How Does Annulment Work?

With Catholic marriages failing at a rate fairly similar to that of the general population, the Catholic Church works to help its members after divorce through support groups and other avenues.  Often the question of annulment arises and there are many misconceptions about it, so I wanted to discuss it today.

An annulment is a finding by the Church’s tribunal that the marriage was missing a significant component which would be required for it to be a sacramental marriage.

Common myths about annulment: An annulment is not a statement that there was no marriage at all (there was, in reality, the equivalent of a civil marriage or non-sacramental marriage – the technical term is putative marriage) and it does not make any children illegitimate.   That is simply not true.

Another common misunderstanding is the idea that if the couple was not married in the Church, it’s not a sacramental marriage and therefore no annulment is needed if they want to marry again after a divorce.  In fact, when baptized Christians marry, the Catholic Church considers that a sacramental marriage no matter who is presiding at the ceremony.  In the western Christian tradition*, it is not the priest who “marries” them – instead, the couple exchanging vows give the sacrament to each other, they are the ministers of this sacrament. The priest is an official witness and the Church insists upon it as a practice.  When Catholics are married in a service presided by a judge rather than a priest (this would be without permission) it is “valid but illicit” – it’s a true sacramental marriage but not permitted to have been created that way.   

What are the reasons why an annulment is granted?

A finding that the marriage was not a valid, sacramental one comes from the tribunal after a great deal of investigation into the marriage and especially conditions leading up to the marriage.

Certain things are non-negotiable for a sacramental marriage to take place on the day when the couple exchanges vows.  One of them is free consent.  The bride and groom must both be marrying of their own free will (and without any undue pressure, such as the parents forcing them to marry).  If a couple marries because the woman is pregnant, that would be considered an impediment to free consent.  She may feel that she must marry and so goes through the wedding under this pressure.

Another area is the maturity to enter into a marriage – this is also related to free consent, because, for instance, a young child may have no capacity to understand what is being undertaken if committed to a marriage at too young an age.   Some people may marry when they are too young or too psychologically immature and this can lead to divorce; it is a fairly common reason for annulment.

Problems prior to the marriage such as drug addiction or an inability to be faithful and monogamous may be crippling to a couple’s chances of success with the marriage.  These may be considered grounds for an annulment also.

Challenges: Annulment can be a way to help people after a divorce, but in truth there are some problems with it and the way it’s done today (perhaps as a Church we’ll be able to work through  this in the future):

  • When you consider psychological immaturity, it is possible to view most marriages as able to be annulled – how many of us have had to “grow into” our marriages over time and with much prayer and effort? Many of us were a little clueless on our wedding days what we were getting into!
  • Not every marriage can or should be annulled, but many Catholics struggle with not marrying again if they are denied the annulment. Not everyone is called to celibacy. Annulment is not a “one size fits all” solution to the problem of divorce and remarriage in the Church.
  • The annulment process can vary from one diocese to the next to some degree.  Some dioceses grant them more easily than others.  I knew a woman who had very legitimate grounds for an annulment, but she was in a “strict” diocese that let very few annulments through, apparently on principal and not on the code.  Had she been most anywhere else in the U.S., her petition would have been granted.  Perhaps not surprisingly, she drifted away from the Catholic Church after that and later found solace in a Protestant Church.This should not happen.
  • In some areas and some cases, annulments have sometimes happened so easily that it scandalizes the faithful.  We as a Church need to make the whole process better known and understood (I hope my efforts here will help).
  • The annulment process is not easy or quick (often takes about 18 months).  It is tough and time consuming to go through it.  You’re asked a lot of difficult questions and must dig up things that perhaps you’d really rather not deal with that directly again. For some Catholics, the prospect of going through all of that is too immense and they’d rather just marry again civilly.  It is possibly too burdensome in these cases.

I should note, too, that there is a small application fee when applying for an annulment.  This often upsets those requesting it but let me explain that the fee is a drop in the bucket of what it actually costs the tribunal’s office to go through the many petitions it receives each year.  There is literally an office to support, staff, equipment such as copy machines etc.  If the fee is not possible, talk to the office and they will do their best to work it out.  No one is denied an annulment because they’re unable to pay it.

If you want to speak with someone about an annulment, please contact your parish.  Someone on staff there will be able to assist you.

Note for clarification:

*Theological note of interest on who does the marrying – In the eastern Orthodox traditions, it is believed that the priest is the minister of this sacrament, it is the priest who marries the couple, rather than the couple exchanging vows marrying each other.  This is a distinction between the ancient churches of the east and west.

There are other differences between east and west on marriage and remarriage which are also interesting.  The Eastern Orthodox Churches believe that a couple can have just one sacramental marriage (we believe that death breaks this bond) and permits later, non-sacramental marriages – up to three total – after either death or divorce. This is to provide “for human weakness” and the fact that it may be too big a burden for a widow or widower or divorced individual to remain alone. The Catholic Church has a few points of disagreement with the Orthodox but has never condemned this teaching of theirs.

More information and resources on annulment:

The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose has a couple of very helpful pages on the topics of annulment and marriage:  Marriage in the Catholic Church (includes a paragraph on annulment) and on the work of the Tribunal.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco also offers a wealth of information on these topics in great detail (including a discussion on the legitimacy of children, for instance) and is a more comprehensive discussion for those looking for something more in-depth.

Fabulous book, easy to understand that I highly recommend on this topic: Annulment: Your Chance to Remarry Within the Catholic Church: A Step-by-Step Guide Using the New Code of Canon Law.

About my connection to this topic:

I did my MA thesis on marriage, divorce, ministry to the divorced and annulment in the Catholic Church.  Why this topic? I was interested, as mentioned elsewhere, in “alienation and belonging” and found that many Catholics who’d been through a divorce felt unwelcome in their Church.   At the time I was researching and writing this lengthy paper, I was also preparing for my marriage and I do think that I learned a lot that was helpful to me in my own life and marriage in the process.  (That was 26 years ago.)

There’s much more to this important topic than what I’ve covered here.  (Many more myths which are hurtful too.) Please check out the suggested reading above.  Or if you want to read my thesis, it’s at the Graduate Theological Union’s library or shoot me an email at mary (at) and I will email you the pdf of it – the title is “Catholic divorce ministry: theological and pastoral issues and approaches”.  There are one or two things I would change if re-writing it now, but overall I think it’s still pretty good 🙂

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