Valid until Proven Otherwise

The following is an actual Mary Beth conversation:

Me: I can't date him. He's not Catholic and he's divorced. In the eyes of the Church he's still presumed to be married.

Other Person: Well that's okay. He can just get an annulment, can't he?

In my last article, I talked about the question of whether or not it's okay to date someone who doesn't have an annulment. After all, that annulment may be denied, which means that the person you've been dating is actually already validly married and thus not available for you. Now I want to talk about the reason most Catholics don't take that very seriously, and the attitudes we risk developing as a result.

From where we as the laity sit, it appears to us that pretty much everybody who applies for an annulment gets it. Thus respecting the "possibility" that it may not be granted becomes more of a theoretical exercise than an actual likely outcome.

I'm not a tribunal "insider," so I don't really know about the actual number of unsuccessful petitions. I don't personally know anyone who has been denied an annulment, but since the people I know constitute a very small percentage of actual Catholics in this world, that doesn't mean much.

I do know that the United States grants a lot of annulments. I know that John Paul II thought that we grant too many of them. I don't know on which end of the marriage spectrum the problem lies. Are our dioceses granting decrees of nullity to marriages that are in fact valid? Or is it just the case that a lot of those big splashy weddings that take up our parishes every Saturday are actually invalid?

Either way, we have a problem.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to me, given the criterion for a sacramental union, that many of today's marriages would not in fact be valid. In a society where marriage is viewed as a temporary arrangement that lasts only as long as it suits both parties, young Catholics at the altar are bound to have absorbed that mentality. Combine that with all of the other factors that can make a marriage invalid, and it's almost inevitable that some annullable unions will slip through the cracks.

I know that there's a big effort within the Church to do more in marriage preparation. Mandatory classes and waiting periods all give engaged couples a chance to examine their relationships and their attitudes before walking down the aisle, and probably derail a few weddings along the way. But the problem is that, in the end, the Church really can't deny the sacrament to a couple who seeks it. If — after all of that preparation — they're still reciting vows they don't really mean or even comprehend, there's not a lot anybody can do about it except to meet them at the Tribunal once it all starts to fall apart.

I'm very grateful for the Church's willingness to investigate marriages and to grant annulments where warranted. There was a time where that wasn't the case. Anyone who said "I do" was presumed to be validly married. A youthful mistake, no matter how ill-advised or ill-prepared, meant no possibility of seeking a real marriage during the lifetime of that initial spouse. There is a real justice in the Church's efforts to do what she can, within the bounds of the eternal truths of marriage, to help those people move forward.

My concern, however, is that when we see all of these annulments happening around us, we begin to lose our sense of the sacredness and permanence of the marital union. We start to assume that every marriage can be annulled, and annulment really does become "Catholic divorce" in our minds. And thus we have conversations like the one I recounted above. "Well, yeah, he just needs to jump through those hoops and then he's all yours."

It winds up creating a vicious circle. A society that doesn't respect marriage leads to more invalid marriages, which leads to more annulments, which leads to more Catholics seeing marriage as dissoluble, which leads to more Catholics who fail to take marriage seriously, which leads to more invalid marriages…

The way I see it, the only solution is to guard our hearts and our minds. We need to constantly remind ourselves that a valid sacramental marriage is an indissoluble union — a permanent "self-gift" of one spouse to the other. That gift can't be "revoked" once it's freely and validly given. The Church doesn't grant annulments because somebody "deserves a second chance." An annulment is granted for one reason and one reason only — because evidence exists that, at the time of the marriage, a defect existed that was serious enough to render the marital union invalid.

We as singles need to keep that in mind in our dating lives as well. I know it feels a little like we're playing games, telling ourselves "the annulment might not go through" when we're pretty darned certain it will. I know in many cases it's more of a theoretical exercise than a likely outcome. But I think the exercise itself is very important. It's about a lot more than the logistics of one individual situation. It's about our attitude towards and respect for the institution of marriage. It's about the example we set for those around us — people who know we're Catholic and are watching us to see how we handle issues of marriage, divorce and annulment.

A valid marriage is permanent, and a marriage is presumed valid until declared otherwise. It's very, very important that we not allow ourselves to lose sight of that.

Mary Beth Bonacci, in addition to being a columnist is an internationally known speaker. In 1992 she addressed 10,000 teenagers in Monterrey, Mexico. In 1993 she spoke to 75,000 people at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. In 1996 she conducted a national seminar for single adults in Uganda, Africa. She does frequent radio and TV work, and has even made several appearances on MTV. In 1999, she spoke to 22,000 people at the TWA Dome during the Pope's visit to St. Louis. Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. Contact Mary Beth: Her web site is

This article is reprinted with written permission of 4marks Magazine and is part of the network which offers a variety of online services to Catholics, including our online Daily Catechism program, Catholic Trivia, Temperament Test and single Catholic service. To learn more about any of our services or how 4marks is helping Catholics connect online in order to deepen their faith offline visit

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  • Guest

    Excellent, excellent article.  There have been some really wonderful articles on annulment lately, from a variety of authors.

