Dating and Annulments

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.

Make sense?

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    Given the lack of catechesis and limited precana screening that occurs, there are probably a lot of marriages out there that would qualify for annulments.

  • Guest

    In fact, it takes three to marry — bride, groom and God.

    Another blinding flash of the obvious is that love is not chemistry or a feeling — it is a self-sacrificing choice; choosing the greater good for the beloved. And the greatest good is union with God — heaven. So we should marry our beloved with the primary intention of getting them to heaven.

    But, as I learned it, there are at least two other elements in a sacramental marriage according to Catholic theology not mentioned in the article. 

    1) Each person must be free to enter into Holy Matrimony and do so free of coercion.

    2) Each must oblige themselves fully, holding nothing back, the two persons commit to becoming one, a pair, a family. It’s not a contract one is no longer be obligated to when the other party fails to live up to their end; it’s a sacramental reality.So, we have five elements to marriage, which I have learned to remember using this memory help:

    • Freely – no coercion

    • Fully – no holding anything back (including one’s fertility)

    • Faithfully – in accord with God’s will (no adultery)

    • Fruitfully – open to life

    • Forever – unto death (and beyond in heaven)

    Another memory help for this: Our Lord hanging on the cross — one need only contemplate a crucifix to remember these five “Fs” as well.

    Somehow, many (most?) Catholic couples do not grasp these elements when entering into Holy Matrimony.

    Finally, I would ask ourselves to consider why it is that marriages are published in the papers, announced to the world, and long-lost friends and relatives are invited to the feast.  They are huge community events. All are joy-filled to talk to each other about it openly and even tell strangers!  

    Divorces tend to be private and hush-hush. The news usually spreads quietly behind the scenes and left unspoken. (Celebrities are the obvious exception to this trend)

    Isn't it because marriage images the love of the Trinity?

  • Guest

    In many cases annulments are basically hypocrisy.

     It is the Catholic answer to divorce.

    I write from Ireland where in the past it was almost impossible to get an annulment. So people just ignored the Church and set up second relationships, to the extent that in a country almost fully Catholic 30% of children are born outside marriage. In some areas the figure is 50%.

    A friend of mine who is a priest was appalled at these figures so he encourages people whose marriages have broken up to get an annulment in the US, which he can organize with an address that is basically a fiction.

    He knows a diocese where essentially annulments are on demand and it is easy for him  to organize annulments.

    The priest in the US who is involved with these annulments claims that every case is judged on its merits. But them he admits that he does not know of anyone who was refused an annulment.

    I know of a man who has had about five children and more grand-children who got an annulment. Does this mean all these children are illegitimate, born outside marriage?

    Let us be honest and admit that an annulment is often a fiction.


    God bless,


    s; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.

  • Guest

    Dear Noel: May I take a run at your questions? 

    I'm an American convert, and have team-taught R.C.I.A., and this question always comes up.  In fact, my own husband has left the Church citing these (and other) grounds.

    First, you don't seem to understand the difference between "civil" marriage and "sacramental" marriage.  Because the priest/deacon has the civil authority to unite a couple in marriage, just like any judge or minister, all marriages are civil marriages.  All children/grandchildren are "legitimate", as in any civil union.  That's why a civil divorce needs to be obtained before one can apply for an annulment. 

    A "sacramental" marriage, on the other hand, is (indeed) a sacrament, a promise before God.  The factors mentioned in the article must be in place for the marriage to be a "sacrament".  And, sometimes it takes a lot of "living" before one understands that there was an element missing at the time of the marriage (hence, the man with the children and grandchildren who got an annulment).  Perhaps, when the reality of the situation dawned on him, he decided to stay married and try to work it out, and only after several years (or, perhaps, decades) decided to stop trying.

    Finally, as to the deeper question of "annulments on demand", yes, admittedly, there are priests and bishops who "play games" with the Sacraments.  Besides annulment, I personally know priests who "fool around" with Reconciliation; and then there are the priests and bishops who "play games" with Holy Communion and the pro-choice politicians.  And my question to you is: so what?  The message of God is true and our faith is true regardless of what anyone but God says or does. 

