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Divorce & Annulments

Since my divorce, I’d been on a few dates, nothing serious, just slowly reacquainting myself with the company of a woman over dinner or drinks, like easing back into warm water. Dating again was invigorating, and scary. But I needed the companionship. And I knew that eventually I’d want that companionship to mean more than dinner and a movie.

So I’d just keep dating and see what happened, right?

Well, there’s more to it than that, some Catholic friends told me. If you want to get remarried in the Church, they said, an annulment is necessary. I had only been Catholic about four years, so annulment—like many things Catholic—was a new concept to me. So I made an appointment with my priest to discuss it.

I entered the humble rectory office, and sat across from Father Albert, a kind, soft-spoken pastor with an Egyptian accent. His warmth instantly calmed me. He asked a few questions about my relationship with my former wife.

“How did you meet? How long did you know each other? Did you have any children?”

Then he settled into his chair and looked at me. An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce,” he said. “And you can’t necessarily get one just because you’re unhappy, even if your spouse cheated.” Then came the words I’ll never forget.

“An annulment declares that your marriage never existed.”

A sudden wave of sadness washed over me, a hot and unexpected grief. I understood what he was saying with my mind. But my heart violently resisted.

My marriage never existed?

Sitting there in the priest’s office, my mind instantly raced back to the moment my ex and I met online, our whirlwind courtship, our first kiss. I saw myself proposing to her under a pink evening sky in upstate New York, and laughing on our cross-country honeymoon drive to relocate in California. I saw us making love and unwrapping wedding gifts in our first apartment.

And you’re saying that never existed? But it did.

We adopted a pug, jogged together through our neighborhood training for a marathon, and spent every Saturday morning at our favorite restaurant eating chorizo scrambled eggs and mimosas. We fought, argued about finances, and she stormed out in tears one night to go for a drive.

We sang together in Mass on Sundays. I was there in the crowd, clapping when she accepted her graduate school diploma. She held my hand as we attended the premiere of a TV show I wrote.

I had loved her. And she had loved me. It was not a fantasy.

As my mind reeled with memories, Father Albert gently explained that if I was granted an annulment, it essentially meant that our marriage had never existed in the eyes of God. It didn’t mean you were never civilly married, or that your shared experiences were invalid, or that any children from your union were illegitimate. It just meant that there was some defect from the beginning that prevented a true sacramental union from taking place.

Okay, so I grasped this theologically. According to the Church, a sacramental marriage may have never happened. Meaning… certain criteria had not existed at the time of our vows. For instance, did we truly intend to stay faithful to one another for life? Were we open to having children? Were we fully in control of our will (not forced or drunk or otherwise impaired) when we stood at the altar? I got all that…

But it’s one thing to understand something intellectually. It’s another to grasp it emotionally. I was caught in the gap between the two.

I knew I wanted to eventually get married again if God allowed. But… how could I deny all I had lived through with my former wife? Could it really have all been… a mistake? Isn’t that what an annulment would basically be saying? Were the last seven years of my life never supposed to have happened?

I had come looking for answers. Now I was saddled with more questions.

But that’s the whole purpose of doing the annulment paperwork, the priest explained. Sixty-two essay questions force you to face your past, excavate your pain, and see what went wrong. It’s not meant to be cruel. It’s not a weird formality of the Church. It’s not so the Church can make a few bucks (you’re asked to pay a fee, but even that is negotiable). It’s meant to heal you.

So maybe that grief I felt in the priest’s office was just the opening salvo of the hard healing process that the annulment would bring about. All I know is, that day my heart wasn’t ready.

Father Albert handed me the annulment packet. He would be my advocate, he said, but the work was up to me.

I left the church, my spirit laid low, as the late afternoon sun cast shadows across the street. I drove home, slipped the paperwork in a drawer, and shut it.

That was more than a year ago.

Yesterday, I dug up the annulment packet. I skimmed it over, then studied the first question: “Please describe the home environment in which you grew up.”

I stared at the question. Thought about it. Then… started typing my answer.

