What is an Annulment and How Does it Differ From Divorce?

There are some today who speak of annulment as “just another name for a Catholic divorce.” However, this is not correct. An annulment (more technically described as a “Declaration of Nullity”) is a recognition by the Church, based on evidence, that what may in fact have seemed to be a marriage, was not due to some intrinsic flaw at the time the vows we exchanged. A marriage may have been a civil marriage entered into in good faith by one or both of the parties, but something essential was lacking in the intentions or understanding of one or both parties that made the marriage invalid that a true marriage never existed in religious terms.  Thus there is nothing to divorce, since no marriage exists. “Divorce” is a term of civil law and the Lord explicitly teaches that he will not be bound by the decision of some civil judge. (see Malachi  2:16 ; Matthew 19:1-12, among others).  However, not every couple who goes through a marriage ceremony does so validly and that is the key matter in question in the process of annulment, “Was this marriage validly celebrated?”  It is actually our Lord Jesus himself who makes this point at the the very moment he teaches against divorce. Lets look at what he teaches.

The Biblical Root of Annulments.  The Lord says this in regard to marriage: “What God has joined together, let no one divide (Mat 19:6). On the face of it, divorce and any sort of annulment is forbidden would seem forbidden by this. But actually the text serves as a basis for the Church’s allowance of annulment under certain circumstances. The text says What GOD has joined together cannot be divided.

Now just because two people stand before a Justice of the Peace, or a minister or even a priest and swear vows, does not mean that what they do is a work of God. There have to be some standards that the Church insists on for us to acknowledge that what they do is “of God.”

There are a number of impediments that can render what they do ipso facto invalid. Things such as prior marriage, consanguinity (too close in the blood lines), minor status (too young), incapacity for the marriage act, and lying or failing to disclose important information to the future spouse. There are others as well. Further, it is widely held that when one or both parties are compelled to enter the marriage or that they display a grave lack of due discretion on account of immaturity or poor formation, that such marriages are null on these grounds. All these are ways that the Church, using her power to bind and loose, comes to a determination that what appeared to be a marriage externally was not in fact so based on evidence. Put more scripturally, the putative marriage was not “what God has joined together.”

You may ask, “Who is the Church to make such a determination?”  I answer that, “She is in fact the one to whom the Lord entrusted, through the ministry of Peter and the Bishops the power to bind and loose (Mt 18:18) and to speak in His name (Lk 10:16).

Annulments are not Divorces– As noted, a decree of nullity from the Church is a recognition, based on the evidence given, that a marriage in the Catholic and Biblical sense of the word never existed. Since a person has not in fact been joined by God they are free to marry in the future. In such a case a person does not violate our Lord’s declaration that one who divorces their spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf Matt 19:9).

There are some who wonder: Are we giving too many annulments? While it is clear that the Church has some pretty clear canonical norms regarding marriage, like any norms they have to be interpreted and applied. Certain American practices and norms have evolved over the last forty years that some question as being too permissive and thus no longer respectful of the binding nature of marital vows. I am not without my concerns that we may give too many annulments but there is nothing intrinsically flawed with the Church teaching here, concern is directed only to the prudential application of the norms.

Annulment cases vary greatly. Often it isn’t as crass as somebody coming in and saying, “Well I got rid of my first wife and have got me another I want to marry, let’s get the paperwork going Father.” It is usually far more poignant than that.

Perhaps someone married early, before they were really very serious about the faith and they married someone who abused them. Now, years later after the divorce they have found someone who is able to support them in their faith. Perhaps they met them right in the parish. Should a marriage that was in young and foolish years and lasted all of six months preclude them from entering a supportive union that looks very promising?

Another more common scenario is often the case where in a person shows up at RCIA who has recently found the Catholic faith and wants to enter it. However, they were married 15 years ago in a Protestant Church to their current spouse who had been married before. Now, mind you, their current marriage is strong and they have both been drawn to the Catholic Faith. They have four kids as well. What is a priest to do? Well I can tell you that this priest will help the one who needs an annulment to get it. I can tell you a lot of cases come to the Church this way. It’s hard and perhaps even unjust to say to someone like this that there is nothing the Church can do for them, they will never qualify for sacraments. No, we just don’t do that, we take them through the process for annulment and see if there can be evidence that the first marriage was null.

Perhaps too another person shows up at the door, A long lost Catholic who has been away 30 years. During that time he or she did some pretty stupid stuff including getting married and divorced, sometimes more than once. Now they show up at my door in a current marriage that seems strong and helpful and which includes children. The person is in desperate need of confession and Holy Communion. What is a pastor to do? He takes them through the process of annulment to get them access to those sacraments if possible.

