Marriage and Annulment: When Will the Catholic Church Leave the Catholics Alone?


Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Many in the contemporary world think of marriage and divorce as a personal matter between the husband and the wife, but not the Catholic Church.

Most believe that if the husband and the wife can agree on the details of marriage or divorce, others need not bother.  But, the Catholic Church has a unique way to interfere, by a concept called annulment, which is deeply rooted in the history of the Catholic Church.

Some of us do not understand annulment in the Catholic Church and think as if it is similar to divorce. So what is annulment if it is not simply divorce?

Civil annulments treats the marriage as though it never existed. Annulment is a legal procedure for declaring a marriage null and void. Unlike divorce, it is usually retroactive, meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to be invalid from the beginning almost as if it had never taken place.

In the Catholic Church, a declaration of nullity, commonly called an annulment, is a judgement on the part of an ecclesiastical tribunal determining that a marriage was invalidly contracted, or less commonly, a judgement determining that sacred ordination was invalidly conferred.

A matrimonial nullity trial, governed by the Church’s canon law, is a judicial process whereby a canonical tribunal determines whether the marriage was void at its inception (ab initio). A “Declaration of Nullity” is not the dissolution of an existing marriage, but rather a determination that consent was never validly exchanged due to a failure to meet the requirements to enter validly into matrimony and thus a marriage never existed.

For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged.

The annulment process is laborious and time-consuming, involving two levels of church courts and typically taking 12 to 18 months to complete. The fees, which according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can range from $200 to $1,000, are used to pay administrative costs.

But, why should a Catholic worry about annulment and go through the lengthy ecclesiastical tribunal proceedings, after settling the divorce in a civil court?

Without the annulments, Catholics who remarry are not allowed to receive Holy Communion or Eucharist, which many describe as a painful exclusion from the church’s chief sacrament.  In other words if they only get civil divorce they are marginalized in their Church and in a manner of speaking become second class Christians.  As if a broken marriage was not a bad enough tragedy they have to go through the trauma of being discriminated against, in their own Church.

Mark Garren does not take communion when he goes to church. Sometimes he walks up to the priest, crosses his arms over his chest and touches his shoulders to signal that he is seeking a blessing. More often, mindful of his divorce years ago, Mr. Garren, a 64-year-old Illinoisan, remains in his pew, watching with slight embarrassment as the rest of the row moves to the front of the church.

Pamela Crawford, 46, of Virginia, is having none of that. Twice divorced, she, too, feels judged by her church, but when she does go to Mass, she walks up with the rest of the congregation. “If God has a problem with me taking communion, we’ll sort it out,” she said.

Facing millions of divorced Catholics around the world, many of whom express frustration over their status in the church, the Vatican has begun a remarkable re-examination of the church’s treatment of worshipers whose marriages have broken apart.[1]

Pope Francis on Tuesday this week radically revised the process by which Catholics may annul their marriages, streamlining steps that many in the church considered too cumbersome and costly.

The move is the latest in a series of reforms by Francis as he seeks to make the church more responsive to the real needs of lay Catholics, especially those who have long felt marginalized by the hierarchy. Without the annulments, Catholics who remarry are not allowed to receive Holy Communion, which many describe as a painful exclusion from the church’s chief sacrament.

The Vatican announcement also comes just weeks before Francis makes his first-ever visit to the United States. Americans accounted for about half of the nearly 50,000 annulments granted in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available.

In 2015, the process for declaring matrimonial nullity was amended by the matrimonial nullity trial reforms of Pope Francis, the broadest reforms to matrimonial nullity law in 300 years. Prior to the reforms, a declaration of nullity could only be effective if it had been so declared by two tribunals at different levels of jurisdiction. If the lower courts (First and Second Instance) were not in agreement, the case went automatically to the Roman Rota for final decision one way or another.

As if they possessed some magical wand to determine if the marriage was religiously valid or not. After all it was consummated and existed for numerous years, what is this joke that it did not exist in the first place?  Why do the believers have to live with a strange thought that they lived in sin for so many years?  What is the guilt of the children born to such a marriage, now be suddenly thought of as “bastards,” born out of wedlock!  Why this putting the cart before the horse? Why an Alice in the wonderland scenario?

The short answer is that the Catholic Church in early centuries defined marriage as one of the seven sacred sacraments and has been managing the lives of the believers for centuries, through these sacraments and has no immediate interest in getting out of their personal lives.

Confession is also one of the seven sacraments and its dreadful consequences over the last few centuries have been discussed in a recent book.  For a quick book review to demystify the so called sacrament of confession, please go to: Book Review: The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession.

Just like the Church is not forcing the sacrament of confession, these days, they could let go of the sacrament of marriage and let the believers be married and divorced according to the best secular concepts.  It is time to leave your own followers alone and not monkey with the most intimate parts of their lives.

The husband and the wife know the best about their marriage and how it was over the years, blissful or not, and not the celibate priests sitting in  ecclesiastical tribunals, sometimes hundred of miles away.

Additional Reading

Divorce: Islam Versus Christianity

A Message of Compassion and Love from the Holy Bible


  1. As Vatican Revisits Divorce, Many Catholics Long for Acceptance


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