What is the basis for marital annulment?

Jesus was pretty clear about marital divorce and the biblical importance of being married. In Matthew 19:3-9, he rejected the Jewish custom of divorce and upheld marriage as a sacred institution: "Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." The only cause for divorce was adultery: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery" (also Luke 16:18). The Roman Catholic Church maintains, however, that annulment is not divorce, nor does it grant marital divorce. In Romans 7:2-3, Paul refers to the Jewish law that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, however, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, he makes allowances for believers who are married to unbelievers to let the unbelieving spouse leave if they so desire. To the Catholic Church, marriage consists when valid matrimonial consent is given between two baptized members of the Church. An annulment, or Decree of Nullity (sacramental nullity), is the Church's declaration that a marriage was not legitimate to begin with because the proper elements of a valid, consummated, sacramental marriage were never met -- basically, the marriage is null and void -- not that it never happened, just that proper consent wasn't given and therefore wasn't fully concecrated in the eyes of God (only in the eyes of men). This is due primarily to one or both marital parties not clearly understanding the sacraments of marriage, thus, not fulfilling the sacramental requirements of the marriage from the start.

An Annulment is a declaration by the competent Tribunal (ecclesiastical court) that a particular marriage was canonically invalid from its inception (on the day vows were exchanged). It is not until after a civil divorce that an annulment may be sought and it is not until after an annulment is granted that a Catholic may remarry in the Church. Should nullity not be granted by the Church, the married couple may still separate and divorce, however, because it was determined that their marriage was sacramentally valid, then they are not allowed to re-marry. The annulment process determines whether both parties were truly free to marry, if they were entirely capable, if they gave sufficient reflection to what they were undertaking, and whether or not they really consented to marriage as the Church understands marriage. Reasons for petitioning an annulment may include premeditated infidelity, gross immaturity, unknown intent to refrain from childbearing, mental illness, or e pre-existing psychological condition. The process for annulment is as follows:
  • The married party first obtains a civil divorce or a civil annulment.
  • The local Church is then contacted and instructions and initial paperwork are procured.
  • An appointment is made with a consultant for a preliminary interview (usually for a couple hours). Psychological grounds for annulment require an interview with a psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • A list of witnesses must be gathered (at least two), since testimony of the formerly married couple alone is not satisfactory.
  • If grounds for an annulment can be determined from the preliminary procedure, then a petition for annulment will be drawn up by the Church and submitted to a Tribunal for a formal hearing.
  • At the hearing, either both parties or one of the previously married individuals will present sworn testimony to verify the conditions that existed at the time the marriage was contracted. Witnesses must be present and also provide testimony. Testimony is given to the Tribunal, which consists of a Judge or judges (priests), a Defender of the Bond, a Notary, and an advocate for the former spouse.

If an annulment is denied by the judge, an appeal may be made. If an annulment is granted, the case must be reviewed by the Inter-Diocesan Tribunal, which consists of three judges, before the decision is final. The average time for the annulment process is between one and two years. Although the local Archdiocese usually covers some of the cost of the annulment process, the petitioner may be requested to pay a portion of the expenses -- anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to $1,200 -- including an initial portion when the petition is submitted (the total of which, in some circumstances, may be reduced or even waived). Payment of fees should have no bearing on the final decision. A declaration of nullity within the Catholic Church has no effect in civil law, nor does the Church recognize the efficacy of civil divorce. Both spouses do not have to take part in the annulment process, although the non-participant, known as the respondent, must be given the right to participate (the respondent also cannot prevent an annulment). Annulment does not effect the legitimacy of children.

Unlike a divorce, where a legal contract of marriage is legally dissolved, an annulment declares that the marriage was never sacramentally ligitimate, somewhat like a sacred loophole or an inviolable technicality, wherin the marriage was deemed illegal or unholy to begin with. The question remains, though, as to what authority the priest had in the first place for overseeing the marriage of the couple requesting an annulment? Catholics are not allowed to marry until they have convinced their local priest that they meet the requirements for marriage according to the views of sacred matrimony held by the Church. Most Catholic marriage ceremonies are concluded with the priest claiming the authority of God and the Church as witnesses to the matrimonial bonds, with reference to Matthew 19:6, "Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Although annulment may bring peace and resolution to a divorce, the debate is still open as to what the basis is for granting an annulment. Whether or not a Catholic priest has the power to loose or bind on earth as in heaven (Matthew 16:19, John 20:23) is not the point, since it would then be a violation of priestly authority to bind and loose marriages, which would be a divine sanction of the power of divorce, something the Church is careful not to advocate. Priests do have the authority, however, according to the Catholic Church, at a later point in time to determine the conscious state (both psychological and spiritual) of the individuals at the time of marriage. It is their judgment of this, after the course of the marriage procedures within the sanction of the Church is final, that determines whether or not the marriage was in fact legitimate in the eyes of God.

        "Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?' 'Haven't you read,' he replied, 'that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.' 'Why then,' they asked, 'did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?' Jesus replied, 'Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.' " (Matthew 19:3-9)

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Reference sources: Catholic Answers -- The Permanence of Matrimony (http://www.catholic.com/library/permanence_of_matrimony.asp); EWTN Global Catholic Network -- Annulment/Decree of Nullity (http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/annulment.htm); Father Pat's Place (http://frpat.com/annulments.htm); Holy Name of Mary Parish, New York -- Marriage Annulment Information (http://www.catholic-church.org/holyname/annulidx.htm); Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston -- Annulment (http://www.dwc.org/questions/qannulment.htm); WeddingGuideUK.com -- Roman Catholic Weddings (http://www.weddingguide.co.uk/articles/ceremonies/catholic.asp)