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Legitimately Fuzzy Grounds for Annulment

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 26, 2014

When I wrote about motivations for annulment yesterday, I concentrated on the dispositions which all those who take marriage seriously as a sacramental vocation should have when it comes to entering the process. One of the practical reasons a proper disposition is essential for both the couple and the tribunal staff is that grounds for annulment are not all black and white.

To be sure, some of them are. If one spouse is already married, he cannot contract a new sacramental marriage. Even if the outward form of the ceremony takes place, its result is null (that is, non-existent, there is no result). The same is true if one or both parties have not been baptized, rendering sacramental marriage impossible.

It is also true that if the couple is incapable of the marital act, the marriage cannot be consummated, which is necessary to inviolability of the sacramental bond. Moreover, the Catholic understanding of marriage includes openness to children. A marriage will be null if one party enters it without a willingness to have children. Similarly, when one party is forced to marry—such as in a “shotgun wedding”—the marriage is null.

But with this last example we encounter the problem of degrees. There is often a degree of duress in the decision to go through with a wedding. Is one party having second thoughts but does not want to be cruel or suffer the embarrassment of backing out? Will a pregnant woman, or the child’s father, enter into marriage at least in part because it seems the responsible thing to do? It is difficult to say at exactly what point such pressures are sufficient to destroy freedom of consent, and therefore serve as grounds for annulment.

All intentional deficiencies can be rather fuzzy. I have already mentioned a refusal to have children, but what if one party enters the marriage with the attitude that “if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just bail and find somebody else.” When one spouse abandons the other, it is perfectly legitimate to raise the question of the original intent. If witnesses can be found to testify that one partner was joking right up to the ceremony about how easy it is to get out of marriage, there are clear grounds for nullity. Of course, investigatory caution is always necessary: One party might lie about his intentions just to have an unhappy marriage declared null.

Other deficiencies would afflict any couple which, enjoying an intoxicated euphoria upon their first meeting in Vegas, decides to marry within hours of meeting. This is an exaggerated case, of course, and it presumes that they could actually find a priest to witness a sacramental marriage. This is unlikely, and forestalling a lack of due deliberation is but one of many reasons the Church requires a “pre-Cana” process, including a certain passage of time between the declaration of the intention to marry and the wedding itself.

Then there are true psychological incapacities—also fuzzy! When is someone too immature to possess a basic adult understanding of the marriage commitment? At age ten, clearly. But what of someone who is unusually immature at age eighteen? At 25? And what about intellectual capacity? We do not credit the requisite understanding in someone who is mentally retarded. But severe emotional instability, bipolar disorder, and other diagnosable psychological disorders could certainly cause a lack of due discretion in one of the parties—impeding understanding, freedom or both.

The decision to annul or uphold the validity of a marriage is very often far from simple. How much alleged “incapacity” is merely the normal human condition, how much constitutes a true impediment, and how much is, as we might say, blowing smoke? These complexities make the proper spiritual disposition even more important for those who enter the annulment process, and for those who sit in judgment.

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: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 27, 2014 1:09 PM ET USA

    To jg23753479: Your guess is correct. The Church has ultimate authority over the sacramental marriage bond. If a marriage is declared null, the couple in question can act in good conscience henceforth as if there is no marriage bond. Absent deception, the couple acts rightly in accepting the Church's judgment. Even though the human reasoning on which the judgment is based may be incorrect, the judgment itself is binding.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Sep. 26, 2014 4:04 PM ET USA

    This series of essays is interesting. If you write a third installment, I have a question: What is the validity of a tribunal's decision based on complexities of the kind you discuss above? In other words, is the Church's mandate to bind or loosen ultimately what prevails? Of course, I eliminate from this question any consideration of outright lying and fraud; I refer here only to legitimate questions of immaturity, proper consent, etc.