 

For divorced men and women: It’s important that you have been through the annulment process and have a decree of nullity stating that you are not bound to your ex-spouse and are free to date and marry. If you date without having taken this step, you are taking a great risk, emotionally, spiritually, and practically.

Because you’ve already endured the traumatic loss of your marriage, you need to make sure you are not dating with the intention of finding a cure for your hurt. In addition, the Church assumes that all marriages are valid unless proven otherwise by the annulment process. If you don’t give a tribunal the opportunity to determine whether or not you had a valid marriage bond, then you are considered married in the eyes of the Church, regardless of having a civil divorce decree. For the sake of your soul, it is essential to be sure you are truly free to date in that sense, as well. 

If you have questions about the Church’s teaching on annulments, talk with your parish priest or local marriage tribunal.

 

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24 Comments

  1. Dan-1002097 June 19, 2014

    Chris, thanks for contributing such a candid and heartfelt post.

    But, it is a big problem that Catholic understandings and expectations about marriage are so often unlike what many couples have in their heads when standing at the altar. Most of what you nostalgically recounted from your past in this post can be understood better as the things that can come from a marriage, but none of them are examples of anything actually constituting one.

    Many people, especially these days, could recount much the same things about relationships outside of marriage. “Tickets torn in half…”, I think the song goes. :wink: You will know you’re talking “the real stuff” of marriage when your unmarried friends can offer no parallel story from their own lives. You seem to be making the common mistake…and, strangely, it’s previously “married” people who often have the most trouble with this… that marriage is defined by what you are getting from it, rather than by what you are giving to it. Some might say, “Hey, now, I gave a lot!”, and then describe the thing completely in terms of what they got, and wish they could have continued to get.

    But, as many of us here on CM know all too well, it is much tougher to find someone you want to give to, than it is to find someone you would like to get from.

    In my humble, ‘never married’ opinion Chris, start working on the forms. Work away from what was, and toward what can be.

  2. James-1082060 June 19, 2014

    Chris, your thinking in this article shows that you really have not come to terms with the loss of the relationship. You’re hearing what you want to hear, and not what the priest.Church is saying to you. Dwelling on what was and is not anymore (your memories of past good things in the relationship) does not prove anything except that you are still desiring to be with the other person. None of this is marriage, none of it is the sacrament as defined by the Church (i.e. – a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace). Whether you felt deeply connected to someone, felt romance, bought property together, even had children does not say anything about the sacrament of marriage. When the priest says that the tribunal may grant an annulment he is not saying your actions, thoughts and emotions never existed. He is saying the sacrament and related grace never existed.

    To non-Catholics (and to many Catholics as well) this decision seems legalistic or just so much semantics. Celebrities and the wealthy seem to be able to get what they want when they want it, and the success rate of applying appears to vary depending on the diocese you live in. But if you believe in the tenants of the religion then you believe in sacraments and the extreme value of the limited sacraments available to us (if you don’t believe in sacraments, then why would you be writing here?). The decision of the tribunal is not really if you can get married again, although this is what you want to know as it may affect whether you can do as you please later in life. The decision of the tribunal is to determine if the sacrament existed. Just because you no longer live with the person or even have contact does not mean the sacrament doesn’t exist, that the opportunity for grace doesn’t exist. You do not need to have all of the rights and privileges of marriage (outside forms) to get the grace of the sacrament. It’s a given that almost no one nowadays is willing to accept that decision (i.e. – you’re not civilly married but you are sacramentally married and therefore still married in the eyes of the Church). You may want to be with someone, you may want the emotional and physical contact, but that’s a different issue entirely. What you want doesn’t determine the validity of the sacrament.

    You are definitely conflicted, as you’re already thinking of marriage again without reconciling where you currently stand (“I knew I wanted to eventually get married again if God allowed”). I don’t mean to come down on you too hard as I fully realize that emotion has a strong hold on us humans, but you are mistaken in relating what you need out of life with how you want the Church of Christ to respond. The Church is as it is and will be … you need to change yourself to fit what the Body of Christ tells you needs to be done in order for you to live forever. The priest and a lot of CM members may talk about the annulment process being “meant to heal you”, but if it does it is a secondary affect. The annulment process is meant to provide the tribunal with the information necessary to make a determination on the sacrament, nothing more and nothing less.

