Annulment Answers

Annulments are confusing.

In the past I tried to give you a general overview of what annulment isn’t (“Catholic divorce”) and what it is (a determination that a sacramental marriage never took place). Then I promised you answers to a whole bunch of questions.

Most of the questions I’ve received from all of you have centered around the question of non-Catholics and annulment. Who needs an annulment? Who doesn’t? So I thought I’d give that question a detailed answer this month.

If someone wasn’t married in a Catholic ceremony, does he or she still need an annulment? Well, maybe. It depends on whether they were Catholic or not at the time of the ceremony.


At the heart of this question is another question, “Do non-Catholic wedding ceremonies confer a sacramental marriage?” Up until the Middle Ages or so, this wasn’t such a big question because Catholicism was the only Christian religion, so pretty much everybody in the western world was Catholic, and thus so were most of the weddings. But then came the Protestant Reformation, and suddenly the Church was encountering the question of whether weddings performed in Lutheran churches were actually valid. Marriage is a sacrament, but is the sacramental union there if the Church wasn’t present or involved in conferring it?

The Council of Trent spent quite a bit of time grappling with that question. They concluded that, in marriage, the priest is not the primary instrument of the sacrament. Rather, the spouses confer the sacrament on each other by their consent to the sacramental union. Therefore, for non-Catholics, weddings in Lutheran churches (or City Hall, or on the beach, or in Vegas with an Elvis impersonator presiding) were valid provided certain criterion were met. First of all, the ceremony had to be public. Back then “clandestine” marriages were common — where people “got married” by sneaking into a corner and saying “Okay, we’re married.” Church and state are both clear that isn’t a legal marriage. Marriage is a public proclamation of commitment, and it must be witnessed by at least two people. That’s why, even if you get married at Ernie’s Love Chapel and Bingo Parlor, Ernie will probably pull his wife away from As the World Turns to come in and act as the second witness.

Second, the parties marrying must be committing to a real marriage. That goes back to last month’s discussion about the three goods of marriage — permanence, fidelity and openness to life. If that commitment isn’t there it isn’t a real marriage, no matter where it happens or who’s presiding.

And, obviously, the parties must be free to marry. If one or both are already married (with or without civil divorce) no marriage can take place.

For Catholics it’s a different story. Because we believe that the Catholic Church is founded by Christ and is His instrument of salvation in the world, and because we believe that our priesthood is directly tied to the Priesthood of Christ, those of us who are in communion with His Church are called to a higher level of respect for the sacramentality of marriage. The Church requires, if at least one of the parties is a baptized Catholic, that the marriage ceremony take place in accordance with the liturgical norms set forth in the Code of Canon Law. In other words, the ceremony is to take place in the presence of the Church — either before a priest or deacon within a Catholic church, or by special permission within another church with a Catholic priest or deacon acting as formal witness.

So what does this mean to all of us? If you’re dating someone who was married in a Protestant ceremony, or in the woods with Pastor Al from the Internet, would that person need an annulment to marry you?

Okay, say Fred and Rita, both Methodists, meet at Southern Methodist University and get married at the campus chapel. It’s the first marriage for both of them. But it turns out Fred is a cross-dresser, and that’s just a little too much strain for Rita to take. They get divorced, and Fred gets half of Rita’s wardrobe in the settlement. Rita then meets Ken the Catholic, who wears only Levi’s and T-shirts. Rita finds that refreshing and wants to marry Ken in the Catholic Church.

Rita would need to petition a Church tribunal for an annulment for her marriage to Fred. Odds are good that she’d get it, because she married Fred not knowing about his penchant for Dolce and Gabbana gowns. Still, she’d need to go through the whole process.

But let’s change the story a little and assume that Rita was a baptized Catholic, but still married Fred at the SMU chapel without a priest present. In that case, in order to marry Ken, she would just have to apply for a decree of nullity due to “defect of form.” In other words, because Rita was Catholic and not married in accordance with the liturgical norms of the Catholic Church, no sacramental marriage is presumed to have taken place. Defect of form is a simple process. Once evidence is shown, the decree is granted.

The moral of the story? If you’re Catholic and planning to marry a cross-dresser, do it at the SMU chapel.

Sorry. Seriously, I hope this is making some sense. If two Protestants who are free to marry do so in a non-Catholic ceremony, the marriage is presumed valid, and for either party to later marry in the Catholic Church, that party would have to apply for and receive and annulment. But if one of the parties was Catholic and they were married in a non-Catholic ceremony, the Church wouldn’t recognize the validity of that marriage, and the party (whether the Catholic or non-Catholic party) would only have to apply for “defect of form.”

Quiz: Rita and Fred are both Methodists. They get married at SMU, but Fred had been married before (and obviously has no Catholic annulment). Now they’re divorced and Rita wants to marry Ken. Does she need a full annulment, or just a decree of nullity due to defect of form?

Answer: Defect of form. In the Church’s eyes, Fred wasn’t free to marry Rita in the first place because he was still presumed to be validly married to his first wife, so no sacramental marriage took place.

Enough confusion for one month? I thought so. Next month we’ll talk about annulments, divorce and dating.

[Editor’s note: Because of the nature of annulments, we stress the importance of contacting a canon lawyer. You may do so through your diocese’s Tribunal.]

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  1. Question, was married in the catholic church for 27 yrs, then divorced. A few yrs later married out of the church. Ex husband dies, Can I remarry or say vows to get my marriage blessed as Catholic?

    1. You might need to consult your diocese’ Judicial Vicar or see a Canon Lawyer. They will examine your situation properly, get more details and tell you what you can do to reenter the Sacrament. Please do not fail to do this. God bless you Deborah

  2. How about 2 Catholics married in the church, and after 18 years one of them says ‘I’m not in love with you anymore and proceeds to marry another person. Now the one that isn’t married and stays single finds that they want to get married again to another Catholic, what would be the process in that?

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