Reflection: Please Help Me Understand Annulments

by Father Don Thomas

In this first sentence, I want to state emphatically that I am in no way an expert on the subject of annulments. However, having ministered in various parishes for forty years, I dealt with both the granting of annulments as well as the denial of annulments. Believe me when I say that there is a great deal of ignorance and confusion about annulments, and even concern on the part of Rome that perhaps too many annulments are being granted for various reasons in more recent years. This reflection is my simple effort to address some of the above-mentioned facts or concerns.

Know from the beginning that an annulment is not a catholic divorce. Nothing like it at all. A legal divorce involves the existence of a legal bond, and the State comes along and says that the bond is going to be broken or dissolved and no longer exists; now you are free to remarry. That last part about the marrying again is what the Catholic Church is against. The idea behind annulments is to show or prove after serious investigation of an attempted marriage that no sacramental bond ever existed, and that is why the marriage is declared to be null and void.

Be patient now because I would like to give a definition of an annulment, and from experience I know that all kinds of questions will pop into the mind of the reader immediately. I will try to answer those questions clearly.

Here is the definition of an annulment (at least it is mine). An annulment is a statement, issued by either the State or the Church, saying that two people are no longer considered married because from evidence produced, it can be shown that they never were married to begin with. (At this point you are probably saying you were at the wedding). I would suggest that everyone should read that definition about three times in order to really grasp what it says.

One thing to note is that even the State deals with annulments when certain factors are involved in an attempted marriage (some factors are "too young to be legally married, mental conditions or health of the person, impotency or the inability to even perform the act of love, and similar reasons). What the State or Church is saying in effect is "that John and Mary are no longer considered married today, because from the evidence produced, they never were married to begin with".

The State's interest is in granting the annulment legally. The Church for the most part deals with a marriage that definitely was legal (they even have the marriage license to prove it) but for reasons that have been found, the marriage, says the church, was not sacramental. The true sacrament of matrimony was not administered because of "force or pressure, deceit, a previous undeclared marriage, illegal age, impotency and other canonical reasons.

No one questions the fact that the marriage was legal, and therefore, if there were children born of that marriage they definitely are legal or legitimate, but in seeking a church annulment, the church is seeking to show that reasons are present that would disqualify that marriage from being sacramental in the eyes of God. A most important fact to note is that the basis for the annulment has to exist at the time of the marriage, not five months or five years later (like alcoholism, drugs, impotency, and similar afflictions).

 

Comments or questions to be dealt with:

Question: My sister and husband have five children. If they get a church annulment, do the kids become illegitimate? I heard they do.

Response: They do not. It has no effect on the children. The couple had a legal document called a marriage license on their wedding day and therefore the children are legal or legitimate. He will always be their legal father and she will always be their legal mother. Nothing to worry about in that situation. The church annulment deals with the sacramentality, not the legality.

Question: Why does one have to pay for an annulment?

Response: Nobody pays for an annulment. In every diocese there is an Office of the Tribunal, and it deals with marriage cases and annulments. Sometimes when people come in for annulments they have been married once, twice or even more, and when you ask them if they got their divorces free of charge, they are surprised at the question and answer very honestly, "No way, there were attorney fees and my divorce or divorces cost me thousands of dollars". Yet when the church asks for two or three hundred dollars as an offering to cover the expenses for the long distance phone calls, the salaries for secretaries involved in that daily work, payment for attorneys and sometimes psychologists and psychiatrists, office expenses like computers, office supplies, heating or air conditioning, they are ready to have a fit! In the case of all the divorces, there was no whining and arguing. They paid it.

I do want to say this: when the church grants annulments, it is not a matter of charity on their part. This involves justice. If a person deserves an annulment, he or she should get it. I also believe that no annulment should ever be refused because a person is poor. I am confident enough to believe that this does not happen. There are various ways of helping these poor people. One's willingness to cooperate very often goes a long way toward the efficient operation of every Tribunal Office. Usually, if one wants an annulment badly enough, the sacrifices involved are well worthwhile. Remember, no one is forced to get an annulment. The church provides this service for her people. In closing, I do hope that this reflection will be of some help to those who read it!

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