  3. Greg-1042125 June 19, 2014

    Chris, this is a very well written expression of the thoughts and emotions of the beginning of the annulment process. I might have written something quite similar myself a year or two ago.

    The idea that a sacramental marriage never happened can be quite a difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around — especially if you believe that you fully and freely gave consent and were committed to your spouse (as you should have been, of course).

    As you probably know, a priest doesn’t “marry” a couple, the husband and wife confer the sacrament upon each other (CCC 1623). So, there can be this spiritual dilemma, “But, I did confer the sacrament on my spouse!” Maybe… maybe they didn’t confer it on you.

    In any case, somebody didn’t confer something on somebody, because if a valid, indissoluble marriage was contracted, then how could it dissolve? Which it obviously has. So, then how could it have been a sacramental marriage? My understanding is that the annulment process is a healing process that is designed to confront these sorts of questions.

    It’s not surprising to me that it has taken you a while to pull the forms out of the drawer and begin writing. It certainly can be difficult to dredge up thoughts and emotions about events that are so personal, and might be far in the past. It can feel like opening up old wounds. Getting into a frame of mind to write about such things might not come easily, and can be time consuming to reflect on what happened.

    I’ve been told on good authority that some people write one-word, or one-sentence answers to most, or all of the questions. Now, it is true that some of the questions can be answered completely with a “yes,” or a “no,” and I have done just that in those cases, but many questions are open-ended. I’ve found these open-ended questions to be helpful in exploring the circumstances of the marriage, and I hope that you find the same in your process.

    I would urge you to contact your tribunal to tell them that you are now working on the questionnaire. The tribunal in my diocese is good about contacting me every so often to check on my progress. They encourage a regular dialog, so calling them every few weeks, or sending drafts can be even better to keep you on track.

  4. Jessie-1067693 June 19, 2014

    Thank you for posting this Chris! I just opened up my own questionnaire last night and found it too overwhelming. Today is one month from my birthday, so I stand resolute in starting the formal petition and questionnaire today. This was a perfect piece to know that I am not alone.

  5. Michelle-989480 June 19, 2014

    I was granted my annulment last December . The packet work was very emotional and I had months where I had to take a break from it. Throughout the process I kept close to my faith and became more familiar with the Church’s definition of annulment and this opened me to the knowledge that my marriage was truly invalid . It is hard to wrap your mind around the “your marriage was never valid” if you look at it from a worldly context. If you keep your mind on what the higher purpose of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is the non-valid status of the marriage can be easier to comprehend and plainly see (if one is actually in that state).

  6. Patrick-341178 June 19, 2014

    So what does make an annulment? (Putting aside obvious things like Chris mentioned in his article). I have never understood how people can be married for like 20 years and have several kids, and then get an annulment. Please advise.

    • Lisa-727959 June 19, 2014

      Hi, Patrick,

      Yours is a great question. The purpose of the annulment process is to determine whether or not a valid/sacramental bond existed between the spouses. That bond, as you know, is unbreakable, indissoluble. This bond is created between a man and a woman who approach the altar with full freedom to do so and with the intention of creating a permanent, exclusive, life-long union that is open to new life. If any one of those things are missing, a valid/sacramental bond is not created (sacramental is only between two baptized persons but if that is not the case, it can still be a valid bond).

      The annulment process examines the dating, engagement and married periods of the couple’s relationship with special emphasis placed on the day of the wedding. If the tribunal determines no indissoluble bond was created the day of the wedding, it issues the petitioner a decree of nullity stating the parties are not bound to each other and are free to marry in the Church.

      That being said, a decree of nullity does not mean the Church is declaring the couple didn’t have a real marriage relationship, because they did and this is where it must seem confusing. As you state, “20 years… several kids,” probably even a dog or two… Looks like a real marriage to me, right? The marriage relationship was real and valid, the bond was not.