  • Guest

    I was gratified when Mrs Robert (?) Kennedy's appeal of the annulment granted by the Diocese of Boston was upheld and her marriage was declared valid.

    It took about 9 years for the wheels of the appellate process to turn, but, in the end the dignity of marriage was upheld.

    I think the data bears out that women and children are primarily the ones directly hurt by divorce.  Easy annulment, among other negative effects, allows men to dump their duty and traipse after "Trixie"…until her boobs start to sag!

    Way to go Rome! (keep on the good work hanging tough on divorce and easy annulment.)

    And thanks Mary Beth.

    (Mary Beth, I have several children approaching the age of courtship and marriage.  I'm very concerned for them because I know many people in their 20s and 30s have been in "starter marriages".  Even those who are living "secondary virginity" may have venereal diseases. (Herpes, HPV, Chlamydia.)  What are your thoughts on courting and dating people in these circumstances?  (Given that through God's grace we have forgiveness of sins and –maybe– these young people had low culpability in the first place because they were never catechized properly by their parents or were raised without faith.)

  • Guest

    Mary Beth, Great article and one that should give us all pause. As one who has gone through the nullity process, I can attest that most do not assume invalidity. As painful as that process is, I would have to assume that those who assume a decree of nullity (proper name) have not really appreciated the gravity of their request. I encountered many who "assumed"  the decree would be an automatic, but then I had to ask where they stood on other issues. Not so surprisingly, it was usually not on Church teachings. Thank you for your wonderful article and reminding us all of the gravity of this sacrament and the request of seeking a decree of nullity. God Bless 

  • Guest

    Given that a large percentage of the U.S. declarations of nullity that are appealed to Rome are overturned, I would be very hesitant to encourage anyone to court a person even with a decree unless it had already been vetted by Rome.  There seems to be a big disagreement over the way that U.S. tribunals handle psychological grounds.  It isn't that there are no invalid marriages out there, but that the way that some people are looking at psychological grounds is too broad.  Ironically, people who attempt to do things the right way have less of an out than people who break the rules in the beginning.  Catholics who marry outside the Church (even to a baptized Protestant) have a defect of form and are not sacramentally married.  Protestants have no such defect of form option (unless of course they married a Catholic outside the Church).

    I think the best advice to singles is stay away from divorced people.  As far as people who haven't practiced chastity at some point earlier in their lives their may be medical issues, but the rest of it should fall under God's forgiveness.  Honesty is important, but details (other than medical ones) would seem unnecessary and even imprudent. 

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    Being of a practical bent, as well . . .

    Divorced persons by and large make the same judgment errors in who to re-marry as in their original marriages. Divorces among previously divorced is much greater than 100% – divorce of one poor choice stacks on same, stacks on same . . .

    Of course, Catholic ways can even be suspect. I know of at least one married guy who goes to Sunday Mass to pick up single women!?! Not merely cheaper than drinks in a bar, he has an aura of respectability from going to Mass. And, clearly, his wife has some strong grounds for annulment on top of divorce, wouldn’t you think?

    It is best to face that the one thing that mitigates about divorce is the rather thorough-going lack of and poor preparation for marriage and family, in and out of the Church. I know when years on years ago couples could voluntarily and informally come to talk pre-Matrimonially about marriage and family with my wife and I, I wondered at the lack of maturity among these poor ‘kids’. Just about anything about these two most vital topics was ‘new and Greek’ to them. Why, I had to teach the poor male beggars that the best form of foreplay was washing the dishes!

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    Merrylamb and PS, thanks for your opinions.  They're helpful.

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    To go further, elkabrikir, off my own thoughts above . . .

    “Divorced persons” make poor choices and are poor choices. And, you bring up possible complications that these divorced may have encountered while ‘re-singled’ – things like diseases. Christ may even have interpreted this caution as ‘leave the divorced to have the divorced’, with large rationale as well as faith. Toughly judgmental? Maybe – but surely the safest route.

    “Catholic ways can even be suspect.” Not only go to Mass with your dating partner – go to Confession and special devotions. Make Sunday a day when both families come into contact at Mass; alternate parishes. (Potential question: If his/her family aren’t churchgoers, why is he/she?) About the “guy who goes to Sunday Mass to pick up single women” . . . the way around this is to ask to meet the potential partner’s Mom. If Mom is a no-go, so is the relationship; otherwise, Mom’ll give the cheater away.

