On Annulments

This Twitter File was a response to one of my followers regarding annulments in the Catholic Church

I am not a canon lawyer. The reader should take this as a well informed opinion, and consult with a priest or canon lawyer for authoritative answers to any questions about annulments in the Church and declarations of nullity and what they do/don’t mean. You can call your local parish for guidance.

Covered here:

• Rate of Annulments • Annulment vs. Divorce • Annulment Process • Whether the Church has authority to grant annulments

The Comment

My Response:

Hi! This is a multilayered comment (and thank you for it!), so I would like to offer a multilayered response. Since it regards a complex subject, this is going to be a long reply. I’ll put subheadings to help you navigate. Also, I should say I’m not a canon lawyer. What I’m offering here is true, but it may be lacking meaningful technical nuances. I suggest you consult with a priest or canon lawyer for an authoritative take on this. My response follows these hashtags #annulment #Catholic #Divorce #CanonLaw #Annulments

Regarding 90% approval of annulments:

I can’t comment on the rate of declarations of nullity in a given diocese. However 90% approval doesn’t mean 90% abuse. Notable also is that a 90% approval means there’s a 10% denial rate. I hope this demonstrates that even in the most extreme settings, the Canon Law Courts are doing their jobs; otherwise, the approval rate would be 100%

Annulment vs. Divorce

An annulment is not the Catholic version of divorce. A divorce is when one or both parties agree to end a marriage. An annulment is a declaration that the contract entered into at marriage was not valid or not entered into lawfully to begin with—in other words, conditions for the marital contract were not met at the time of the marriage, whether or not the bride, the groom, or the Church were aware of that at the time of the marriage. In short: Divorce is the end of a marriage (civilly) where annulment is a declaration that the marriage was never valid to begin with. I’ll get into that more in a moment.

The Annulment Process

The annulment process is a judicial process involving canon law, canon lawyers, and canon law judges. So it’s rooted in law (which is objective), not philosophy (which can rely on interpretation and can be twisted to one’s preferences). Canon law itself is rooted in theology, so it is based on divine revelation, not man’s opinions. As a whole, then, annulment proceedings rest on solid ground (Law, Theology, Doctrine) and can be trusted. But the variables, which can’t always be trusted, are the applicants seeking declarations of nullity and the witnesses involved in their cases.

The canonists (who are usually faithful to Canon Law) have to rely on those accounts and testimonies. Those parties aren’t always faithful to the facts and may sometimes misrepresent the truth of their situations in order to fraudulently gain the declaration of nullity they seek. Since the canon judiciary can’t read the minds and hearts of the applicants/witnesses, they do their best to faithfully apply canon law and to render judgment based on reasonable trust in what they are being presented with (case details and witnesses). More often than not, that’s where the abuses happen—the honesty of the parties seeking the declaration of nullity. But the judges and lawyers involved in the process act both in charity and in justice. They don’t give a blank check to the applicants, and they do make some effort to confirm what they’re being told by the applicants/witnesses.

Authority to grant annulments

Regarding the question of whether the Church/Catholics should have this special power to declare a marriage null:

Marriage is a covenant or contract elevated as a sacrament by Jesus Christ. As such, it falls within the divine law. In other words, marriage is what God says it is (a covenant), and both the nature and character of marriage (a contract) fall under the authority and judgment of the Supreme Legislator (God).

From that perspective, a contract is not valid if the parties entering into it have no freedom of will to choose to enter into it (that is scriptural). For example:

  • One or both parties were not aware of the full nature of what they were agreeing to, and/or did not enter into the marriage in good faith (“I didn’t know he was an alcoholic” or “I didn’t know she was not able to have children”)
  • One or both parties were forced into the contract, either by threat or otherwise wrongly felt compelled by circumstances (“I felt I had to marry him/her because…”)
  • One or both parties were not capable of assent of the will in entering into the contract (mental illness or incapacity, things like that).

There are other possible reasons, but those are just three that I can think of right now.


God already knows when a contract/promise/covenant is invalid due to one or both of the parties not being able to enter into it with full freedom of the will. He also knows when a contract is valid, despite the claims of the applicants. But he has left the Church as the temporal legislator and custodian of the sacrament of marriage. The Church was left with the authority to authorize lawful marriage, and so the Church has the authority to declare that a marriage was not entered into lawfully. If the Church has the authority of God to marry people, it necessarily also has the authority to declare a marriage null. It’s impossible to have authority for one without authority for the other. If a marriage is null, God already knows that even before the Church declares it so. But he leaves it to the Church to make it “official”

Known to God, even if Not [Yet] Known by the Church

The Church’s annulment process is one where the Church officially recognizes and declares what is already true and what is already known by God. Similarly, if a person is a literal saint, God already knows that, even before they are canonized as “St. Someone”. The process of canonizing a saint is one where the Church officially declares what is already so, and is already known to God. We don’t make saints by putting “St.” in front of their names. They’re already saints. The Church simply declares it as fact, following an investigation into the life of the saint. However a marriage in the eyes of God is still “in force” until the declaration of nullity by His Church.

None of this is to say that abuses of Canon Law don’t sometimes happen. People in and out of the Church abuse the law from time to time. Sometimes it’s lawyers; sometimes, judges, sometimes, it’s plaintiffs or complainants. That is the unfortunate human condition of fallen man. But God knows what is true. He is the ultimate judge. Trust in His Church, and trust in God’s mercy as well as his justice.

It’s a complex subject, and I hope I have given you some clarity. Thank you for your comment!! God bless and keep you, my friend!

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