      I hope that helps :)

      - Lisa

  7. Ho K. June 19, 2014

    thank you for your sharing. you are in my prayers as you start this process and so are the many others (including a close friend of mine) who are in the same boat. God bless

  8. Joan-529855 June 19, 2014

    This is an excellent and well written “reflection”. Thank you so much for sharing it with us, Chris. I too felt the same as you, and in fact still do. On my wedding day I approached the altar with full freedom to do so and with the intention of creating a permanent, exclusive, life-long union that was open to new life. My husband, I believe, did the same, though our marriage was annulled my our diocesan tribunal on the grounds of “lack of due discretion” on the part of the petitioner (my husband) and myself. Though I asked for a statement clarifying what exactly those “grounds” entailed I was never given that information. I read the the “acts” (statements written by myself, my husband, and our witnesses) and nowhere did either one of us state that we approached the altar without full freedom to do so and without the intention of creating a permanent, exclusive, life-long union that was open to new life. Two years after our annulment was granted I am still waiting on a “statement” from the tribunal detailing exactly WHY an annulment of our marriage was granted.
    I understand completely your trepidation. We were married for 25 years and have 4 children together (with two more in heaven due to miscarriage). Read the facts: http://www.saveoursacrament.org/Facts.html
    And may God bless you as you reflect on His purpose for marriage.

  9. John-1049932 June 20, 2014

    The whole annulment process makes no sense. My wife left me, divorced me, after 22 years of marriage and 4 kids. There was no adultery, no violence, she just wanted to be on her own. So now I have to prove to a panel that our original marriage was not valid? Really? There was nothing invalid about our marriage, she just changed her mind after going crazy 22 years later. So the Church says I can not get remarried even though she left me unless I can prove our marriage was not valid? I can see why many Catholics leave the Church after there spouse leaves and divorces them.

    • Matt-498053 June 20, 2014

      I agree, been thru similar situation myself. We’re all taught to worship the Popes and Presidents, without questioning anything. It doesn’t work for me either. When you wake up and see “The Church” is not the only viewpoint out there, you can avoid a lot of this cult like practice to begin with. Take for example the following – whether you agree with the practices or not – Former Navajo tribal chairman Peter MacDonald explains Navajo polygyny this way:
      “A man would marry a woman, then work hard for his family. If she had a sister who was not married, and if the man proved to be caring, a good provider, and a good husband, he would be gifted with his wife’s sister, marrying her as well. Among many of the tribes a widow often married her deceased husband’s brother – a practice which anthropologists call the levirate. When a man’s wife died, he would often marry one of her sisters – a practice which anthropologists call the sororate. (Some tribes allowed other behavior most people in our society would consider “insane” like polyandry. Have fun looking that one up.) (I’m not saying I agree with any of this, just saying we need to start thinking for ourselves and grow up.)

      • Annette-1047775 June 24, 2014

        I have a hard time with it too. My ex-husband believes that I am a bad parent. He has a thought disorder. He will always feel this way about me as he looks at me with disdain when I pick up the kids at his house (bus stop got moved this year).

        If I was just a surrogate, and he had no intention to stay married, why can’t I find the evidence before we were married and when we were dating? He always was…it didn’t change. i just can’t find the evidence or justification for it. I keep praying that I will have an answer.

    • Alma-777281 June 24, 2014

      Why should the church change it’s rules after they been around way longer than your great great great grandmother just because you don’t agree with them? The Church is in the right position to refuse to remarry a divorced person. See, the actual underlying issue that’s causing many marriages to go down the drain is that most people in the early stages of a relationship, fail to include God in every aspect of it. They go on a couple of dates, then jump into bed, and if the sex is good, they may end up deciding that this is the person that they want to marry based on their sexual experience. It’s not a joke. Most people are preoccupied with that and that’s why most marriages today are not considered valid. It makes perfect sense. You have to build a relationship with the Lord first in order to develop that deep understanding of the sacrament of marriage. It’s not an easy process but it’s totally worth it for the sake of keeping the marriage intact and avoiding the divorce route.