So there it is. There are very grave pastoral issues on both sides. The current instinct of the Church, given the poisonous quality of the culture toward marriage is to be more willing to presume there were problems.

If you are in a second marriage, please consider contacting your parish priest. Don’t presume you’re unwanted, or can never receive the sacraments. The tribunal process isn’t that difficult and the Church stands ready to assist you.

24 Replies to “What is an Annulment and How Does it Differ From Divorce?”

    1. So, you categorically reject every annulment? BTW “Good of the Spouses” is not a reason a marriage can be declared null.

      1. In reality, catholic annulments aid and abet adultery.
        Annulments in the catholic church are corruptly given.

        It is easy to understand the theoretical difference between an annulment and a divorce – but it is also easy to see that marriages are declared null when they should not be.

        1. Fatima, Q. who are you to judge? A. point to Church doctrine that Vatican II cannot change the essence of marriage, therefore incapacity/lack of due discretion can only pertain to making babies, not making interpersonal romance.

      2. Canon 1055 + Spirit of V2 says “good of spouses” is now pertinent to validity.
        “…partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring..”

  1. Msgr. Pope – I was married for 14-1/2 years, divorced then annulled. The annulment was for ‘social’ reasons (so my wife could serve on a parish council). As I said, I was married for the 14-1/2 years even though the documents filed in a diocesan tribunal said that my wife was not. After reading the tribunal documents I was impressed at how facile the process was for her (unverifiable statements with no witnesses). My only regret now is that there is no retrieving the 17 years utterly wasted in knowing her.

    1. Sorry for your loss and that a certain grief remains with you. Tribunal processes require two witnesses at least who can attest to the veracity of the claims. Further, you as respondent had a right to testify and also to appeal the case.

  2. Certain requirements may have been missing when you thought you were married. Yes, Msgr. and Father Fletcher, “requirements” like an understanding that marriage is a “partnership,” and partnership is defined any way that tribunal judges define it. A recent Rotal decision is being challenged because the Respondant intended permanence, fidelity. and children but left out the judges’ definition of “partnership. ”

    Marriages have not been judged according Catholic teaching for 50 years but according to skewed definitions of requirements for validity that amount to Catholic divorce.

    Your article and every other article on this issue avoids the truth that people need to validate their marriages for the good of the children who are the primary purpose of marriage.

    It is just so abominable that priests do not seem to understand how viciously they attack the need for children to have their own mother and father together when they assure parents over and over that they may be able to marry again.

    A child’s heart is broken when you say that.

    To break a vow is a mortal sin. To die in mortal sin is to go to hell. You will not find one priest in a million today in or out of the tribunal or Rota who even believes in hell AS THE CHURCH HAS TAUGHT IT THROUGH HER 2000-YEAR HISTORY.

    My personal test for a judge is this question: Have you ever told anyone that they can in good conscience use birth control? Or have you remained silent on the issue?

    I know what the answer is, and such people are not qualified to judge marriages.

    1. I agree with many of your points and certainly have much on this blog against divorce. I do think we give out too many annulments. That said you seem to categorically condemn annulments and do not address the key points of my article. Do you think that two drunk people in Vegas legitimately marry? What if one of the spouses does not disclose a homosexual inclination that makes them incapable of the marriage act? etc.

      1. As you said, Msgr. Pope, grave lack of due discretion (middle of your fourth paragraph above) is used to declare marriages null. Yes, as in 98% of U.S. marriages. People in the rest of the world aren’t so afflicted with insanity.

        Furthermore, most people getting married lack due discretion; if they had it, the monasteries and convents would be overflowing. However much they lack, nevertheless, many keep their word anyway because it is the honorable thing to do.

        I have no compassion on the divorced/remarried, with or without annulments. I lost it after spending 16 years working with students in the public schools, many of whom are so emotionally disturbed that there are special classrooms for them to try to get through their day. Most of them are from broken homes. Everyone in the system knows that this is a modern phenomenon.

        These kids struggle from the time that they stand outside their apartment houses (the divorced typically lose their wealth), hunch-shouldered waiting for the school bus.

        They hurry off the bus and scuttle down the hall to their special classroom, their heads held down to avoid the eyes of the more fortunate students.

        Several times during the day they go to regular ed classrooms, and from those they are frequently called out to go see the counselor, who now has time for them and which is humiliating for them. But parents, usually mothers, send their children to counselors, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists for “”treatment” of depression and panic disorders, and have them put on psychotropic drugs rather than bringing father back into the home and working on healing their family.

        It’s too tempting to date other people’s spouses who might make THEM happy. And too many priests are willing to “help” them with annulments.

        Now, Msgr. Pope, you are probably done with me; however, I’ve been where few priests have been, and until all of you understand that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and well-being of children, and that divorce/annulment/remarriage ruins them, my arguments are with the traditional Church: God hates divorce; he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. ( It’s usually SHE who files for divorce today.)

