A Guide to Annulments
Frequently Asked Questions
The purpose of this page is quite simple: it is a collection of questions and answers seeking to clarify many misconceptions or half-truths surrounding marriage, separation, divorce and annulments. It is our hope that it will help to put to rest many of these misconceptions and assist those who are either seeking an annulment, or ex-spouses who have been invited to participate in this process.
The Church is aware of the painful reality of divorce experienced by so many. The complex process surrounding annulments represents the Church's commitment to uphold biblical teaching "What God has joined together, no one may divide" (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9) on the one hand, and to find just and pastoral ways to assist those in broken marriages on the other.
Updated: June 3, 2016
Questions about Marriage
Marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life. By its nature, this covenant is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring (CCC 16011, canon 1055 §1).
Based on the Biblical teaching on marriage, the Catholic Church understands the three essential elements of marriage to be: permanence (i.e., indissolubility, meaning that the marriage bond ceases only with the death of one of the spouses), faithfulness (i.e., marriage is an exclusive union between one man and one woman) and openness to the possibility of new life (i.e., the couple must be open to possibility of having and raising children) (CCC 1643).
Marriage is brought into being by the voluntary exchange of consent (marriage vows) of the parties legitimately manifested by people who are able to marry (i.e., above a certain age, not closely related by blood, of opposite gender, etc.). Once a valid marriage bond is created, its continued existence no longer depends on the will of the parties (CCC 1640). When Jesus was asked whether divorce was lawful, he reaffirmed God's original plan that "what God has joined together, no one may divide", and that "whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mk 10:2-12). Thus, we believe that the marriage bond continues to exist even if the parties no longer wish to be married, and even if they have been separated for many years or have obtained a civil divorce. When we speak of the permanence of marriage, we are not speaking about an ideal or just wishful thinking. We are saying that the valid marriage bond between husband and wife actually is permanent and indissoluble. This is why the Catholic Church does not permit divorce and remarriage without a Church declaration that the first marriage was invalid (CCC 2384).
While the marriage between any two people is an indissoluble covenant, it is also a sacrament when it is celebrated between two baptized Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Protestant). In a sacramental marriage, the couple receives additional graces to perfect their love for one another and to strengthen their commitment (CCC 1641).
Yes. The Catholic Church recognizes each and every marriage (between Catholics, Protestants, Jews, non-believers, etc.) as a valid union which includes all the essential elements of marriage listed above. If it is celebrated between two baptized Christians, it is a sacramental marriage. If at least one party in the marriage is not baptized, the Church recognizes the marriage as a natural, non-sacramental marriage. In either case the marriage bond is indissoluble.
While Catholics are bound to follow special rules of the Church (canon law) regarding the way that marriage is celebrated (i.e. normally they must be married before a Catholic priest or deacon and two witnesses), non-Catholics, when they marry amongst themselves, are not bound by such regulations. They need only follow the formalities established by civil law and their own religion. Thus, if two non-Catholics entered marriage before a Justice of the Peace, the Church would recognize their marriage as valid and indissoluble. On the other hand, the Church would not recognize as valid a marriage of two Catholics who married before a Justice of the Peace.
A divorce is a civil act that claims to dissolve a valid marriage. From a civil legal perspective, a marriage existed and was then dissolved. The Catholic Church does not recognize the ability of the State to dissolve a marriage.
An annulment, on the other hand, is an official determination by a Church Tribunal that what appeared to be a valid marriage was actually not one (i.e., that the marriage was in fact invalid). While a civil divorce says that it dissolves an existing marriage, an annulment declares that a marriage bond never existed in the first place.
