Last time I wrote about a topic that affects very few of us
directly. So this time I figured I’d turn the tables and talk about
something that many, many of us deal with in our dating lives – the
questions around divorce, annulment and remarriage in the Catholic
It’s a huge issue for nearly all of us. Obviously, there are many, many
people here on Catholic Match who are back in the dating world after
having been married. And those of us who haven’t been married still
deal with the subject regularly when we date Catholics who have been
It’s all very confusing, really. The Church believes marriage is
permanent, but there’s this process you can go through so it’s not
really permanent, and . . .
Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is an annulment? Is it
really just the Catholic Church sprinkling holy water on a divorce so
that the parties can validly remarry?
The Church teaches, has always taught and always will teach that a
valid marriage is permanent and unbreakable. Why? Because permanent
marriages are better for society or kids or the Church? No. We believe
that marriage is permanent and unbreakable because Christ said so,
repeatedly. (See Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12. Luke
16:18, for starters.) And the Church, being founded by Christ, doesn’t
have the authority to pick and choose among His teachings. (I once got
into a discussion about this in a bar with a Catholic guy who was
trying to hit on me. When he said that Christ might not have said what
He did about divorce if He had known what would happen in the next 20
centuries, I pointed out that He essentially did know, what with being
God an all. And then this “Catholic” man got that
“I-just-had-a-really-brilliant-thought” look on his face and said,
“Well, wait! He was the Son of God. But does that mean he was God?”
That’s when I gave up having theological discussions in bars.)
So marriage constitutes a permanent union between a man and a woman.
What, then, is an annulment? Is the Church somehow claiming the power
or authority to dissolve that union?
Again, no. What the Church is saying is that they have investigated
the circumstances surrounding the marriage, and have concluded that a
valid marriage never took place and that therefore the marital bond has
According to Catholic sacramental theology, marriage has three
essential parts. First of all, marriage is permanent. Second, it is
faithful. And third, it is open to life. When someone is standing up on
the altar reciting their wedding vows, they are consenting to those
three things. Look at what they’re saying their “I do’s” to. “Do you
Walter, take Henrietta to be your wife?” Remember all that stuff about
“Will you welcome children?” “Forsaking all others?” and “Til death do
you part?” (I don’t have the actual vows memorized – although you’d
think I would, as many weddings as I’ve attended.) Those questions are
designed to insure that the parties are consenting to the essential
elements of marriage.
This is why I dislike the practice of couples writing their own vows.
Do those vows constitute the essential elements of marriage? Are they
committing to an actual marriage, or just the version of it that
they’ve made up? (I read somewhere that Jennifer Aniston and Brad
Pitt’s vows mentioned something about “banana milkshakes forever.” You
can see how that one turned out.)
So what if someone “gets” married, but in their hearts they aren’t
committed to those three essential elements? What if they’re standing
on the altar saying the words, but inside they’re thinking “But we’re
really not going to have kids” or “If this doesn’t work out, we can
always get divorced and then I’ll find someone else” or “Well, sure,
you’ll be my wife, but Camilla will still be my girlfriend”? Are they
committing to a real marriage?
Or conversely, what if they’re both committing to those three
things, but one of them isn’t psychologically healthy enough to
sufficiently understand such a commitment? Or what if one of them is
withholding crucial information that, if the other party knew, he or
she wouldn’t be up there making the commitment? What if one of them has
been forced or coerced?
The Church is saying that, in these situations, a true marital union
was never formed, because the parties either weren’t committing or
weren’t able to commit to a real authentic marriage.
The annulment process is all about looking at what was happening at
the time of the marriage, to determine if a valid marital union was
ever present. It isn’t about looking at what happened after the
marriage took place, except to the extend that it may give evidence as
to an ongoing condition that would have been present at the time of the
marriage. In other words “she cheated on him” isn’t in itself enough to
annul a marriage. But “she had no intention of being faithful when she
got married” would be. Cheating can’t “break” a valid marital
commitment. But the intent to cheat at the time of the marriage means
there was never a valid marriage from the start.
I see a lot of confusion among Catholics over the issues surrounding
annulment. Do non-Catholics need annulments? What about Catholics
married outside of the Church? Does annulment make children
illegitimate? What about people who can’t have children? Are their
marriages valid? Does the Church grant too many annulments? Is it okay
to date someone who doesn’t have an annulment?
I’d love to answer all of those questions. But I just checked my
word count, and it tells me that there will be no more answers in this
column.And so, just like an old Brady Bunch episode, I’ll leave you
hanging, wondering if Greg will be bitten by the poisonous spider, and
To be continued…