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Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley (1894-1967)  
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in the know with fr. joe

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 yours specifically.

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 offered.

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 illegitimate?
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 annulment?
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 annulment?
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 valid.
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 for healing.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!

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“In the Know with Fr. Joe”
St. Augustine Catholic
11625 St. Augustine Rd.
Jacksonville, FL 32258-2060