    Bottom line, as we Americans like to say?  Stop looking at everyone else and what they are/are not doing.  Go to the nearest Tabernacle or Monstrance, and look at Who really counts.  And, if you dare, ask Him to show you what you look like from His point of view.

  • Guest


    I grant that there is inconsistency from diocese to diocese. (As you pointed out, determinations on nullity are made at the diocese, not the parish) 

    Here in the USA, marriage tribunals in some dioceses issue very few statements of nullity; marriage tribunals in other dioceses seem to issue many.

    But the distinction the dioceses are making between divorce and annullment is the same for the whole Church.  The tribunals are examining whether the marriage ever was (sacramentally), not dividing the spoils of what once was (civilly).

  • Guest


    Protect the Rock & Cooky642

    Thank you for your thoughtful replies to my comments.

    The late Pope John Paul II shared my concerns.

    Pope John Paul II has written extensively that far too many annulments are 'decreed' in the United. Each year eighty percent of the annulments granted throughout the world are decided in the United States alone! (NCR, 10/29/99). Roughly ninety percent of the annulments 'petitioned' for in the American Catholic Church are approved(S.R.Kennedy, Shattered Faith). In Italy, by way of comparison, only 37 percent are granted. (

    It seems strange to me that such geographical anomalies can occur, both between and within countries.


    God bless,

    In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.

  • Guest

    I don't know about Italy, but considering the poor state of catechesis in the USA, it does not surprise me that 90% or more of American Catholics get married neither understanding nor preparing for the sacrament. In the USA, a high percentage of Catholics marry partners outside the faith, many are not open to children, many get married outside the Church — standing on a beach and using their own vows and so forth.

    Perhaps the Church does  a better job preparing couples in Italy?

  • Guest

    Cooky643:   While we can all agree that the making of a Catholic marriage is a sacrament, the problem arises because the unmaking of that Catholic marriage in America has become indistinquishable from civil divorce.  Every single one of the conditions enabling a Catholic annulment would be grounds in most states for a civil divorce. 

    The only differences are that most states require a heavier weight of evidence for the existense of the pre-condition than the church, and the church does not provide for child support.   

    The church treats the wedding a sacred, and then treats the annulment as a matter of secular contract law.  Alas, where were the present group of American Bishops when we really needed them?  England would still be Catholic because Henry could have had his divorce by merely swearing "I wasn't ready".       

  • Guest


    Thank you for your comments.  This is a big problem area.  But I found your remarks are also an example of how poorly the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is understood. How the Church views annulments is exactly opposite to how you characterize it.

    First, The Church treats a wedding as sacred because it is witness to the sacrament — a visible sign established by Christ to give grace.  Holy Matrimony is the only sacrament in which the ordinary minister is not a deacon, priest, or bishop.  The Church is a witness; the Christian man the Christian woman, and God enter into a convenant — they marry themselves!

    Next, a Catholic annullment is not "enabled" by any conditions. The Church, when petitioned, has the local diocese convene a tribunal (three people) who investigate the records, review the circumstances, interview witnesses, and determine whether a sacramental marriage ever existed. By contraast, the divorce laws in most states require nothing more than the married partners to sign a request to be divorced. The bulk of the civil litigation is over dividing up child custody, visitation and the common property.

    Show us some states which require a heavy burden of evidence on pre-mariatal conditions in order to grant a divorce.  Nealry every one of the fifty states are happy to approach marriages which everyone agrees are 100% valid and legal and still grant a divorce for "irreconcilable differences."

    Next, your "England would still be Catholic" comment is a complete red herring. Henry VIII had petitioned for and received a papal indult in order to be permitted to marry Catherine of Aragon.  So asking for an annulment based on "I wasn't ready" would be saying "I lied to you before" and would not fly. 

    Where are our bishops? Well, while I suppose a bishop could overrule the marriage tribunal, but I hope you can see my point that it would not take away from the root cause, which is that people are not entering into marriage as a sacrament. [that's also why we have many Catholics who have no problem with same sex "marriage"] So our bishops and parents need to to a much, much better job teaching the faith to our children so they understand God's plan for marriage.  They must understand the five "Fs" mentioned above.

