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Answering common questions concerning annulments

Each year over 100,000 Americans, including many thousands of non-Catholics, are involved in the Catholic Church’s annulment process. Many times that number of persons is affected by the decisions reached in annulment cases. All of these people, to say nothing of general observers of things Catholic, have questions about annulments. Here we will consider, with a special eye to apologetic concerns, ten of the most common questions raised about annulments.

What is an annulment? 

The word “annulment” is not actually used in the Code of Canon Law, and canon lawyers generally refer to “declarations of matrimonial nullity” when addressing this topic. In any event, an annulment is an official determination by an ecclesiastical tribunal that what appeared to be a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church was not.

An annulment is not a finding that the two former spouses never really loved each other, nor does it conclude that the divorce was more one side’s fault than the other’s, or that one party is a better Catholic than the other, and so on. It is only a determination of one or more of the following: that, at the time of the wedding, one or both parties to the marriage lacked sufficient capacity for marriage; that one or both parties failed to give their consent to marriage as the Church understands and proclaims it; and, in weddings involving at least one Catholic, that the parties violated the Church’s requirements of canonical form in getting married. In practical terms, after nullity is declared-if it is declared-the Catholic Church considers the parties of the impugned marriage free of the marriage bond that would have otherwise arisen.

How is a Church annulment different from a civil divorce? 

Many people refer to annulments as “Catholic divorces,” but divorces and annulments differ in very fundamental ways. Still, it might be easier to begin by seeing what annulments and divorces do have in common.

A divorce and an annulment are similar in that they both are legal declarations that are necessary before one person can marry another, if either of them had been married before and the former spouse(s) are not deceased. But that’s where the similarities end and the differences begin.

A divorce is a civil judicial act whereby what was a civilly valid marriage is officially terminated. The state makes no secret about its claimed power to separate what it once joined. (I hedge a bit on conceding the state power to separate what it “joined” because, in many cases, what it joined was a valid marriage under natural law, and that’s not something the state is free to tinker with. But that’s a different problem.)

A Church annulment, on the other hand, is an ecclesiastical judicial act whereby what was believed to be a canonically valid marriage is declared not to have been one in the first place.

An annulment does not deny that a relationship, perhaps a long and serious one, existed between the parties. It does not imply that parties were culpable in living together as man and wife or that their children are illegitimate.

Divorce destroys something that was; Annulments recognize that something never was. That is not just semantics. It’s a matter of precision and hence a matter of truth. Thoughtful people will avoid treating things like divorces and annulments, which are similar in some respects, as if they were similar in all respects.

Aren’t Church annulments a repudiation of Christ’s teaching that marriage lasts forever?

In no way. However much other Christian denominations discourage divorce among their members, the Catholic Church is the only one that flatly prohibits divorce and remarriage for its people. Believe me, I see folks leave the Catholic Church all the time over its refusal to approve a second marriage for them. That’s painful and sad, but the Church is not going to change its teachings in this matter, because it has received those teachings from Christ himself.

Annulments, however, look at something very different. A declaration of matrimonial nullity is made only when, upon careful investigation, it is proven that what occurred between the parties was not a marriage in the first place. Some confusion on this point, maybe even some incredulity, is to be expected. But it is not right to read into Church practice an assumption that the Church, at no small cost to the Body of Christ, expressly rejects.

It’s a Church rule that divorced people have to receive an annulment before being allowed to marry in the Church. Why should folks have to pay money for one of the Church’s rules? 

The state requires people to get a civil divorce before it allows them to remarry under its laws. Before they get that divorce, the state requires them to pay certain fees and court costs. Is it unfair of the state to make folks pay for one of its rules?

Technically, of course, one doesn’t pay for a civil divorce as if it is literally for sale; one pays for the legal process by which that divorce is officially effected. Similarly, one does not pay for an annulment; rather, one pays for the canonical process by which an annulment might be granted. (Notice I say might be granted.)

Unlike a civil divorce, an annulment is not a more-or-less automatic process in which one has an eventual right to a certain outcome. Because of the Church’s commitment to permanent marriage, the annulment process is concerned with very different-and usually much more complex-types of issues than is a civil divorce court. The ecclesiastical process requires the attention of highly trained officials and supporting staff. Of course, if an individual truly cannot meet his or her share of the cost, procedures for reducing or waiving tribunal fees are available (canons 1464 and 1649). No one is ever denied his “day in the tribunal” because of an inability to pay. Even when individuals pay their diocese’s standard tribunal fees, no diocese I know of makes money on annulments.

How much does an annulment cost? 

Typically they tend to be more expensive on the East Coast and in urban areas, and less expensive in the Midwest and South.