An annulment does not declare that the spouses never really loved each other, nor that the divorce was more one party's fault than the other's, nor that one party is a better Catholic than the other. In no way does the process concern itself with compensation, reward, favours, retribution or sentiment in determining a decision. A declaration of nullity (i.e., annulment) is simply a determination that, at the time of the wedding, some essential element for a valid marriage was lacking. For instance, one of the parties did not intend lifelong fidelity to the other person or excluded children entirely. Another example would be that one of the parties was incapable of marriage (due to some constitutional weakness, such as mental illness or some psychological condition that prevented making the marital commitment - grave immaturity, etc.). In practical terms, after nullity is declared (if it is declared), the Church considers the parties free of the marriage bond that would have otherwise arisen. The parties are then considered free to contract marriage in the Church.
Questions about Separation and Divorce
The essence of marriage is the mutual sharing of persons and lives. However, the Church recognizes that some marital situations are intolerable and perhaps even detrimental to the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of persons. For serious reasons a separation may be the only way to retain any semblance of one's dignity, for instance, when one's well-being is threatened by abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual. It must be well-understood however, that even in the situation of physical separation, the spouses do not cease to be married and are therefore not free to start dating other people, let alone enter into a new marriage, no matter how long the separation lasts (CCC 1649). This remains the case even after a civil divorce.
Where it is at all possible, the Church desires that all married couples live in conjugal harmony. Any weakening of the fabric of family unity cannot help but have negative repercussions on the family of God (the Church) and society. However, even here no one is bound to accomplish the impossible. Should reconciliation be physically or morally impossible, then the obligation to restore conjugal life no longer binds.
There is a widespread misconception that divorced persons cannot receive Holy Communion or forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession. This is simply not true. A divorced Catholic who is not in a new relationship loses none of their rights in the Church, except the right to enter a new marriage until the Church declares them free to marry. A divorced person who is not in a new relationship most certainly can receive Holy Communion.
No. At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (in 1884), the bishops of the United States imposed the penalty of excommunication on American Catholics who remarried after a divorce from a valid Catholic marriage. This law was particular to the United States and was never in force in Canada. In 1977, the United States Bishops voted to lift this excommunication and this decision was then approved by Pope Paul VI. The penalty of excommunication is not incurred by those who divorce or enter into a purely civil marriage after having obtained a divorce.
Even though a divorced and remarried Catholic is not excommunicated, this does not mean that the individual can therefore receive Holy Communion. In the eyes of the Church, the marriage bond from the first marriage continues to exist even after the civil divorce. Therefore, remarriage after civil divorce is a violation of the prior marriage bond. In such a case, the person places him or herself in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law (Mk 10:11-12). As long as this situation persists, a divorced and remarried Catholic cannot receive Holy Communion (CCC 1650).
Catholics in such a situation (i.e., divorced and remarried without an annulment) may be permitted to receive the sacraments so long as three conditions are met.2 First, separation must be impossible for some serious reason (e.g., the children's upbringing). Second, the couple is committed to living "as brother and sister" (i.e., without sexual intimacy). And third, there is no risk of giving scandal to the local community of the faithful. The Catholic in such a situation is advised to discuss this with his or her parish priest.
The Church teaches that the Lord entrusted to the Church special and living signs of His presence among us: the sacraments. Normally a Catholic will receive God's grace primarily through the sacraments. However, the sacraments are not the only means through which the tender love and mercy of the Lord Jesus can touch the lives of people. Although they are extremely important to our growth in Christ, the Lord can use other "signs" in which He renders Himself present to persons who may not be able to receive the sacraments at this time. Those who cannot receive Communion "should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace" (John Paul II, Letter on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, 84).
In certain situations, a non-sacramental marriage bond may be dissolved by the Church. In this case, a valid natural marriage existed, but ended when the dissolution was granted. This differs from a declaration of nullity of marriage (annulment), which states that there never was an indissoluble marriage bond in the first place. At present, only two types of marriages may be dissolved by the Church: one that was never consummated or one in which one or both parties was never baptized.
No. Whereas a civil decree of divorce states that the marriage has been dissolved, an annulment is a declaration by the Church that the marriage bond did not come into existence in the first place because some essential element was lacking from the parties' consent.
No. Most cases can be processed at a local Diocesan Tribunal.
