The questions around divorce, annulment and remarriage in the Catholic Church are huge issues for nearly all of us. Obviously, there are many, many people who are back in the dating world after having been married. And those of us who haven't been married still deal with the subject regularly when we date Catholics who have been divorced.
It's all very confusing, really. The Church believes marriage is permanent, but there's this process you can go through so it's not really permanent, and . . .
Let's start at the beginning. What exactly is an annulment? Is it really just the Catholic Church sprinkling holy water on a divorce so that the parties can validly remarry?
The Church teaches, has always taught and always will teach that a valid marriage is permanent and unbreakable. Why? Because permanent marriages are better for society or kids or the Church? No. We believe that marriage is permanent and unbreakable because Christ said so, repeatedly. (See Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12. Luke 16:18, for starters.) And the Church, being founded by Christ, doesn't have the authority to pick and choose among His teachings. (I once got into a discussion about this in a bar with a Catholic guy who was trying to hit on me. When he said that Christ might not have said what He did about divorce if He had known what would happen in the next 20 centuries, I pointed out that He essentially did know, what with being God and all. And then this "Catholic" man got that "I-just-had-a-really-brilliant-thought" look on his face and said, "Well, wait! He was the Son of God. But does that mean he was God?" That's when I gave up having theological discussions in bars.)
So marriage constitutes a permanent union between a man and a woman. What, then, is an annulment? Is the Church somehow claiming the power or authority to dissolve that union?
Again, no. What the Church is saying is that they have investigated the circumstances surrounding the marriage, and have concluded that a valid marriage never took place and that therefore the marital bond has never occurred.
According to Catholic sacramental theology, marriage has three essential parts. First of all, marriage is permanent. Second, it is faithful. And third, it is open to life. When someone is standing up on the altar reciting their wedding vows, they are consenting to those three things. Look at what they're saying their "I do's" to. "Do you Walter, take Henrietta to be your wife?" Remember all that stuff about "Will you welcome children?" "Forsaking all others?" and "Til death do you part?" (I don't have the actual vows memorized — although you'd think I would, as many weddings as I've attended.) Those questions are designed to insure that the parties are consenting to the essential elements of marriage.
This is why I dislike the practice of couples writing their own vows. Do those vows constitute the essential elements of marriage? Are they committing to an actual marriage, or just the version of it that they've made up? (I read somewhere that Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt's vows mentioned something about "banana milkshakes forever." You can see how that one turned out.)
So what if someone "gets" married, but in their hearts they aren't committed to those three essential elements? What if they're standing on the altar saying the words, but inside they're thinking, "But we're really not going to have kids" or "If this doesn't work out, we can always get divorced and then I'll find someone else" or "Well, sure, you'll be my wife , but Camilla will still be my girlfriend "? Are they committing to a real marriage?
Or conversely, what if they're both committing to those three things, but one of them isn't psychologically healthy enough to sufficiently understand such a commitment? Or what if one of them is withholding crucial information that, if the other party knew, he or she wouldn't be up there making the commitment? What if one of them has been forced or coerced?
The Church is saying that, in these situations, a true marital union was never formed, because the parties either weren't committing or weren't able to commit to a real authentic marriage.
The annulment process is all about looking at what was happening at the time of the marriage, to determine if a valid marital union was ever present. It isn't about looking at what happened after the marriage took place, except to the extent that it may give evidence as to an ongoing condition that would have been present at the time of the marriage. In other words "she cheated on him" isn't in itself enough to annul a marriage. But "she had no intention of being faithful when she got married" would be. Cheating can't "break" a valid marital commitment. But the intent to cheat at the time of the marriage means there was never a valid marriage from the start.