Annulment Process Needs to be Shored Up not Streamlined

The couple talked at length about what had gone wrong with their respective marriages before tying the knot. Beatrice, a Protestant, and James, a Roman Catholic, promised they would respect each other’s faith traditions. She also agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement. In other words, according to Beatrice, each thought long and hard about what the marriage would entail. Ten years later, the couple divorced. Then this May, Beatrice learned that apart from the civil divorce, James, who is engaged to be married, is seeking an annulment, a declaration that, in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, their marriage never happened. The annulment, his second if granted, would enable James to remarry in the Roman Catholic Church. But, if approved, the annulment would happen over the objection of Beatrice, who wants no part of her ex-husband’s request. “I have a problem with moving laws around to make it fit your lifestyle,” she said. The couple’s dispute is spelled out in church documents in which Beatrice raises concerns not only about the annulment in general, but about the process used by the Archdiocese of St. Louis to grant them. At the request of the ex-husband, the Post-Dispatch is not using the real names of the couple to protect their privacy. Beatrice is far from the first to feel that the cards in the annulment process are stacked against people like her. Grass-roots groups such as “Save Our Sacrament” dedicate themselves to helping spouses fight back when they don’t believe an annulment should be granted. Now an annulment process that critics say makes it too easy to negate marriages could get even easier. The Vatican is considering streamlining the annulment procedure, potentially shortening or eliminating the different appellate routes….(Source)

So, you see, folks, it is not just a one-way street. There are always two sides of every story and it is not always the case that both parties want out.  The Church needs to carefully discern any fast-tracking to this process. If anything, there should be more research done into this matter which might lead to even a strengthening of the requirements needed to get an annulment.

8 thoughts on “Annulment Process Needs to be Shored Up not Streamlined

    • SMC, please see my reply to you below for a general answer. Specifically, If a man had 3 ‘wives’ the first wife, if alive, would be the one assumed valid and that union would need to be investigated to determine nullity or not. In Canadian civil law, polygamy is not legal, so if that first union is declared null by a proper Catholic marriage tribunal, then the other women were never legally married anyway. I suppose that if polygamy were legal in Canada then the next union would require a declaration of nullity, and then the third if the second was judged null. It’s the same if a two non-Catholics married and then divorced, and then the man married another non-Catholic and then divorced, and then wanted to get married in the Church. The first marriage would be assumed valid. If proved invalid, then the second would be assumed valid. And so on. I am told that certain notations of caution or conditions can be put on a declaration of nullity of someone and that before given permission to marry in the Church certain issues would have to be resolved. The person does not necessarily know of such a notation on their file. A priest cannot agree to a marriage of anyone who has one or more annulments without permission from the chancery.

  1. In the case sited, it is the prenuptial agreement that would be the first flag that might indicate an invalid marriage. The Church frowns on prenuptials because it can indicate a faulty understanding of the indissolubility of the marriage bond. Any couple getting married in the Church who want a prenuptial agreement must provide the document to the priest who needs to get the chancery to look at it before the wedding. If I remember my Canon Law correctly, there are some reasons to allow for limited prenuptials, for example if either the bride or groom is in business partnership with others, but generally prenuptials are discouraged. As for the one of the parties objecting to the annulment process or decision, marriage tribunals have a defender of the bond to argue against a declaration of nullity, and if a declaration of nullity is made, the case is automatically appealed to another tribunal. In other words, annulments are not rubber stamped ‘Catholic divorces’ as some claim. Validity is always assumed unless proven otherwise. If after investigation it is revealed that either the bride or the groom did not have the proper dispositions at the time of the wedding, then the assumed valid marriage will be declared null from the beginning and would be considered an attempted marriage, but never in reality a valid marriage. It has nothing to do with the sincerity or proper dispositions of the other person, nor does it have anything to with the ‘legitimacy’ of any children, which is often an underlying concern. All children are legitimate. Illegibility really has to do with rights to the thrown in the case of royalty, for as we all know that in certain times and places arranged marriages for political reasons have been made between kingdoms but then former allies become enemies. If I understand correctly, modern hereditary law in Canada or the United States, in the absence of a will, includes closest blood relatives or legally adopted children, so children born outside of a valid marriage are still legitimate for all intents and purposes. Plus, in the eyes of the state a marriage is valid regardless of what the Church says. The difference is that the state considers divorce to dissolve the marriage bond, which of course the Church does not agree. Divorce does not end marriage. Only death dissolves a valid marriage. The large number of annulments granted in the U.S. or Canada speaks more to poor catechesis (failed education system) and what we call remote preparation for marriage (culture and family) and perhaps poor proximate marriage preparation (parish prep), more than it does the more cynical mistrust of marriage tribunals in general. I hope this helps. God bless.

