Dear Mary Beth,
I’m new to this singles thing and not even sure how I feel about calling myself single. My husband moved out a year ago, and our divorce will be final next month. My problem is that everybody keeps telling me I need to start working on an annulment right away. It makes me sick just to think about it. I’ve just lost my marriage, and now the Church is going to tell me it was never real at all?
I’m so sorry for your loss. You’re going through a lot right now, and while this might be a good time to start learning more about annulment, it doesn’t strike me as the right time for you to make a decision about whether or not you should go through the process.
Let’s talk about annulment – what it is, and more importantly, what it is not. Annulment is not “the final step in a Catholic divorce.” Unfortunately, this has become the mentality in certain Catholic circles – that Catholic marriages can be ended just like anyone else’s marriage, we just have to go through a slightly different process.
This could not be further from the truth.
As Catholics, we start with Christ’s words, that “what God has joined together, no man can separate” (Mark 10:9). We believe that, in a valid sacramental marriage, God joins two souls together in a way that cannot be separated except by death.
So what is annulment if it isn’t “Catholic divorce”? Quite simply, it is a process whereby Catholics ask the Church to investigate the circumstances surrounding their marriage, to make a determination as to whether that sacramental bond ever actually occurred.
Committing to marriage means committing to a very specific type of union – one that is permanent, exclusive and open to life. If one of the parties isn’t agreeing to those specific terms, or if their consent is impaired or not freely given, then a sacramental marriage never took place.
It is, however, true that a legal marriage took place – a type of contract, overseen by the state, in which the parties make certain commitments to each other. That agreement was created by the state and can be dissolved by the state. That’s what a legal divorce does. (That agreement, by the way, is what makes children “legitimate” as far as the law goes. In God’s eyes, the distinction is meaningless; there’s no such thing as an “illegitimate” child.)
So someone who is legally divorced but has no annulment is presumed by the Church to be sacramentally married. Which means that person isn’t free to marry someone else.
Taking your time
Here’s the main thing you need to know: You don’t have to pursue an annulment ever. Right now, as far as the Church is concerned, the sacramental bond between you and your ex-husband is presumed to be intact.
Many, many divorced Catholics presume that bond is there and live accordingly. They don’t date, they don’t remarry. They just live their lives as married people separated from (or often, abandoned by) their spouses.
Here’s the rest of what you need to know: If at any point you want to start dating again, then you need to pursue an annulment – immediately. Before you can explore the possibility of re-marriage, you need to ask the Church to investigate, to make sure you are actually free to marry.
I strongly advise divorced Catholics who believe their first marriage may be invalid to go through the annulment process before opening their hearts to any new relationships. Otherwise, you run the very real risk of falling in love and then discovering that you aren’t free to marry.
Whatever you decide and whatever determination may be made about your first marriage, nothing can change what was real about it and about the family you may have created.
Annulment isn’t a statement about the intensity of the love between two people, or the “legitimacy” of the children resulting from the union. It’s simply a determination that the conditions didn’t exist for a sacramental union.
So don’t worry. Deal with what’s in front of you right now, continue to pray and to seek God’s will. He will take care of you!