Annulments are confusing.
month I tried to give you a general overview of what annulment isn’t
(“Catholic divorce”) and what it is (a determination that a sacramental
marriage never took place). Then I promised you answers to a whole
bunch of questions.
In the month since that
column, most of the questions I’ve received from all of you have
centered around the question of non-Catholics and annulment. Who needs
an annulment? Who doesn’t? So I thought I’d give that question a
detailed answer this month.
If someone wasn’t
married in a Catholic ceremony, do they still need an annulment? Well,
maybe. It depends on whether they were Catholic or not at the time of
At the heart of this question is
another question, “Do non-Catholic wedding ceremonies confer a
sacramental marriage?” Up until the Middle Ages or so, this wasn’t such
a big question because Catholicism was the only Christian religion, so
pretty much everybody in the western world was Catholic, and thus so
were most of the weddings. But then came the Protestant Reformation,
and suddenly the Church was encountering the question of whether
weddings performed in Lutheran churches were actually valid. Marriage
is a sacrament, but is the sacramental union there if the Church wasn’t
present or involved in conferring it?
Council of Trent spent quite a bit of time grappling with that
question. They concluded that, in marriage, the priest is not the
primary instrument of the sacrament. Rather, the spouses confer the
sacrament on each other by their consent to the sacramental union.
Therefore, for non-Catholics, weddings in Lutheran churches (or City
Hall, or on the beach, or in Vegas with an Elvis impersonator
presiding) were valid provided certain criterion were met. First of
all, the ceremony had to be public. Back then “clandestine” marriages
were common – where people “got married” by sneaking into a corner and
saying “Okay, we’re married.” Church and state are both clear that
isn’t a legal marriage. Marriage is a public proclamation of
commitment, and it must be witnessed by at least two people. That’s
why, even if you get married at Ernie’s Love Chapel and Bingo Parlor,
Ernie will probably pull his wife away from As The World Turns to come
in and act as the second witness.
parties marrying must be committing to a real marriage. That goes back
to last month’s discussion about the three goods of marriage –
permanence, fidelity and openness to life. If that commitment isn’t
there it isn’t a real marriage, no matter where it happens or who’s
And, obviously, the parties must be
free to marry. If one or both are already married (with or without
civil divorce) no marriage can take place.
Catholics it’s a different story. Because we believe that the Catholic
Church is founded by Christ and is His instrument of salvation in the
world, and because we believe that our priesthood is directly tied to
the Priesthood of Christ, those of us who are in communion with His
Church are called to a higher level of respect for the sacramentality
of marriage. The Church requires, if at least one of the parties is a
baptized Catholic, that the marriage ceremony take place in accordance
with the liturgical norms set forth in the Code of Canon Law. In other
words, the ceremony is to take place in the presence of the Church –
either before a priest or deacon within a Catholic church, or by
special permission within another church with a Catholic priest or
deacon acting as formal witness.
So what does
this mean to all of us? If you’re dating someone who was married in a
Protestant ceremony, or in the woods with Pastor Al from the internet,
would that person need an annulment to marry you?
say Fred and Rita, both Methodists, meet at Southern Methodist
University and get married at the campus chapel. It’s the first
marriage for both of them. But it turns out Fred is a cross-dresser,
and that’s just a little too much strain for Rita to take. They get
divorced, and Fred gets half of Rita’s wardrobe in the settlement. Rita
then meets Ken the Catholic, who wears only Levi’s and T-shirts. Rita
finds that refreshing and wants to marry Ken in the Catholic Church.
would need to petition a Church tribunal for an annulment for her
marriage to Fred. Odds are good that she’d get it, because she married
Fred not knowing about his penchant for Dolce and Gabbana gowns. Still,
she’d need to go through the whole process.
let’s change the story a little and assume that Rita was a baptized
Catholic, but still married Fred at the SMU chapel without a priest
present. In that case, in order to marry Ken, she would just have to
apply for a decree of nullity due to “defect of form.” In other words,
because Rita was Catholic and not married in accordance with the
liturgical norms of the Catholic Church, no sacramental marriage is
presumed to have taken place. Defect of form is a simple process. Once
evidence is shown, the decree is granted.
The moral of the story? If you’re Catholic and planning to marry a cross-dresser, do it at the SMU chapel.
Seriously, I hope this is making some sense. If two Protestants who are
free to marry do so in a non-Catholic ceremony, the marriage is
presumed valid, and for either party to later marry in the Catholic
Church, that party would have to apply for and receive and annulment.
But if one of the parties was Catholic and they were married in a
non-Catholic ceremony, the Church wouldn’t recognize the validity of
that marriage, and the party (whether the Catholic or non-Catholic
party) would only have to apply for “defect of form.”
Rita and Fred are both Methodists. They get married at SMU, but Fred
had been married before (and obviously has no Catholic annulment). Now
they’re divorced and Rita wants to marry Ken. Does she need a full
annulment, or just a decree of nullity due to defect of form?
Defect of form. In the Church’s eyes, Fred wasn’t free to marry Rita in
the first place because he was still presumed to be validly married to
his first wife, so no sacramental marriage took place.
Enough confusion for one month? I thought so. Next month we’ll talk about annulments, divorce and dating.