  10. Theresa-1100404 June 20, 2014

    I’m about go get started on the annulment process. My former spouse admitted that he had extreme doubts before marrying me, therefore our priest believes that there are likely grounds for annulment. I never once thought that he was hesitant to marry and believed that he was happy for the entire 7 years. I’ll take his word for it but it’s difficult when there’s no proof other than his testimony.

  11. Dennis-754668 June 20, 2014

    Howdy Chris… Very good idea to get the annulment process started… It can take some time to get through the questionnaire… The questionnaire can be difficult…

    The comment the priest made that you talked to, about a marriage never existing?… I dont know if the priest was trying to scare you or if he does not understand some things about annulments… Anyway his comment is incorrect… There are children from marriages, that both parents are responsible for… In the future there may be, grand children, daughter in laws, son in laws… Taking these things into consideration how can that be possible that a marriage never existed?…

    The annulment process determines if a marriage was sacrament… Not that it never existed… Also, when a declaration of annulment is granted, it is for both parties… It is not unusual for just the petitioner to participate in the process… It doesn’t slow the process down when the respondent doesn’t participate…

    Going through an annulment is difficult, sometimes it takes a few months, or it can take as long as a couple of years… Circumstances are different for each case…

    Take care now…

  12. Joan-529855 June 20, 2014

    Chris, before proceeding, please listen to your “gut”. If your intuition is that you were married in the eyes of God; then you were. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or feels. The fact of the matter is, Catholic annulments are an “escape” from responsibility and commitment. King Henry the VIII knew this very well and that is why he petitioned for an annulment. I am so sorry you have to experience this “ugly” part of the Catholic Church. Listen to your heart…blessings to you.

  13. David-826237 June 20, 2014

    The statement “your marriage never existed” is indeed hard to grasp . . . and precisely because it is too broad and therefore inaccurate. As stated in this other Catholic Match article, http://www.catholicmatch.com/institute/2014/02/annulments-can-you-tell-when-youre-being-fooled/, ” A decree of nullity does not declare your marriage never existed. People who get married have real relationships and real families and the Church does not deny this in any way. Receiving a decree of nullity only means that a civilly married couple did not have a sacramental/valid bond and are not bound together in the eyes of God and the Church.”

    Your marriage was real in a civil sense and you most likely participated in it with good faith believing the marriage was sacramental as well.

    That the civil marriage, and individuals lacked the capacity to receive and embrace the spiritual graces that the Church attempted to pour into it at the time of the Marriage sacrament, is an important distinction.

    It is also important to note that the Church teaches that the sacrament of Marriage is not “performed” by the priest but rather simply witnessed by the priest. Marriage is a sacrament that husband and wife confer on each other. If one or both lacks the capacity, willingness, and commitment to confer this sacrament on his or her spouse at the time of the marriage ceremony, a sacramental union was never formed.

  14. Joan-529855 June 21, 2014

    “Marriage is a sacrament that husband and wife confer on each other. If one or both lacks the capacity, willingness, and commitment to confer this sacrament on his or her spouse at the time of the marriage ceremony, a sacramental union was never formed.”

    You are so very right, David. However, just think for a moment of a young couple, each 18 years old, standing before the altar about to confer the sacrament of marriage on each other. Do you REALLY believe they have the capacity to confer the sacrament of matrimony on each other? Having been an 18 year old myself at one time, AND having raised 4 children into their 20′s, I can honestly say that very few young adults, at least before the age of 26, at which time the AVERAGE brain is fully developed, have the capacity to confer the sacrament of marriage on each other. The level of emotional/spiritual development is just not there in order to have this capacity. So does that mean that the majority of marriages in which the husband and/or wife is under the age of 26 are “nullable”?

    • Dan-1002097 June 21, 2014

      I personally knew a priest who stopped witnessing marriages between young people for the very same reasons you raised here, Joan.

