Guest Columnists

Understanding Annulments

by Father John Catoir

When I was director of The Christophers, I received a call from the CBS news show “60 Minutes.” Producers were preparing a segment on a case involving a Catholic annulment. Since they couldn’t find any church official who was willing to talk to them, they called me.

I understood the secrecy issue, having been the judicial vicar of my own diocesan marriage tribunal for 10 years. But I also knew that I could get clearance before I agreed to be a guest on the show, and I eventually did.

It seems that, after getting a divorce, a Catholic man approached his diocesan tribunal for a church annulment from his Jewish ex-wife. Though she had agreed to the divorce, she sued the church for accepting his petition.

She was outraged and had said, “He left me for another woman, and now the Catholic Church is going to condone his betrayal. We took vows to marry for life.”

“60 Minutes” took her side, and as soon as I agreed to be interviewed, Mike Wallace came to my office with a camera and crew. He was very gracious, but all business.

The first question he asked me on camera was: “Isn’t the annulment process nothing more than a Catholic divorce?”

“No, not at all!” I countered. “A divorce severs the legal bond of marriage, rendering the rights and privileges accruing to it as no longer legally binding. An annulment, on the other hand, searches to find if the original contract had any trace of fraud going to the heart of the contract.”

I continued, explaining that if fraud is discovered (for example, he never intended an exclusive union), or if there was a lack of capacity on the part of either spouse to enter into and sustain the burdens and obligations of marriage, the court will declare the union null and void.

“This means that the contract was invalid from the beginning,” I explained. “The rights and duties accruing to the invalid contract were therefore never binding.”

An annulment doesn’t mean that there was never a marriage; there was a legal marriage according to the state. Nor does it mean that the children born of that marriage were illegitimate in the eyes of the church. The word “illegitimate” only refers to children born out of wedlock.

During the show, Mike Wallace questioned me about the rights of the Jewish ex-wife, asking if she should be punished for his unfaithful behavior.

I said, “No, the church does not want to inflict any pain on anyone, but what is at issue here is the right of a Catholic to have his/her marriage examined to see if there was any sign of an invalidating impediment.” The man’s wife, however, wanted to stop the process before it even began.

To the best of my knowledge, the annulment was never granted, and I don’t know why.

In the course of the interview, I mentioned St. Joan of Arc and her trial before an English church tribunal. Joan had every right to protest the court’s decision that declared her to be a witch. But to everyone’s surprise, she simply said something to the equivalent of: “I love the church. I will always love the church, because for me the church is Jesus Christ.”

She wasn’t saying “my church, right or wrong.” She knew a grave injustice had been done.

We all know that the church has made many mistakes down through the centuries.

St. Joan of Arc was sentenced to be burned at the stake on May 31, 1431. It wasn’t until July 7, 1456, that her sentence was overturned. She was declared a saint and a martyr, but she wasn’t officially canonized until May 16, 1920, by Pope Benedict XV.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Annulments

  1. Fr. Catoir, you make Mike Wallace look like an orthodox Catholic and yourself like a brain-injured Vatican II Catholic: too many liberal seminary studies.

    Mike Wallace understands the issue: The majority of annulments since Vatican II are nothing but “Catholic” divorce.

    You make two astouding statements in your article:

    “An annulment doesn’t mean that there was never a marriage.” That’s EXACTLY what it means. If that isn’t what it means, it means annulment is “Catholic” divorce.

    “We all know that the church has made many mistakes down through the centuries.” That should be: “We all know that many IN the church have made many mistakes. . . .” Hundreds of them are in U.S. diocesan tribunals right now declaring marriages null for grounds that don’t exist in the Roman Catholic Church. Only in the minds of those who want what they want.

    Thank God for the Jewish lady who saw through the annulment scandal.

  2. Fr. Catoir says divorce severs the legal bond of marriage, rendering the rights and privileges accruing to it as no longer legally binding.

    I find troubling that, as a Catholic canon lawyer, he didn’t explained the canon law on separation of spouses and divorce. Canon 1153 and 1692 specify that no one with a Catholic marriage can seek a civil divorce without first obtaining permission from their bishop for their particular circumstances.

    According to canon law, no Catholic can seek a civil divorce decree contrary to divine law. Civil divorce is simply the process whereby the state forces the children to separate from one parent or the other on a rigid schedule. It is also the process whereby all the family’s property is split between to separated parents and the parent who loses the children is forced to pay child support for them in the household in which he is not allowed to live. Sometime both parties can be coerced into such agreements, but only because of the threat of no-fault divorce.

    If a woman finds that her professed Catholic husband abandons her, is in Catoir’s example, shouldn’t she be able to expect his Catholic pastors to admonish him? Shouldn’t she have the right to be protected from an immoral divorce decree?

    Even the Jewish woman in Fr. Coutier’s example knew there was something wrong with her husband’s Church condoning his adultery.

    While it is ‘possible’ that the husband committed fraud, or was suffering from serious mental abnormalities, which made him incapable of marriage (requirement clarified by Pope’s address to Roman Rota, 1987), it is also possible that he had no legitimate cause for an annulment at all. The Jewish wife has the right to stop the process before it starts and the canon law judge responsible for the annulment case has the obligation to stop it too.

    Any canon law judge must reject a petition for invalidity of marriage if “lacks any basis and that there is no possibility that any such basis will appear through a process” (canon 1505§2,4.).

    Is Fr. Cloutier suggesting that the Jewish wife should have been more like Joan of Arc? Does he think every annulment respondent who wants to defend his or her marriage against unjust annulments would be more saintly to just shut up and be burned at the stake?

  3. I see my message is awaiting moderation, AND I see I mis-pelled Fr. Catoir’s name several different ways. If you post my letter on website, could you use corrected version shown here:

    ——-

    Fr. Catoir says divorce severs the legal bond of marriage, rendering the rights and privileges accruing to it as no longer legally binding.

    I find troubling that, as a Catholic canon lawyer, he didn’t explained the canon law on separation of spouses and divorce. Canon 1153 and 1692 specify that no one with a Catholic marriage can seek a civil divorce without first obtaining permission from their bishop for their particular circumstances.

    According to canon law, no Catholic can seek a civil divorce decree contrary to divine law. Civil divorce is simply the process whereby the state forces the children to separate from one parent or the other on a rigid schedule. It is also the process whereby all the family’s property is split between two separated parents. The parent who loses the children is forced to pay child support for them in the household in which he is not allowed to live. Sometimes both parties can be coerced into such agreements, but only because of the threat of no-fault divorce.

    If a woman finds that her professed Catholic husband abandons her, as in Catoir’s example, shouldn’t she be able to expect his Catholic pastors to admonish him? Shouldn’t she have the right to be protected from an immoral divorce decree?

    Even the Jewish woman in Fr. Catoir’s example knew there was something wrong with her husband’s Church condoning his adultery.

    While it is ‘possible’ that the husband committed fraud, or was suffering from serious mental abnormalities, which made him incapable of marriage (requirement clarified by Pope’s address to Roman Rota, 1987), it is also possible that he had no legitimate cause for an annulment at all. The Jewish wife has the right to stop the process before it starts and the canon law judge responsible for the annulment case has the obligation to stop it too.

    Any canon law judge must reject a petition for invalidity of marriage if “lacks any basis and that there is no possibility that any such basis will appear through a process” (canon 1505§2,4.).

    Is Fr. Catoir suggesting that the Jewish wife should have been more like Joan of Arc? Does he think every annulment respondent who wants to defend his or her marriage against unjust annulments would be more saintly to just shut up and be burned at the stake?