Most commonly, there are the basic petition fees payable to the tribunal. This is what most people refer to when they talk about the cost of an annulment. In the U.S., most tribunals charge anywhere from $200 to $1,000 for adjudicating a standard nullity case. A few charge somewhat over $1,000, and several charge nothing at all. The fee for “documentary cases”-that is, cases eligible for the expedited process under canon 1686 (where, for example, a Catholic party violated canonical form when attempting to marry)-is usually much less, around $25.

Although there is, strictly speaking, authority on the part of the tribunal to assess fees on both parties in a marriage case (canon 1649), this is not usually done. Rather, petitioners almost always pay all fees associated with a case.

What is important to take from this is that horror stories about $20,000 annulments are myth. Conceivably, if one had filed in the most expensive tribunal, had used extensive medical and psychological testimony, and had appealed the case through various levels of ecclesiastical courts, including Rome, one could incur a bill of some thousands of dollars. But such cases are rare.

How long does an annulment take? 

Church law requires that tribunals handle all cases as quickly as possible and usually in the order they are received (canon 1458). From the time a complete application is presented to the tribunal, one should expect a decision in about twelve months (canon 1453). The mandatory review that is required in every case in which an annulment is granted (canon 1682) can take up to six additional months, but it often requires less than that.

Cases that present clear canonical grounds for nullity and that are supported by strong evidence can be adjudicated more quickly (canon 1606). It is, on the other hand, possible to have a nullity case taken out of turn for good reason (canon 1458); but again, the tribunal’s judgment controls here. The “we’ve-already-set-a-date-and-booked-the-reception-hall” argument is not considered a good reason for a tribunal to take a marriage case out of turn.

Will the length of time two people were married make any difference in an annulment case?

The duration of a marriage is not proof of its validity or invalidity and can be used as evidence of either. An annulment case focuses on what happened prior to, and at the time of, the wedding. Any post-wedding evidence, such as the length of the marriage, is useful only to the degree that it helps illuminate the parties’ status and actions in getting married.

For example, a couple who remains together for a long period of time obviously had at least some relational skills and some capacity for life together. That evidence tends to point toward the validity of their marriage. At the same time, canon law recognizes a legal principal from the Middle Ages: What was infirm at the beginning cannot be made firm just by the passage of time. Examples of marriages which lasted many decades, but which still were later proven to be null, can be found.

On the other hand, if a couple remains together for just a few weeks or even days, that gives some evidence that they really had no idea what marriage was all about in the first place. It can therefore be argued that they never entered what the Church would recognize as a valid marriage. However, just as above, examples of marriages that “lasted” only a few months, but that could not be proven canonically null, do exist.

Is it true that one cannot receive an annulment if the marriage produced children?

Not true. The presence of children is not proof that a marriage was valid, and the absence of children is not proof that it was invalid. Recall that all nullity cases turn only upon issues related to canonical capacity, consent, and form at the time of the wedding. Children, love, happy experiences, and so on, or the lack of those things, might shed some light on the kinds of issues which concern tribunals, but they are not themselves the issues upon which tribunals decide cases.

Will an annulment render the children illegitimate? 

Let me say two words about the term “illegitimacy”: It stinks. Babies are not illegitimate, no matter how illegitimate might have been the acts by which they were conceived. Babies are conceived in the image and likeness of God, who loves them all.

Next, illegitimacy no longer carries any canonical consequences. The main reason why the concept of legitimacy is still treated in the 1983 Code is, I think, because some nations, by treaty with the Holy See, accept canonical declarations of nullity in place of civil divorces. Thus, civil law questions of child-support and inheritance could be clouded if legitimacy were not treated in canon law.

Canon 1137 states that children born or conceived of a valid or putative marriage are considered legitimate. Canon 1061 § 3 calls “putative” those marriages that, though invalid, were nevertheless celebrated in good faith by at least one of the parties, until that time, if any, when both parties become certain of its nullity. The great majority of the formal nullity cases coming before diocesan tribunals involve at least one, usually two, persons entering marriage in good faith, hence entering at least a putative marriage, resulting in the legitimacy of the children.

Moreover, if a child is born to parents not married or only civilly married, but the parents later validly or even putatively marry, such marriage automatically renders the child or children canonically legitimate (canon 1139). Even here, the later annulment of the marriage would not render these children canonically illegitimate. Finally, canon 1139 states that children can be legitimated by rescript of the Holy See. In brief, the granting of an annulment petition does nothing to affect the legitimacy of children.

I won’t pretend that these answers satisfy every nuance of the questions considered, and we all know these are not the only questions that apologists will encounter on the topic of annulments. But if I have given a basic orientation to the subject of annulments, and if I have indicated in broad terms the type of intelligent responses that are available to inquiring minds, then we will have accomplished something useful and good.

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