There are many reasons. The simplest answer would be to say that more and more people have become aware of the process by which a marriage may be declared invalid and are now approaching our Church Tribunals for assistance. However, the reasons are far more profound than a mere question of numbers.
In the last number of years, dramatic changes have taken place in society and in the Church's understanding of the human person and the nature of marriage. While the Church has not changed its basic teaching on marriage, it has, with the assistance of the social sciences, natural sciences, psychology, and the humanities, deepened its understanding of the human person and how the various qualities of mind, body, and spirit impact one's ability to give oneself to another in marriage. With this in mind, the grounds (or reasons) for nullity of marriage have been broadened to reflect the Church's deeper appreciation of the nature of marriage and the qualities a person brings to this partnership.
Society has also undergone profound changes in the last few decades. Unlike in the past, many people today do not grow up in healthy and stable family environments. With divorce becoming more and more common, and many other factors continuing to undermine family life, peoples' understanding of marriage is changing dramatically. Sixty years ago, one could safely presume that most people understood that marriage is a permanent and exclusive relationship ordered toward the generation of new life and the good of the spouses. It is questionable whether this presumption holds true today.
Another factor to consider when we look at the number of declarations of nullity of marriage granted in recent years is the dramatic increase in the number of staff employed by the Tribunal. In the Diocese of Hamilton, for example, there were only two full-time members of the Tribunal staff in 1972. Today, we have four full-time staff and many other part-time employees and volunteers. This, of course, increases both the speed and the efficiency of processing our own cases. In 1980 it would have taken up to four or five years to process a single case. Because of the increase in personnel, normally a decision can be given in a case in a much shorter time period (often less than two years). As a result, more people are able to approach the Tribunal and petition for an annulment.
If a marriage is valid, then the couple is bound to the marriage "for better or for worse" because the marriage bond is indissoluble. However, an annulment is a declaration by a competent Tribunal of the Church that the indissoluble marriage bond never validly (i.e. canonically) existed. Therefore, one is not, and never was, bound by that bond since it never validly existed in the first place. In this sense an annulment compromises in no way the teaching of the Lord on the indissolubility or permanence of marriage (Mk 10:2-12).
This booklet is not meant to be a textbook in canon law, so we will not go into a detailed explanation of all the possible grounds which could be invoked.
Suffice it to say that the Church teaches that the consent of the two parties (i.e. their marriage vows) brings the bond of marriage into being. When a person consents to marriage, it is presumed that the individual is aware of what he or she is doing, freely chooses marriage, and is capable of assuming the essential obligations of this partnership. An act of matrimonial consent thus implies three essential components: it is a rational decision; it is willed for oneself; and it is required that the person be capable of living up to what he or she has consented to. When there is a serious weakness or defect in one or all of these areas then the quality of the matrimonial consent can be called into question. A decision to marry is not made in a vacuum. One's home environment, education, peer associations, and many other factors contribute to the formation of an individual and his/her capacity to make real choices and accept the responsibilities implied by those choices.
Another cause for a marriage being entered into invalidly arises when a person goes through the wedding, but excludes from his or her decision to marry some essential element of marriage. Examples of this would be one who enters marriage deliberately intending that the marriage be NOT indissoluble (e.g., one leaves open the possibility of divorce), or exclusive (e.g., one intends to cheat on the new spouse), or for procreation (e.g., they intend to not have children). Finally, a marriage can be declared invalid if one party goes into it deceiving the other party about some significant aspect of his or her life (i.e., someone concealed a serious drug addiction). The grounds to be applied in any case will be discussed with the parties during their initial meetings with Tribunal staff.
Note however, that in all the above cases, the focus of the investigation is on the marital consent exchanged on the day of the wedding. Problems that emerge later in the marriage that are unrelated to anything prior to the wedding do not necessarily indicate that the marriage was entered into invalidly. It is possible that even a valid marriage may break down and leave the spouses bound to the marriage bond even though they have physically separated or even civilly divorced.
Questions about seeking an Annulment
How do I start the procedure?