    Of annulment as of divorce – why would divorce even be in the vocabulary of potential mates? My late wife and I agreed that divorce was not in our working marital vocabulary. Issues must be settled, and right now. Sleep is usually less important than unity.

    In considering marriage, three things are important: prepare, Prepare, PREPARE. And, in preparation develop the humilty to mature in God’s will. And, prepare to be your future spouse’s all-time best friend even before the proposal. Frankly, the more the one partner does to learn what his intended thinks of important issues, the less surprises come later. Surprises lead to separation, even if in-house. And, the greater one’s sensitivity toward such knowledge, the more sensitive the other. Couples need not fully agree with each other; they need only understand just where the other is coming from. Important issues are standard: God, Church, children and family, in-laws, finances, sex – and non-standard – and how one can ask questions of the other about things that specially concern the one will be strong indicators about absolutely-vital communications (i.e., for instance, how issues are settled) after marriage.

    Hey! Marriage is the second-toughest job on earth – and meant by God Himself to be preparation for the toughest job – parenthood. Preparation and communication – can’t beat the combination. Looking together to and consulting wise deeply-‘married’ mentors probably comes in third.

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    Thanks Mr Jewell.

    One of my children, respectfully, reminds me that my husband wasn't Catholic or even active in a protestant community while we dated or even into our marriage.  I was a poorly catechized and not quite as zealous a Catholic as I am now; but, I've always felt called to a mystical union with the Lord if that makes sense.(St John of the Cross, Song of Songs and the Gospel of John are among the 3 works that animate my soul and express my love for God…poorly lived as it is.)

    My husband converted after we had been married 10 years…I never asked him to or even suggested it.  (Many graces have come to our family since.) However, I always knew he was a "good egg" and we were/are best friends and he is 1000% on the moral high ground in everything.  He always was open to my need for a faith life, too.

    My child points out the above as a case study against limiting your spousal choices to the man sitting in the pew next to you.  On the other hand, much of this is still theoretical to her since she is not seriously considering marriage (love does just sneak up on you though!)

    She is a well catechized Catholic and loves her faith deeply.  I know she won't make a decision outside of who she is at her core.

    However, I really don't know how to respond to her arguments except to say that God's Grace can overcome any situation created by humans; and, that our sacramental marriage, including and maybe even most importantly being open to life (since the conjugal act is the covenant act between spouses) strengthened and preserved our marriage even to the point of my husband's conversion.  I know that if I achieve eternal union with my Heavenly Spouse it will be through the union with the earthly Husband God gave me.

    Thanks for considering the above.

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    I had a very long post in response, Elka – somehow, it just never got posted (!!!!!)

    Simply – why not give God best odds for saving one and all of the clan by marrying into Catholic piety as much or more than love?

    No offense, but my late very Catholic wife gave me and everyone who took to her assists on very salvation from her prayeful heart. Has your spouse – indeed, has any spouse of CE aficionadoes – provided that spark to so concentrate on God and His eternal love and care?

    Marrying Sharon and realizing prayerful piety through her was the most important turning point in my life. It was like a Baptismal renewal into heavenly heights. Now, quite frankly, she is the one saint I know with whom I have had contact in my life. As her own confessor noted, either Sharon’s with God – or, we are wrong to believe in God.

    Marry best in marrying powerful Catholicism.

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

      As someone who also married a non-Catholic I completely agree that it is of utmost importance to discuss the important issues early in the relationship and that it is also of utmost importance to know just how important they are to the other as well!

    My husband knew of the importance of my faith and much of what it meant well before we were engaged.  And we discussed and agreed upon all critical areas before marriage (including the implications for family planning). 

     At this point at almost 13 years of marriage and around 7 years of going to Mass with me and our children, he is attending RCIA with a clear idea of what he is converting to.

     As with elkabrikir I do believe that the graces given us at our marriage and living open to life (and the gift of each other) were of utmost importance in our marriage.  

     As for how many in our culture so completely fail to understand marriage as to be unable to have a valid marriage all I can say is that in the small group section of our premarital course (6 or 7 couples) we were the only couple to not be living together.  Everyone else in their introduction stated something to the effect of we're so-and-so and we've been living together for x number of years as if it was only to be expected.  I greatly admired the organizers of that premarriage course for clearly teaching the Church's stance on sexual matters and challenging everyone to start living chastely particularly given their audience.

  • Guest


     "Has your spouse – indeed, has any spouse of CE aficionadoes – provided that spark to so concentrate on God and His eternal love and care"

    In the accepting and the living out of this reality, our marriage has grown light-years from the young immature commitment we had in our teens when we were married. Once we accepted that we were to bring each others to heaven, and the outpouring of our love was the making of new little saints who we were commanded to teach and bring them along, our whole marriage became grace-filled. This process didn't make it easier, just stronger.

