time of the marriage, they would never have consented to the wedding. And, today, we are much more aware of how various mental conditions undermine a person's freedom of choice.
How does one get an annulment?
An annulment is indicated after some sort of a crisis has been reached in the relationship. One or the other wants to have a decree of nullity declared, allowing them to separate and/or remarry.
Usually the first step is to go to the local pastor and ask for help in beginning the process. He will either take some testimony himself, or refer the party to the diocesan center where a trained person, in what is called the "tribunal," will begin to gather the facts in the case.
How much does it cost ? How long does it take?
The only costs are usually some minor expenses to cover the expenses of paper work and the like. As to time, that depends on the complications and difficulties of obtaining testimony and proof of the situation alleged. Planning on a year would not be far wrong.
If I get a decree of nullity, does that mean my children are illegitimate?
This is a consideration that has bothered many people before, during and after the procedure of seeking an annulment. Simply put the answer is "NO." Church law covers this situation very clearly and recognizes that children who were considered legitimate offspring are still so considered.
FURTHER REFERENCES: Ladislas Orsy, S.J. "Annulments" The New Dictionary of Theology, Komonchak,Collins,Lane, Glazier, Wilmington,DE 1988 Also Ladislas Orsy, Marriage in Canon Law, Wilmington,DE:Glazier,1985. Geoffrey Robinson, Marriage,Divorce and Nullity; A Guide to the Annulment Process in the Catholic Church, Melbourne: Dove Communications, 1984 and London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1985
Columkille Regan, C.P. contributed this "Ask a Catholic!" response.
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