  2. SMC, regardless of anyone’s religion or polygamous beliefs, nobody can be validly married to more than one person at the same time. The first union would be considered valid unless proven otherwise. All other attempts at marriage with subsequent women would be considered invalid as long as the ‘first’ wife is alive. When a wife dies, the marriage is dissolved by death and therefore he would be free to marry. The same goes for when a husband dies; the woman would be free to marry.

  3. Pingback: A Daughter's Reflection on how the Annulment experience has affected her life | Catholic Canada

  4. Thank you very much, Father, for those insights.

    If I way ask two questions:

    Cardinal Burke said that the US has essentially been operating without that automatic second assessment since the 70s or 80s, resulting in more annulments. Do you know what he’s talking about?

    At my parish, the pastor is placing new emphasis in RCIA so that it’s not just a program from September to Easter, but lasts as long as it takes until he’s confident that the catechumen is ready for the sacraments. Why don’t we do this for marriage prep? I.e. rather than a fixed 6-month process, it should last as long as it takes until the couple has accepted the Church’s teachings.

    • Well, I can’t speak for Cardinal Burke. As far as I’m concerned he is the most authoritative voice in the Church on Canon Law. As you present what he said, perhaps “essentially” suggests that there have been a statistically small number of overturned decisions? I don’t know the actual statistics, but that would be my guess. For argument sake, let us assume that almost all declarations of nullity are confirmed at the second assessment. It does not necessarily follow logically that those annulments should not have been declared. It could mean that the tribunals are doing thorough work in the first place. The high number of annulments is definitely troubling, and I think the staggering numbers are an indication of a poor understanding of marriage and poor example in the culture within which we live.

      I recall Cardinal Burke expressing his objections to streamlining the annulment process. I agree with him. I have trouble imagining how that would work without further denigrating marriage in our society.

      As for RCIA, I think of myself as being flexible. If a catechumen or candidate for full communion has a living faith and has done his own homework as to the teaching of the Church, I take the approach of Saint Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch and don’t delay. If a person is not ready, then they are not ready so it takes longer.

      As for marriage preparation, it gets tricky. As alluded to above, remote preparation has an enormous influence and it seems like the proximate preparation at the parish level often has little impact. Proximate preparation is certainly a teaching and pastoral opportunity with the engaged couple but from my experience so often it seems like I’m ‘spinning my wheels’ so to speak. Here’s the problem canonically, as I see it: if a baptised Catholic attempts a marriage outside of the Church, it is not valid. We require Catholics to be married in the Church if they marry. It is a Precept of the Church. A Catholic has a right to be married, so how can we make it more difficult for them? I don’t know what the solution is. I think that is what the Synod is supposed to be about. I think education has a role to play, but the publicly funded schools tend to shy away from topics that might upset their customers, and there are plenty of student’s parents who are separated, divorced, remarried, or common law. Most Catholics don’t know the Church teachings because the teachings were never presented to them. Only about 10% of Catholics attend Sunday Mass, and most of them are in their 70’s and up, so teaching at Mass by the priest is like trying to get the horses back in the barn. Since I like to mix metaphors, “That ship has sailed.” One of the things I offer at this parish is what I call “Mystery Mondays” when anyone can come and ask any question about Catholicism. It’s a small parish here and turnout is low, but for over a year now somebody always shows up. It starts at 7:00 pm if you are interested. I think blogs such as this and some very good Catholic websites like can have a very positive effect. If an engaged couple is otherwise well educated, I usually ask them to do an online marriage prep at which is endorsed by Archbishop Chaput. Then I personally spend on average 3 to 6 hours with the couple, but I still think I’m spinning my wheels most of the time. Couples are generally very friendly and cooperative, but my sense is that the proximate preparation is approached as ‘hoops to jump through’ unfortunately. God bless.

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