    I thank God every day for my faithful husband. Not only faithful to me, but first and foremost, to his God.

    "Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God , the angels, and the saints. These are your public. If you are afraid of other people's opinion, you should not have become Christian." St John Vianney

  • Guest

    Thanks one and all!

    The following is great:  why not give God best odds for saving one and all of the clan by marrying into Catholic piety as much or more than love?

    And Jesus told us not to put "The Lord, your God, to the test!" anyway!

    It's good to network with CE folks with strong marriages who live lives of good example and give excellent advice and anecdotes.

  • Guest

    My precana class was a joke.  The couple who lead the class made the "choice" of remaining childless (presumably using artificial contraception) seem like a viable option for Catholics.  The only mention of NFP was a pamphlet which I'm sure most of the participants didn't even bother to read.  The wife who lead the class mentioned that she did Tarot card readings at her bachelorette party.  It's easy to see how many Catholics are very poorly catechized about Church teaching on Sacramental marriage, and therefore are candidates for annulment when their marriages fall apart.

  • Guest

    Elka, not all of us have "strong" marriages.  Some of us are just hanging on by our fingernails to Faith.  But, when you believe that God has created what you have for your good, you stick it out.  PLEASE tell your child to be careful.

  • Guest


    Point well taken on all fronts.  I apologize if I was insensitive in my comments.  I know that love and sticking it out are acts of the will and on occasion feelings don't correspond with the will.  My love and prayers go out to folks in such marital situations.  You are heroic and indeed powered by grace.  I will say no more at the risk of being flippant.

  • Guest

    Elkabriker, you are neither "flippant" nor "insensitive".  As you must know, there is no marriage "of a certain duration" (Wink) that hasn't been "tested".  Some tests are passable; some are not.  But, even when they are not, it's no longer about feelings but about will.  I made a promise–to my husband, to God–what does it make me if I break it?  Is that who/what I want to be? 

    Actually, I've tried several times, but God invariably reminds me that HE knew what our marriage would be and put us together for a reason….for His purpose.  And so, we remain (46 years), without the relationship God wanted for us, but with a commitment that so few these days understand (not even our children). 

    In the long run, the hardest words in the English language are not "I'm sorry", or "I forgive you".  The hardest word, today, is commitment.  The general lack of understanding of that word is what led to my abandoning my faith for 20 years, until I became mature enough to understand the Scripture, "Obedience is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam. 15:22, Ps. 50:8, Mic. 6:6).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

  • Guest

    Thank you for this article. My husband and I have been upset with the church ever since my brother was granted an annulment in June. He works for a parish as Dir of Religious Education and was married for eight years and had one child. He and his wife were very religious and claim they still are. They are both lazy and in my opinion, always take the easy way out (declared bankruptcy at one point – another "easy" way out). For laziness and stupidity, they were granted an annulment. The day my brother told us about his annulment being granted, he also told us about a woman he had been dating (or, in his words, "met a year ago at church"). And his pastor knew! He should be fired! I have been looking for info on dating before annulments and it seems to me, as I thought, he was out of line. He is now engaged to this new gal (who also has an annulment) and yes, they are very religious people, so why do they think they are excused and allowed to date before an annulment.

    I am embarrassed for them and angry at the church. My brother even asked me to be a witness for his annulment and I wrote that he shouldn't get one! But of course he did anyhow.

    Why would my brother think it is okay to date before an annulment is granted? My mom thinks that because he works for the church, he can do no wrong. My parents also didn't let me even talk to children of divorced parents when I was growing up. My, how their tune has changed with my brothers bad decisions.

    We don't want our kids around my brother, his fiancee and her two kids. We don't think they are good examples. This decision has my parents upset with us.

    Enough venting. Thank you, Mary Beth for the great article. It is so well written and I hope to share it with my parents and brother sometime soon. 

  • Guest


    I'm sorry about the situation in which you find yourself involved.  I agree with everything you said.  I have a friend who was married and divorced and who received and annulment and remarried (in the Church).  She will not serve on any leadership positions within the church, including extraordinary minister of communion, because of the risk of causing scandal.  She is one of the holiest people I know.  I don't know specifics of her situation, but she seems to have approached it with humility.  She is not proud of her past and the divorce or her annulment.  It doesn't appear that there is anybody willing to appeal this annulment, however, I've read that many annulments granted here in the US are reversed upon appeal in Rome.  (even years after the original decree of nulity)

    I also think that you do need to protect your children from the influence of your brother and his "latest".  On Judgement Day you and your husband will be held accountable for how you raised your children.  Stand your ground with charity.  Your brother made his choices and you are allowed to make yours for your family.

    Thank you for fighting the good fight in defense of the sanctity of marriage and family.  May the HOly Family be with you in your struggle.