Up Front and Personal

Fact and Fiction About Annulments

By Msgr. Steven Aguggia, Judicial Vicar

First of Three Parts

Is there anything more misunderstood by Catholics about something that goes on in their own Church than annulments?

  • An annulment is just a “Catholic Divorce.”
  • If you have the money or know someone, you can get one.
  • Annulments cost about $15,000 and take years.

All of the above statements are false. These and other fictions often cloud Catholics’ understanding of a process that is intended to be one of mercy, reconciliation and new beginnings. An often-quoted principle in the Church is that the supreme law is the salvation of souls. This goes for the annulment process as well as all of the Church’s laws. It is the holiness of people that is the aim of the annulment process, and it is accomplished by allowing people to return to the fullness of a sacramental life in the Church.

The marriage of a man and woman is the foundation of family life. Jesus clearly showed how much marriage is valued in the mind of God by raising marriage to the level, to the dignity, of a sacrament. When a marriage is good and holy it builds upon the grace that is received in the sacrament. Sometimes however, a marriage that may look for all intents and purposes to be a valid marriage is not. This is what the process of the Tribunal is all about.

Let us take the example of the men and women who, after getting to know one another over the course of years, decide to be engaged and continue to grow in knowledge of one another and in love with one another. They decide to marry totally understanding what Christian marriage is all about, understanding the sacramental nature of what they will be doing, making the right decision regarding the person that they are marrying and in a mature way, enter into the married state of life. Their love is fruitful and they begin to raise a good Christian family. This Christian home is a domestic church where the love of Jesus is taught and lived.

Such a marriage is valid because all of the conditions that were required for the valid celebration of the sacrament were present. The effects of this are seen in the fruit that the marriage produces. Certainly, such a marriage is permanent. No one can separate what God has joined. In the case of two Christians, it is a “sacramental marriage.”

Sometimes however, all of the things that necessarily go into making a marriage valid are not present. When this happens, the marriage is invalid or null. It means that even though it may look like it happened, it did not. Something essential to its coming into existence was not there.


Next Week: When is a marriage invalid?

2 thoughts on “Fact and Fiction About Annulments

  1. Father, I know a couple who were married for 32 years, and all the requirements for a valid marriage were present for them.
    However, the man decided that after three decades, he had never been happy; he wanted to be happy, and he had the woman who would make it happen.
    He has been “married” to her for the past 20 years, compliments of the insights of the psychological sciences that tribunals have been using since Vatican II. His wife, the lawful, first one, was devastated by his forcing divorce upon her, and she was crushed by the Tribunal’s forcing a decree of nullity upon her. Their children and grandchildren were nearly destroyed.

    1. Msgr. Aguggia Responds

      Dear Editor: The recent reflections on the ministry of the Tribunal elicited some reactions. Perhaps some clarification is necessary regarding some of the finer points.
      In describing the process for preparing a petition for a declaration of nullity, not every step in the process was outlined in my articles. Some pointed out that a libellus or formal petition is necessary. This is quite true and is an important document in which a person asks the Tribunal to accept a case based on the grounds he or she feels apply in the case. A person will be required to state in basic terms why such grounds are thought to be appropriate. The article wasn’t intended to describe all the steps in the process but rather to offer an overview of the process. The whole process is explicated in the initial meetings with the advocates.
      A more important critique was that it was felt that the Tribunal did not do enough to attempt to reconcile couples. Obviously, it is every priest’s desire to see couples reconciled. All marriages are presumed valid ones until and unless they are proven otherwise. That is why the type of ministry and intervention that must take place for reconciliation, takes place at the parish level. When a case is presented at the Tribunal, the situation has gone farther.
      When a divorce has occurred, it is usually a good indication that there is little to no chance of reconciliation. At that point, the ministry offered by the Tribunal begins and attempts to help people begin anew.
      A third objection is that sometimes couples are together many years and have built families. While this is true, as was stated in the article, a declaration of nullity does not nullify a relationship or a family. It is a declaration that at the time of consent, an essential element of that consent was lacking. Even though it may have seemed apparently that it was valid, it may not have been, something that becomes clearer only after investigation. It may be impossible to tell looking at the marriage from the “outside” as it were.
      Mercy is what drives our ministry but obviously it is at the service of the truth and should the truth of the validity of a marriage be determined, it would be so stated.
      Mercy is not real mercy unless people are helped to walk in the truth.
      Msgr. Steven Aguggia