        More marriages have been declared null between 1980 and 1990 than throughout the history of the Catholic Church. That is diabolical.

  3. Paragraph 2384 of the catechism calls divorce a grave offense against the natural law…Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation. 2385 adds that divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse , to children traumatized by the separation or their parents… and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society. When you advise people on annulments do you remind them that if they abandoned their marriage they are in serious sin, or does an annulment wipe the slate clean?
    Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI both say the Church never ceases to endeavor to bring about a reconciliation, and never despairs in doing so. Did Our Lord and his Church up until the smoke of satan entered in the mid 70’s have it wrong? Did john the Baptist, John fisher and Thomas More needlessly lose their heads in defending marriage (even non-sacramental marriage in the case of the Baptist).
    This annulment contagin rubbed off onto a priest who told my wife of 30 years and mother of our seven children that it was ok to divorce and she was almost certain to obtain an annulment. 15 years ago this priest thought enough of our marriage to twice ask us to teach in his parish’s pre-cana program. The supposed grounds to petition were poor high school dating prior to meeting me in college.
    This is a complete surrender to the culture of death by many of our clergy.
    Pope Pius XI in casti connubii teaches that one of the benefits of indissolubility is the spouses possess a positive guarantee of the endurance of this stability. Do any priests and bishops study these papal encyclicals?
    Our Lady told the Fatima seers that the final battle between Satan and Christ’s church would be over marriage. When clergy speak of annulments more than the grave sin of divorce, this shows which side they are on, but we know Our Lady will crush the head of the serpent.

  4. Something to consider when the Church is accused of “giving out too many” annulments: People who “apply” for annulments do so thinking that they might have a case for one and/or care to know where they stand with the Church. Those who know that they don’t stand a chance of getting one or don’t care where they stand with the Church, usually don’t bother with the process. This means that the ratio of annulments granted to annulments requested is going to be fairly high.

  5. –About needing two witnesses, Pope Francis’ “Mitis Iudex” says one person’s statement is all that is needed.
    — “Can. 1678 § 1. In cases of the nullity of marriage, a judicial confession and the declarations of the parties, possibly supported by witnesses to the credibility of the parties, can have the force of full proof, to be evaluated by the judge after he has considered all the indications and supporting factors, unless other elements are present which weaken them.
    § 2. In the same cases, the testimony of one witness can produce full proof if it concerns a qualified witness making a deposition concerning matters done ex officio, or unless the circumstances of things and persons suggest it.

  6. Some of the comments seem to take the fact of abuses as somehow indicative that the whole idea of annulment is a sham. Really, though, if we believe that the marriage is joined by God and not men, then it stands to reason there will be times, as with any other human endeavor, men have tried to join something not willed by God. The Church’s wielding Declarations of Nullity seems to be a necessary and inescapable consequence of that.
    I find it far more troubling, based on other comments here, that there are instances when a shaky annulment can be forced upon one of the spouses. I suppose that is also derived reasonably from the fact that God does the joining, but given the state of our modern culture (and of one sex in particular, it seems, but I am probably biased) it is not a comforting thought.

  7. I admire you Msgr. for addressing this topic, there have been annulments, there are currently annulments, there will be annulments in the future and so the topic will always relevant. You must have known this topic would bring out the slings and stones but to your credit you addressed what is a major source of cynicism. Until less than a year ago, September 2019, the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware had serving on it’s marriage tribunal as a defender of the bond, a former Catholic priest, Jack Anderson who is married to another former Catholic Priest Ted Olson. Ted Olson, who served (maybe not the correct term) the diocese of Wilmington for 25 years and his partner now are ordained Episcopalian Clergy. In that status as a man married to another man, Mr. Jack Anderson was serving on the marriage tribunal as a defender of the bond but graciously stepped down so as spare his patron, Bishop Malooly embarrassment. No St. Thomas More images arise from any of this, Bishop Malooly’s preferences were reinforced once more and the Church and diocese were rightly mocked again. Sadly for Bishop Malooly, unlike Mr. & Mr. Anderson-Olson, I don’t believe marriage is in his future, not as his age, though I understand he would retain his pension as former priest Ted Olson has done. There is a great deal of cynicism towards annulment which is understandable given unfortunate examples like this, however I don’t believe any of the cynicism was directed at you personally. I continue to read and draw from your column and live close enough that when the Covid restrictions have been completely dropped I will visit your Parish. I was hoping to attend St. Cyprians during Lent of this year, not to be, but hopefully soon.

  8. I am impressed. Reads to me like a very good explanation of something that can be so complicated. Thankyou Msgr Pope. You do Catholics around the world a great service with this website I really appreciate it.

