Annulments and the Catholic Church

Dear Catholic Exchange:

I am engaged to be married in November and my fiancée is Catholic. I was married 16 years ago to a Catholic woman, and the marriage ended in divorce 2 1/2 years later. I was never baptized into the Catholic Church and my question is do I have to have my marriage annulled in order to be married in the Catholic Church? It means a great deal to my fiancée and myself.

Thank you for your time,

Eric Gothold

Dear Mr. Gothold,

Peace in Christ!

The fact that you bring up such an issue demonstrates your seriousness about the prospect of marriage and your desire to live according to God’s will. The pastor of the parish in which you plan to be married will be best able to discuss this with you and assess your particular situation. While we cannot make specific judgments regarding the situation, we can provide some basic information. You stated that you were not baptized in the Catholic Church but you did not indicate whether or not you have been baptized within another Christian tradition. The Church recognizes valid baptisms performed outside the Catholic Church.

Because of the prevalence of divorce and remarriage in our society, many adults who come to the Church to be married are either divorced and remarried themselves, married to someone who is, or both. These marriage situations need to be addressed with seriousness and reverence. Sometimes these matters can be resolved quickly, other times the process is more involved and lengthy.

According to our Lord, marriage is a sacrament, an efficacious sign of the covenant of Christ and his Church. As a true sacrament, marriage signifies and communicates grace (see Eph. 5:26-27; Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1617). A sacramental marriage is a valid covenant between two baptized persons. If a Catholic wishes to marry someone who is not baptized, he/she must receive a dispensation from the local bishop in order to contract a valid marriage.

Jesus Christ has established His Church as the keeper and dispenser of the Christian sacraments. He has, therefore, empowered the Church to determine whether a couple entered into a valid marriage (cf. Mt. 16:18-19, 18:15-18). A valid, consummated marriage between two baptized persons cannot be dissolved except by the death of one of the spouses (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1640). Upholding the words of our Lord, the Church does not allow a person to remarry until his/her first marriage has ended through the death of his/her spouse, or until the marriage has been declared invalid (i.e., until the Church has issued a declaration of nullity). In union with her divine founder, the Church teaches that one who remarries, without having first received a dissolution or annulment, “objectively contravenes God’s law” and commits adultery in some sense, despite one’s best personal intentions (cf. Catechism, no. 1650). For further information, please see our FAITH FACT on Divorce and Remarriage.

There are times when two people do not actually validly exchange vows. An annulment basically means that, despite the best intentions of the prospective spouses, they did not provide valid consent at the time of the marriage for one reason or another, and thus they were never married in God’s eyes (cf. Catechism, nos. 1626, 1629). An annulment (or declaration of nullity) is not a divorce. A divorce recognizes a marriage existed but allows common life to end. A declaration of nullity is a decree by a Church court stating that a marriage never existed. If it is determined that a marriage never existed, the people involved are still free to marry. Divorce and remarriage without annulment or dissolution is “grave matter,” which means that such an irregular marriage situation is, objectively, seriously sinful and thus needs to be corrected. For more information on annulments, please see our FAITH FACT “The Annulment Process”.

The Church, as always, seeks the spiritual well-being of her children. She warns of approaching the Blessed Sacrament unworthily, lest one eat and drink condemnation upon himself. The Church teaches that couples in such irregular marriage situations are not to receive Eucharistic Communion while they continue to engage in conjugal relations (cf. Ibid.). The Church does not necessarily presume that the couples are in grave sin (cf. Catechism, nos. 1857-61), but, for their spiritual well-being and the spiritual well-being of the faithful in general, such couples are not allowed to receive Communion if they continue to engage in conjugal relations. If, however, spouses in such marriages receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and pledge to live in “complete continence” (Ibid.), i.e., completely abstaining from the conjugal acts proper to married couples, they may receive Our Lord in Eucharistic Communion. Such abstinence is informally known as “living as brother and sister.” With God’s grace, such a lifestyle until one’s marital status has been resolved is not simply possible, but also provides an edifying way to love Christ and His Church. In the process, such a lifestyle also provides a witness to others about the sanctity of marriage.

Some argue that a divorced Catholic can validly remarry without the Church’s formal recognition by using something called the “internal forum.” This is incorrect. Only the Church has the power to “bind and loose” regarding marriage (cf. Mt. 16:18-19, 18:15-18). More information on the “internal forum” is included in our FAITH FACT on Divorce and Remarriage referenced above.

In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II affirmed that those who are divorced and remarried are not admitted to the Eucharist:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and affected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (no. 84).

The encyclical also presents the option of the couple committing to live in complete continence while waiting for an annulment. By doing this, they would still be able to receive the sacraments:

“Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples’” (no. 84, citation omitted).

In summary, we encourage you to contact your pastor about having your first marriage assessed, and, for your spiritual well-being, to live in complete continence until such time that the Church determines that your first marriage is invalid for whatever reason and you are subsequently married in the Church. One cannot presume that a declaration of nullity will be granted, however, and so we further encourage you to be docile to the Church’s direction in this matter, relying on God’s grace. For additional information, please see our FAITH FACTS Marriage in God’s Plan and What Makes a Marriage.

Please feel free to call us at 1-800-MY FAITH (693-2484) or email us with any further questions on this or any other subject. If you have found this service to be helpful, please consider a donation to CUF to help sustain this service. You can call the toll-free line, visit us at, or send your contribution to the address below. Thank you for your support as we endeavor to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”

United in the Faith,

Peter Balbirnie

Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

827 North Fourth Street

Steubenville, OH 43952

800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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