Any Catholic (or non-Catholic) who believes that his or her marriage was invalid should approach the local parish priest to discuss this with him. In the Diocese of Hamilton, our clergy understand well the procedures to be followed in introducing cases of alleged nullity of marriage to the Marriage Tribunal, and can provide you the necessary guidance and forms to get started.
Once the preliminary forms are completed, they are sent to our Tribunal office in Hamilton where an initial evaluation is made of the possible grounds of nullity. Some cases are not accepted because there exists insufficient evidence to proceed.
Any person may approach the Marriage Tribunal directly. Ordinarily, however, the parish priest or a pastoral worker should be the person "on the scene" who will not only refer your case to the Tribunal but will also provide both support and practical guidance.
Canonical procedure and jurisprudence (the law of the Church) applied to individual cases can be highly complex and technical. You do not have to be an expert in canon law or know all the grounds to begin or participate in this process. Simply fill out the forms that you will be given as honestly and completely as you can, and let the Tribunal staff examine them to see what possible grounds exist.
Yes. It should be remembered that recourse to the Tribunal is the last resort in the case of marital failure. It is presumed that when a person approaches the Tribunal, all avenues of reconciliation have been attempted and proven unsuccessful. A civil divorce provides the Tribunal with the assurance that the common life of the couple has definitively ended. It is our policy that a case will not be admitted until a civil decree of divorce has been obtained and submitted.
Since a declaration of nullity of marriage also involves your former spouse, the Marriage Tribunal has an obligation to notify him or her of this procedure, to provide the opportunity to present their side of the story, and to suggest witnesses for the Tribunal to question. Your former spouse has the same right to participate fully in this process if they wish to do so. Should they wish not to cooperate or refuse to supply evidence, then the Marriage Tribunal will proceed to a decision on the basis of the information available without their participation.
In this situation the Marriage Tribunal cannot proceed with the case as this would be a grave injustice to the other party. Every reasonable effort will be made by the Tribunal to contact the other party as they also have rights to be promoted and protected by the law of the Church. However, should it be impossible to contact the respondent party3, Church law requires the Tribunal to proceed with the case in spite of his or her absence. It is also worth noting that as the process unfolds, the two ex-spouses never actually have to communicate with each other or be in the same room together. All communication is between the Tribunal and each party directly.
What if my ex-spouse was abusive and I'm afraid of what might happen if he/she learns about my annulment?
Bring this concern to the attention of the diocesan Tribunal when you file your petition. Canon law is very strict about the requirement to notify the respondent party and give them the opportunity to participate if they want (canon 1511), after all, they were also part of the same marriage. In very exceptional circumstances however, there are alternative options. First of all, the Tribunal will have to verify the claim that the ex-spouse poses a real threat. Police reports, restraining orders, even medical files, can be used as evidence. Once the threat is verified, the Tribunal could judge that to cite the respondent would impose on the petitioner a moral impossibility and decree the respondent "morally uncitable" before proceeding with the case. However, even this is not a perfect solution, since notification of the annulment will have to be sent to each party's parish of baptism to be entered in the baptismal register. The respondent could request a copy of that record at any time. Or, if the petitioner were to marry again in the Church, the respondent could learn of it and deduce that an annulment was received. Finally, the ex-spouse could check civil records and learn of the second marriage.
Yes, but often it is more difficult to prove the allegations of nullity of marriage. If, for example, the grounds are your former spouse's intention against having children, it would be important for the Tribunal to talk to him/her about that. In many cases, not having the participation of the respondent party hampers our ability to arrive at a clear picture of what happened in the marriage, and can thus make judging the case more difficult.
Matrimonial nullity is proven primarily through the testimony of the spouses and witnesses. In some cases we may also depend upon medical, psychological, and/or psychiatric reports which may shed a great deal of light on the situation.
Nearly anybody can be a witness: friends, family members, co-workers, and clergy. Generally, we will not accept children of the couple as witnesses. Witnesses do not have to be Catholic.