  9. 10 yrs ago I went to a Parrish meeting having a Priest from the diocese marriage tribunal. We mistakingly thought this meeting was to enhance our marriage that was having difficulties. It actually was a meeting on annulments. The priest was cavalier about the annulment process going so far as to say that he could justify just about every application for annulment if not every one. It was disgusting. I know he was trying to alleviate the other participants pain. But his comments were based on pure sentimentality and not TRUTH. He was not a shepherd but an effeminate lacking moral courage. Needless to say my wife had a hard time forgiving me for that day. She thought that I was seeking an annulment. She is not catholic and this experience with that priest with his cavalier attitude soured her further against the faith. I remained faithful and understand there exists a modernist Anti-church that Archbishop Sheen, then Cardinal Wojtyla (JPII), and now Archbishop Viganò speak about that no doubt that priest partakes. Do not despair. Thank you for being a faithful servant. God bless you.

  10. There is also the annulment due to a complete lack of canonical form. If you don’t invite God into the marriage, you shouldn’t be surprised that it turns out poorly.

  11. Monsignor,I have great respect for you but I think no matter how we Catholics spin this annulment thing,is just plain Divorce period.
    The words of the Lord is plain and simple and does not require the best and brightest canon lawyers.
    “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery”.

  12. As you said, Msgr. Pope, grave lack of due discretion (middle of your fourth paragraph above) is used to declare marriages null. Yes, as in 98% of U.S. marriages. People in the rest of the world aren’t so afflicted with insanity.

    Furthermore, most people getting married lack due discretion; if they had it, the monasteries and convents would be overflowing. However much they lack, nevertheless, many keep their word anyway because it is the honorable thing to do.

    I have no compassion on the divorced/remarried, with or without annulments. I lost it after spending 16 years working with students in the public schools, many of whom are so emotionally disturbed that there are special classrooms for them to try to get through their day. Most of them are from broken homes. Everyone in the system knows that this is a modern phenomenon.

    These kids struggle from the time that they stand outside their apartment houses (the divorced typically lose their wealth), hunch-shouldered waiting for the school bus.

    They hurry off the bus and scuttle down the hall to their special classroom, their heads held down to avoid the eyes of the more fortunate students.

    Several times during the day they go to regular ed classrooms, and from those they are frequently called out to go see the counselor, who now has time for them and which is humiliating for them. But parents, usually mothers, send their children to counselors, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists for “”treatment” of depression and panic disorders, and have them put on psychotropic drugs rather than bringing father back into the home and working on healing their family.

    It’s too tempting to date other people’s spouses who might make THEM happy. And too many priests are willing to “help” them with annulments.

    Now, Msgr. Pope, you are probably done with me; however, I’ve been where few priests have been, and until all of you understand that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and well-being of children, and that divorce/annulment/remarriage ruins them, my arguments are with the traditional Church: God hates divorce; he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. ( It’s usually SHE who files for divorce today.)

    More marriages have been declared null between 1980 and 1990 than throughout the history of the Catholic Church. That is diabolical.

    1. The first time I encountered divorce I was just starting 7th grade. The Smartest, Most Popular, Confident Boy in All of 6th Grade was shattered. Why? His parents got divorced over the summer.
      .
      I hadn’t thought of divorce before, but I have despised and feared it ever since, and determined to get a Catholic husband who “could not divorce” me (I was non-Catholic at the time–and hopelessly naive about the Church.)
      .
      I have often wondered if priests are willing to tell the children of those parents who obtain a Declaration of Nullity that they (the children) just need to settle down and have an open mind. Stop being angry about their parents’ divorce, because in reality–God didn’t bless the marriage at all. It was simply an illusion. And now with the Declaration, Mom and Dad can find a real spouse and have a real marriage, and won’t that be lovely?

  13. Well Msgr Pope, if you’re not taking flak, you’re not over the target, and I’d say you’re right on top with this post.
    I heard annulments characterized as an act of mercy for a church and/or culture that no longer broadly understands what marriage is. And a bad marriage (not a difficult one, but one that does not have the necessary components at the center, like God, the spouse, children, sacrifice) is best avoided rather than fixed. Like a car accident. Avoid what leads to them, and THAT reduces the frequency.

    So for all those that don’t like annulments, what are YOU doing to form the faithful around you. The children that may be living in broken homes or the young adults that have been stewing in a culture of promiscuity, sexualization and self love. How’s your parish pre-Cana program? Is there a young adult group?

    I think the most, and best that our priests can do is to NOT marry those that are not ready. But the laity need to form the culture of their parishes. It took our culture 50 years to get here, so we won’t fix it by tomorrow. But the best time to get started is now (or 50 years ago)!

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