DISCLAIMER: Please note that this is not a definitive guide to annulments. Please get in touch with your parish priest or your local Marriage Tribunal directly if you have any further queries.
A common misconception people tend to make about annulments is that an annulment is “Catholic divorce”. This is a misleading and highly inaccurate summation.
An annulment (also referred to as a “declaration of nullity” or “declaration of invalidity”) is a process and statement of fact by which the legal arm of the Catholic Church, guided by canon law (N.B.: the Code of Canon Law applies only to Roman Catholics of the Latin Rite), examines a couple’s divorce or separation to determine whether the marriage union was valid or not. In this process it is determined whether certain impediments to the marriage existed, i.e. whether there were circumstances or issues that would have rendered the marriage invalid to begin with. This being the case, in simple terms, the marriage “never existed” (it was not a valid marriage) and a declaration of nullity would be declared.
There is a moment during the marriage ceremony (the Nuptial Mass) when the celebrant will ask the couple the following question (or similar to) prior to the declaration of consent:
“(Name) and (Name), have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?”
It is something you may not have thought of before or considered, but this question is asked to ensure that there are no impediments to the marriage, i.e. nothing that would render the marriage invalid. It does happen, however, that consent is given to marriage and impediments to the marriage are learned of some time after the day of the wedding. If such impediments existed, the marriage was never valid to begin with.
Some examples of impediments to marriage include:
- Age, i.e. if the man and the woman are not of the age pre-required by the conference of bishops (Can. 1083 §1);
- Impotence or the incapacity to consummate the marriage (Can. 1084 §1, §2, §3);
- Previous marriage (Can. 1085 §1, §2);
- Marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptised that has not been granted a dispensation (Can. 1086 §1, §2, §3);
- If one or the other is currently received into the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Can. 1087)
If you strongly feel or suspect that there were impediments to your marriage, then – with prayer and discernment - you should take the following steps:
1. Contact your parish priest (or the parish office) and ask them to give you the details of the local Catholic Marriage Tribunal (or simply referred to as the “Marriage Tribunal”);
2. Book an appointment to discuss your case with the judicial vicar (typically a priest specialising in canon law); and
3. When discussing your case, be as detailed as possible.
Witnesses may be called in by the judicial vicar(s) investigating the validity of your marriage and they may be required to give testimony to the circumstances surrounding the union from its early stages to its current state.
A cost will more than likely be applied in order for the investigation to take place, and the cost may vary depending on the length or the inquiry but flexible payment options are made available. Those enduring financial hardships may have their fees waved or reduced so as not discourage those that have initiated the inquiry.
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." – John 8:32