When choosing witnesses, the following should be kept in mind. An ideal witness (a) knew the couple before they got married, after the wedding, and knows the reasons for the breakdown of the relationship, and (b) is objective. A witness who did not know the couple prior to the marriage is usually of very limited value.
The petitioner will be required to submit the names of three or four witnesses. Should the respondent choose to participate in the process, then he or she will also be invited to submit the names of witnesses should he or she so wish.
Yes. Family members are often very good witnesses. What is crucial is the knowledge they possess about the parties, the marriage, and the reasons for the marital breakdown.
Sometimes it happens that specific problems in a given marriage were not discussed with anyone. In such cases it can often be difficult to substantiate the alleged grounds of nullity of marriage. No marriage exists in isolation and it may be that others observed more than the spouses thought they did. An individual's personality may be obvious to others at social gatherings, at work, and at family celebrations. It is rare that there are no witnesses to be interviewed in a case. However, insufficient or poor witnesses can make a case very difficult to proceed with and can even make it impossible for us to determine that the marriage was invalid.
In such difficult cases, we may need to rely more heavily on pastoral reference letters, credibility or character references, medical or counselling reports, etc.
Our Tribunal will ask other Tribunals around the country and the world to interview the witnesses you propose. There is usually no difficulty in contacting witnesses who live elsewhere. Also, we are often able to work around language barriers.
It is impossible to predict the exact length of time needed to process a case because each one is unique. Much depends on the availability and cooperation of witnesses, complexity of the grounds, and at times the need for intervention of experts or translators. No plans for a subsequent marriage may be made until the whole process is completed. The Hamilton Marriage Tribunal will not be held responsible for any promises made by well-intentioned priests, religious or laypersons relative to the merits of a case, its ultimate outcome, or timeframes for successful completion. We encourage petitioners to be patient and assure them that we will process their case in as timely a manner as possible.
No. It is very important to understand from the beginning that simply submitting the application forms is not a guarantee that you will get an annulment. We treat each case individually. In the Hamilton Marriage Tribunal, as elsewhere, the Tribunal staff will indicate from the very beginning of the case whether there appear to be grounds for nullity or whether the person might be wasting time in making an application. In order to receive a declaration of nullity, we must receive clear evidence that, at the time of the wedding, there were very serious factors that interfered with one or both parties' ability to enter into a marriage as it is understood in the light of Church teaching and Church law.
There are times when a person does not appear to have provable grounds of nullity of marriage. Other reasons for not granting a declaration of nullity are: the witnesses are either unavailable or insufficiently informed of the difficulties in the marriage; the marriage began well but has simply broke down as a result of factors that emerged after the wedding, or the evidence is so conflicting and contradictory that a certain decision is impossible.
Not every marriage investigated by the Marriage Tribunal is declared invalid. In the event that a negative decision is rendered, the parties retain the right to appeal to the Canadian Appeal Tribunal in Ottawa or to the Roman Rota at the Vatican. At the Appeal Tribunal, the case will be reviewed by three Judges who will either confirm the negative decision made by our Tribunal, or overturn it, thus granting the declaration of nullity. The Appeal Tribunal may also investigate the case under different grounds, and grant the declaration of nullity based on those.
Not immediately. Once a decision is given, both parties are notified and informed of their right to appeal the decision within fifteen days. If an appeal is not launched, the case is then forwarded to the Canadian Appeal Tribunal in Ottawa. Because the Appeal Tribunal handles cases coming to it from across the country, there is often a delay of several months between the time of the actual decision and the final notification sent to you by our Tribunal. The parties can also make the appeal to the Roman Rota.
Finally, even after this final decision has declared the marriage invalid, it is only natural that the Church be reassured that the invalidating element is no longer present. If, for example, the marriage was declared null on the grounds that the petitioner or the respondent suffered from grave immaturity, the Church would require assurance that such an immaturity has now been largely overcome before permitting a subsequent marriage. In more serious cases, the Church may prohibit either party from marrying in the Church until it can be proven that the former concerns no longer exist.
