Guest Columnists

When Is a Marriage Not Valid?

By Msgr. Steven Aguggia

Second of Three Parts

(See the first part of the series, Fact and Fiction about Annulments,  here)

When a Catholic who is bound to observe the law of the Church regarding marriage does not do so, that marriage is obviously not valid. Here we can envision Catholics in civil marriages, for example. Such marriages can be declared null through evidence presented to the Tribunal by documents: baptismal certificates proving the party was Catholic and a marriage certificate proving that the marriage was not a Catholic ceremony.

In cases where a ceremony took place in a Catholic Church, however, the possible invalidity is not obvious and there must be an investigation and process. A person asks the Tribunal to investigate a marriage to see whether or not nullity can be declared. Any person has a right to petition a Church court to examine his or her marriage if that person suspects it may be invalid. A marriage is presumed to be valid unless it is proven otherwise.

A declaration that a marriage was invalid is not automatic. No one “applies” for an annulment and no one pays for an annulment. The process can take some time because the Tribunal must be certain that there was something that invalidated the marriage from the start.

It does not matter how long a couple might be together or even if they were in love for a while because the examination is to determine whether the consent (the vows), through which a marriage comes into being, is valid or not. An annulment is not a declaration of the invalidity of a relationship; it’s the declaration of the invalidity of consent.

This is why it does not affect any children the couple may have had. The relationship between the parents was there and the civil marriage (which ended by civil divorce which the Church cannot recognize) was there. Children born within the context of civil marriage are considered “legitimate” by civil standards. This is an important point since many people misunderstand this fact. A declaration of nullity has no effect on the status of children at all.

Is the process painful? Are old wounds reopened? Perhaps, they are. It would be dishonest to say that the process is not difficult. It takes some work and can be emotionally trying. The end result, however, is a new start. Since an annulment is a declaration that there was no marriage to begin with (remember, we are not speaking about relationships), the persons are free to begin again.

During the process, caring people in the Tribunal assist you, walking you through the difficult parts. The Tribunal’s personnel understand their work to be a ministry – a ministry of healing and reconciliation – and a work of mercy.

So often our suffering and difficulties lead us to greater strength and trust in the Lord. The process described here is a way to do that. By allowing the Lord into the process and by asking Him to walk with us through the difficult parts, people can emerge with a renewed sense of communion with the community of the Church.

The work of the Tribunal is the work of mercy and reconciliation. Those who are in this ministry do it with these goals in mind. The supreme law is the salvation of souls and it is the desire and hope of the bishop that through the ministry of his Tribunal, the people of God are brought closer to the experience of salvation, that they grow in holiness by being able to pursue their vocation to marriage in a Christian way, faithful to the ideals of Christ Himself.

Msgr. Aguggia is the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Next Week: How the process plays out in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
(See the first part of the series, Fact and Fiction about Annulments,  here)


2 thoughts on “When Is a Marriage Not Valid?

  1. Dear Msgr. Aguggia,

    With all respect to Msgr. Steven Aguggia, allow me to share my two cents on his series about the Marriage Tribunal.
    Going through a divorce and annulment is a painful experience. I know this since I have gone through one myself. It is important to keep in mind that the Tribunal’s work of mercy should not be interpreted as giving someone a declaration of nullity for the sake of being merciful. That in itself is false mercy.
    Rather, its job is to uncover the truth about the purported marriage, and not to steer Canon Law to a favorable outcome. Dr. James Provost, an American Canon Lawyer at Catholic University of America once said, “Mercy without competence is a cruel hoax.”
    Most marriages are valid marriages. There is no such thing as a perfect marriage. There are thousands of ways to uncover flaws in a marriage and declare it null. Only Joseph and Mary’s was perfect.
    The late Pope John Paul II once said, “The breakdown of a marriage is never proof of incapacity. Both spouses may have neglected, both supernatural and natural means to preserve their marriage, at their disposal.”
    That being said, reconciliation should always be encourage and pursued.

    God Bless

    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