      Unlike a parish pastor, though, he was able to do that. He taught theology at a coed Jesuit university, and was quite highly-regarded by the students. As alums, they would often ask him to celebrate their marriages, and for years of his career he was happy to oblige. Only after hearing back from many of those same couples as they eventually broke apart…and some not very far along, at that… did he decide he wanted no part in bringing further dishonor to the sacrament by acceding to the misconceptions of these kids (and yes, I get the irony…misconceptions of his THEOLOGY students :wink:), many of whom were heavily pressured by their parents to get married.

      I understood his reaction…but, I think it was just that…a reaction, and not a solution. Simply restricting the sacrament to people of a certain age isn’t the thing that needs to happen. Because, with concepts as counterintuitive as Catholic marriage, someone can have all the “capacity” in the world to take it in, but still not “get it”…not unless the hard job is done to fill that capacity with a clarity of thought that sticks to the brain like tar to the sides of a bucket. And, our Church just isn’t getting that hard job done.

      You can see it in some posts right here in this thread. Someone says, “Hey, my danged ex cheated on me and walked out of our marriage. How is it this church thinks I can’t remarry. How can that be right?” Because, Catholic marriage isn’t about what you’re “getting”, it’s about what you’re “giving”…that’s how…and, they don’t mean the couple giving just to each other, either. A deal is being jointly struck with a particular Third Party here, see. And, in case this escaped anyone, it’s that way because the big favor being done here is decidedly not being done by the couple. So, Friend, you’re still on the hook for that “giving” deal even if Jezebel went crazy and bolted over yonder hill. Now, that concept of marriage either demands a heck of a lot…or it gives a heck of a lot…depending on the two people conferring it upon each other…which is the idea. Choose wisely. Really wisely.

  15. Catherine-996317 June 24, 2014

    Chris, thank you so much for this article. Along with Lisa’s post on the same subject, I’ve had an epiphany on annulments.

    I have skirted the annulment process for 10 years. I’d requested the paperwork from 3 different priests, who either ignored the request or said that it was too expensive and painful to recommend. (Yes, seriously.)

    Although it would be hard to convey the cruelty my ex-husband showed me, it would be easy to show how we could no longer be joined in faith. He’s left the Catholic church that he joined during our courtship, to the point where I had to take him to court to allow our daughter to make her First Communion. He sued me twice to take her out of Catholic school, and lost. He’s made it very clear he wants nothing to do with the Catholic Church. I would think that would be enough. But I did not understand my part in all of this.

    Because of reading your and Lisa’s articles, I now understand how I did NOT understand the sacramental nature of marriage. More importantly, I now understand how I did not embrace or participate in the sacramental experience. Most importantly, I now understand what I need to do, or learn to do, if I want to experience that in the future. And I do. I really, truly, do.

    They say the teacher appears when the student is ready. I’ve read and heard of annulments for many years. Until I read this, I did not see.

    I made some bad choices before. Now I can learn how not to make them again.

    Facing the Tribunal seemed punitive before, to me. Now I see it as an opportunity to learn what God offers us in this blessed union. I anticipate that it will be like a good workout for my soul; uncomfortable, painful, maybe, but it will make me stronger and healthier.

    Thank you.

  16. Michael-369664 June 25, 2014

    What happens to Catholics who marry outside the church? If they get divorced, do they need to get an annulment before they can date or remarry? I have a number of friends in this position. Anyone out there know what happens here?

  17. Janis-1058901 June 25, 2014

    Michael, I think can answer that. My first marriage was a civil ceremony. Since it was not considered by the Church to be a sacramental marriage, I did not need an annulment when I remarried. However, my husband who was previously both baptized and married in the Baptist church, was required to through the annulment process. I seem to recall (this was 35 years ago :), that his annulment procedure was less complicated (for lack of a better word) than that of the Catholic seeking an annulment. Hope I got this right – there are far more informed Catholics out there than I!

  18. Margaret-649755 June 26, 2014

    Doesn’t an annulment go against what the bible says? Isn’t the bible what we should be following? How can anyone condone or state otherwise?

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