Yes. When a marriage is declared invalid by the Church Tribunal, this declaration impacts both parties, and thus, both become free of the marriage bond. However, a declaration of nullity does not mean that either party may automatically remarry in the Catholic Church for the reasons stated immediately above in the previous question.
No, not in Canada or the United States. Seeking a declaration of nullity is simply an exercise of religious rights motivated by theological beliefs. It is solely for the spiritual well-being of the parties. Questions of custody of children and their support, alimony and property settlement are decided in the civil courts. The annulment procedure does not have any effect on those arrangements.
No! A declaration of nullity does not affect in any manner the legitimacy of children, names, property, support payments, inheritance rights or other matters dealt with in the civil courts. As a matter of fact, canon law itself explicitly states that children born of a marriage that is later declared null are legitimate (canon 1137).
What does a Declaration of Nullity say about my past life? Was I living in sin when I thought I was married but really wasn't?
A declaration of nullity states that at the time of the wedding, there was something lacking in the consent of one or both parties that prevented a valid marriage bond from coming into existence. A declaration of nullity does not say that there was no relationship or that the parties did not love each other. As to "living in sin", a person cannot have committed a sin if he or she was in good faith and not aware of the nullity of marriage at the time they lived together.
Always remember that it is the task of the Marriage Tribunal to discover the truth pertaining to a given marriage and to judge whether or not all the essential elements were present in order to bring a valid bond of marriage into being. It is not the task of the Marriage Tribunal to condemn or blame persons.
As with any office, the Marriage Tribunal incurs expenses related to administration and the employment of professionally trained personnel. In the event that a petitioner's marriage is declared invalid, we ask a donation that covers less than one quarter of the actual expenses associated with handling that person's case. Nothing is asked of the respondent party. The remainder of the cost is subsidized by the Diocese of Hamilton.
We feel that it is right and fair that those who benefit from the services provided by the Marriage Tribunal should be asked to make a contribution toward the cost. However, the right to a just decision is not dependent on one's ability to make the requested donation. Nor does an inability to make a contribution have any bearing at all upon the person's chances of success in obtaining a declaration of nullity.
All information gathered in the course of this process is treated with the highest degree of respect and confidentiality. No information is ever shared with anybody other than designated personnel of the Marriage Tribunal, all of whom have sworn a solemn oath of confidentiality. Tribunal staff will not disclose the details of any case with any other party, including local parish priests, parents/children, witnesses or any proposed future spouse. Once all the evidence is received, it is compiled, and both the petitioner and respondent will have the right to read it at the Tribunal office should they wish. Parties are informed of this right prior to giving their testimony. At the conclusion of the case here in Hamilton, it must then be sent to an appeal Tribunal, either in Ottawa or in Rome. Both Tribunals adhere to the same stringent norms on confidentiality.
While the process of seeking a declaration of matrimonial nullity may be emotionally challenging, many find that this can actually be part of the healing process that helps the person to return to a state of wholeness. The important thing to remember in initiating the process is to approach it without any sense of shame, guilt or undue trepidation. Marital failure does not mean that either party was a failure as a person.
Christ the Lord calls upon the community of believers, the Church, to be a community of healing and reconciliation. The legal procedures of the Church and their application are based on the teaching on marriage of the Lord Himself (i.e., that marriage is a permanent covenant between one man and one woman). However, the Church also cares very much about those who have suffered through the pain of separation and divorce, and thus has, over the centuries, developed these procedures with care. Ultimately, they represent the Church's desire to find pastoral solutions for people in such difficult situations while remaining faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and upholding the rights of all involved. While this booklet has attempted to answer the most common questions of those touched by separation and divorce, please do not hesitate to contact your local parish priest or this Tribunal office should you have any further questions.
1 CCC refers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994).
2 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful (1994).
3 NB: The "petitioner" is the person who initiates the process. The "respondent" is the petitioner's former spouse.