    This is ever more important in a culture that is screaming the exact opposite about marriage and human sexuality 24/7 with sophisticated marketing aimed at the very young.

    I think another good practice would be to show couples preparing for Holy Matrimony what the annullment paperwork looks like.  If the tribunal's questions are not addressing the same issues as the couple have already considered and answered, then they have some work to do. Sometimes viewing an auto wreck or an autopsy is the best safe driving class we can give.

    Or we could just badmouth our bishops.

  • Guest

    Please look up the definition of the word "enabled".  My use of that word was precise and correct.

    All – and that means every single one of the recommendations for annulment by the local tribunal must be approved by the Bishop. The tribunal gathers testimony and recommends. The Bishop is the only one with the authority to grant, and then only in his own diocese.

    The LaSalle Law Library cites 38 states that require testimony under oath and subject to advesarial cross-examination to satisfy preconditional causes for contractural annulment.  For specific causes testimony must be from a licensed professional (such as a doctor or psychiatrist). 

    The Chruch treats an annulment of a Catholic marriage by exactly the same means and methods as a civil court treats the annulment of a civil contract, but the Church does not require testimony under oath, nor does it allow cross-examination of that testimony by adversaries.

    Take the time to read what I said more carefully.  I spoke of preconditional causes for annulment. You responding citing civil divorce. There is very big difference between the two. Don't confuse them. Incidentally, irreconciable differences are not a pre-condition. They are a post-condition.

    What does the indult granted by Pope Clement to Henry VIII to marry Catherine of Aragon have to do with his later request for the annulment of that same marriage? Nothing.  It is irrevalent.  Why did you toss that in?

    Henry VIII marriage to Catherine required an indult because she was once married to his brother Arthur.  Henry and Arthur were both the legitimate sons of Henry VII. 

    How could that influence in any way the reason he gave for an annulment?

    In those days a King could not marry his brother's widow.  Too many Kings were getting knocked-off by their aspiring siblings who reinforced their claim to the throne with a ready made Queen. In Henry's case that was not a problem since Arthur was just two years old when he married Catherine.

    As to my bad mouthing our Bishops.  My bad mouth could not come remotely close to damaging them as they have already damaged themselves (and, sadly, our Catholic Church).

  • Guest

    Dear Protect the Rock:   I told my wife that you feel I am an example of how poorly the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is understood by most Catholics.  She agrees with you, and she should know because she has known me for a very long time.

    God willing, we will celebrate our 55th wedding anniversary in September, along with our 5 children, 18 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren. Our clan now has 33 college degrees, four doctors, five lawyers, three company CEO's, a college dean, and a granddaughter that graduated from the Naval Academy and is now flying in F-15's off a carrier in the Med.  

    Nevertheless, it pains me to contemplate how much more satisfying and accomplished our marriage might have been had I only understood the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony as well as you. 

  • Guest


    That is awesome! I commend you on your powerful example in your marriage and family life! And please thank your grandaughter for her service to our country.

    My own life has been a train wreck, but one rescued by Jesus Christ. I have first-hand experience with being raised Catholic, attending Catholic schools and weekly Mass, yet still entering into marriage without understanding it as a sacrament (no, I didn't attend pre-Cana classes because they were optional)  I experienced the abject failure and horror of spousal abandonment, divorce, single parenthood, and sought annulment five years later.

    By the way, please clarify to your wife that I did not say you were an example of how poorly the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is understood by most Catholics.  I wrote your comments were an example of how poorly it is understood.

    But now that I have I reread your comments. Perhaps we are in more agreement than I thought, except I may be too easy on our bishops.

    It was not clear to me that you were getting at.

    Even though dioceses vary sidely, I still maintain that in investigating a petititon for annulment, the Church looks at the sacramentalitiy of the marriage, not . 

    I thikn my comments on whether England would still be Catholic or not speak for themselves.

    Have a blessed holiday weekend1