Q: Can you explain annulments? Why
would a non-Catholic have to get one?
A: There are a lot of
questions about annulments out there and a
good deal of the information we get doesn’t
always come out right. I was thinking that
we could use your question to talk a bit
about annulments and, in the process, get to
What is an annulment? This is the definition
from the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops: “Properly called the
decree of nullity, this is the declaration
by authorities that a marriage is null and
void, because it was never valid.”
Ummm…what? Let’s try this:
Suppose I cook a meal and offer it to you.
Because I am a master chef (well, nobody has
died from my cooking), I can prepare a meal
for you that provides you with all the
energy you need to last until the next meal.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that
you can eat all that you need. Maybe you
don’t feel well; maybe you don’t like my
cooking (God forbid). Either way, the
important thing is that we find out what the
problem is or was and then work at it. That
way, the next time we sit down to eat, it’ll
work out the way it should.
An annulment is the same way. When a couple
gets married in a church, God offers them
the grace they need to live a married life.
Sometimes, either because of issues in their
pasts or for other reasons, one person (or
both) may not be able to take all the grace
that is being offered. For example, some
folks never had a good Christian marriage
modeled to them, or didn’t even have a
proper Christian upbringing. Often, when we
encounter situations like this, we find one
of the people in the marriage just wasn’t
able to cooperate with the grace being
When this happens, one or both of the people
involved might seek an annulment. The church
investigates whether the ingredients for a
sacramental marriage were present and issues
a decree of nullity if they were not.
When we look at it this way, I hope it helps
us with a couple questions that come up in
discussions about annulments.
1 How could the church dissolve a
marriage that lasted 20 years?
Well, hopefully now we see that the grace
offered by the church is for a lifetime, but
it doesn’t mean that someone was able to
seize all the grace being offered. In that
light, what difference is 5, 10 or 20 years,
right? Of course, these cases are often more
painful and require a lot more
investigation, but the idea still holds.
2 Why would the church declare children
The church does not; it simply doesn’t have
the authority. When there is a decree of
nullity, the church isn’t saying the couple
were not legally married - the church is
stating that it wasn’t the sacramental
celebration that was intended.
3 Why do non-Catholics have to get an
Well, out of a genuine respect for our
non-Catholic brothers and sisters, we
believe all Christian weddings to be
sacramental. If we aren’t sure, then we
investigate seriously because we believe the
possibility of marriage to be so important.
Even if a couple was not Christian or was
married by a judge, the church assumes all
marriages to be “good and natural” unless
shown to be otherwise.
4 What are the different kinds of
Well, obviously we have the one we’ve been
talking about, which is called a decree of
nullity. There is another kind called lack
of form, which happens when a Catholic
marries outside of the church without
permission. Since they didn’t follow the
required form for a Catholic marriage, the
church did not recognize the marriage as
5 If I know someone is getting married
invalidly, should I go to the wedding?
As baptized Catholics, we are obligated to
respect the sacrament of marriage and we
should expect our Catholic friends to do the
same. Often, however, we don’t know all the
circumstances around someone’s private life
and may not really know whether they are
getting married invalidly or not. I would
recommend talking to your pastor about these
things before making a decision.
Either way, I hope this helps us with our
questions about annulments. When done
rightly in the spirit of prayer and a desire
for healing, they can be a great opportunity
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!