The confusion, complexities and dangers of marriage annulments: A call to order

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 25, 2015

It’s a sad thing, a broken marriage. I am referring literally to a broken or severed marriage. Of course, all relationships can be broken or severed, and there is sadness in each case. But marriage is the most intimate and fruitful union of a man and a woman, the nexus of the family, a spiritual powerhouse, the perfection of the spouses, and a mirror of the relationship between Christ and the Church.

That is why every broken marriage is a tragedy. But before we can know whether this tragedy has in fact occurred, we have to know what a marriage is, what constitutes it, and therefore whether in any particular relationship between a man and a woman, a marriage actually exists. If in fact a marriage does not exist between two people, then there is no marriage to break. Humanly speaking, this too may carry its load of pain. But in this critical distinction—a matter of fundamental reality—lies all the difference between an annulment and a divorce.

Whatever difficulties may plague the relationship between a man and a woman, an annulment is not in itself a spiritual disaster (a serious sin) because it is simply a determination that a real marriage never existed. The annulment question arises because the Church, as the custodian of Christ’s sacrament of matrimony, must determine whether the man and the woman can truly marry or, in a union which has broken down, whether the man and the woman have truly married.

Making these distinctions from pure motives has always been difficult, and even the Church is no stranger to a certain human tendency to fudge. There is an omnipresent temptation to betray the sacrament in the interest of human desires. For example, hugely disproportionate numbers of annulments are granted in the United States, which indicates either that churchmen in America tend to fudge, or that churchmen elsewhere are unwilling or unable to take sacramental invalidity seriously when it comes to marriage.

Also, what ought to be in some sense a process that helps a couple discover and live the truth of their marital vows too often becomes a decision about whether to accept the couple’s own (often convenient) determination of invalidity. Did I say “too often”? In fact, in most dioceses in the United States, couples are discouraged from exploring the validity of their marriage; their case will not be considered until they have already been divorced.

One understands that, for most people, interest in an annulment does not arise until a couple wants to be freed from their mutual self-commitment. But does a modern tribunal ever seek to enforce marital obligations? To take but one example, it used to be that if a man maintained a separate domicile from his wife, a Catholic marriage court might tell him to cease this arrangement immediately, go home, and embrace the duties of a husband. The widespread modern idea that marriage is essentially disposable affects even those of us in the Church. Our cavalier attitude toward commitment today is fraught with moral and spiritual peril.

The Truth about the Union Remains

Nonetheless—and usually when trouble arises—a couple may have good reason to inquire whether their marriage is valid, that is, whether they are truly married, whether there is any sacramental bond to break. It is here that the various grounds for annulment come into play. What we mean by “grounds for annulment” is impediments to validity—factors that would have prevented the marriage from happening in the first place.

These reasons for invalidity can be quite complex. In addition to the invalidity of a forced marriage, for example, or of a new marriage on the part of one party who is already married, there can be psychological incapacities. A ten-year-old, for example, does not have the requisite maturity to fully grasp the commitment to marriage, and some adults may lack this or other relevant capacities as well—through mental retardation or other psychological illnesses which render either an understanding of marriage or the behaviors necessary to fulfill marriage vows impossible. There can also be deficiencies of intention (such as a refusal to have children) or outright deception.

Therefore, if a man and a woman are able to pass the initial scrutiny of the Church (whether non-existent, sloppy or reasonably thorough) in order to have their marriage witnessed in the first place, then when the relationship gets rocky and the couple desires to end it, the Church must obviously examine again, more closely, whether they have a spiritual obligation to be faithful to the putative marital union, or whether in fact a marital union was never effected in the first place.

Where to Turn?

I have seen no book which explores the grounds of nullity more clearly and thoroughly than Paolo Bianchi’s new title from Ignatius Press, When Is Marriage Null? The subtitle is accurate when it proclaims this a “guide to the grounds of matrimonial nullity for pastors, counselors, and lay faithful”. Fr. Bianchi holds a degree in Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is judicial vicar for the ecclesiastical region of Lombardy. Originally published in Italian in 1998, this is the book’s first appearance in English.

The range of the book can be seen in the topics covered: violation of freedom of consent, intended errors of fact concerning the persons involved, simulation of consent, exclusion of children, exclusion of the indissolubility of the bond, exclusion of fidelity, impotence, incapacity to consent, incapacity to assume the obligations of marriage, and conditional consent. Two final chapters consider convalidation of an invalid marriage and the pontifical dispensation from a ratified and non-consummated marriage.

What makes this book so helpful is the depth and manner of treatment of each topic. Every chapter is divided into three clear sections: Elements of Substantive Law, Guide for the Counselor, and Examples. Moreover, Fr. Bianchi excels at explaining each concept as it relates to marriage law and the validity of the sacrament.

There are many good reasons a reader might wish to know more about grounds for annulment. In addition to individual marital problems, there is considerable concern about the crisis of marriage today, and it is important for Catholics to understand the issues in play, rather than jumping to conclusions which may oversimplify the problem.

Fr. Paolo Bianchi’s book accomplishes in 315 dense but illuminating pages what might ordinarily be covered in an entire course on the subject. Those who need to know should start here.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bai Macfarlane (Mary's Advocates) - Jul. 03, 2016 9:12 AM ET USA

    The pro-annulment crowd requires too much maturity. Nowadays, a party who exercises his/her freedom to abandon marriage is empowered by the no-fault divorce courts to force out of the marital home the other parent that wants to keep the family together. Professional divorce lawyers teach their clients that "you have a right to a divorce." Instead, the community could be telling the party that wants to break apart their marriage "you need help" and pointing them to where to find it.

  • Posted by: FredC - Aug. 26, 2015 1:13 PM ET USA

    I am sure the book goes into greater depth, but we had to learn the impediments to a valid marriage when I was in high school in the 1950's.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Aug. 25, 2015 11:00 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately in today's society annulment is kind of akin to locking the barn door after... IMO, and I could be IMOwrong, too many people want it both ways: I want to marry NOW, no banns, no 6 month waiting, no discernment, no worry about faith/religon of other, and on and on. Then when the mistake is discerned, an annulment is needed...now. And equally unfortunately, IMO, and I could be IMOwrong, most cases are complex and take time to resolve; for these, there is no easy answer of time.