Isn’t annulment just ‘Catholic divorce?'

Marriage is governed by both civil and Church laws. A civil divorce does not, however, affect the sacramental reality of marriage. For two baptised persons, a valid sacramental marriage is ‘indissoluble’ and no one can cancel that bond, not even the Church.

Jesus’ teaching is clear: 'What God has united, man must not divide' (Mt 19:6). It follows that no one can enter a new marriage while he or she is bound by a valid marriage already entered into: such a person is not ‘free to marry’.

Yet, although civil divorce does not end a sacramental marriage, it may raise questions in people’s minds: was it in fact a valid marriage in the first place? Was it a true marriage that failed to be fully lived out or was it an incomplete marriage that finally revealed itself to have been flawed from the beginning?

The Church believes that marriage involves many elements, all of which are important for it to be valid or complete in the eyes of God. The conditions for a valid marriage concern a person’s freedom to marry, their readiness to make a marriage commitment, their understanding of – indeed their very capacity to understand and live out – what marriage involves, their openness to having children, the proper process for witnessing a marriage, and so on.

In the case of a marriage between two Christians, there are certain additional requirements regarding how the marriage is celebrated. Only if all these aspects are fulfilled will the marriage be a valid one.

In the light of these important questions, the Church has established tribunals to examine whether a divorced couple’s marriage did truly constitute a sacramental marriage. The goal of this canonical process is straightforward: 'to verify the truth of the conjugal bond' (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Roman Rota 2006).

If the Church’s tribunal discerns that despite a wedding ceremony and many of the features of a marriage, a complete and valid marriage did not occur, the tribunal may issue a declaration that a person is free to marry.

If, on the other hand, the Church’s tribunal discerns that despite subsequent troubles in the relationship all the necessary features of a valid marriage were present from the beginning, then the marriage was valid and neither party is free in the eyes of the Church to remarry.

In some cases, it is obvious that an essential element of a valid marriage was absent – for example, if a Catholic marries in a civil wedding ceremony without the Church’s blessing or if a person marries someone who is already married.

In other cases the absence of an element may be less obvious to outsiders or even to the couple themselves at the time, but nonetheless an essential element really was missing: for example, if one spouse was unduly pressured into marrying; or if one spouse clearly had no intention of remaining faithful or of welcoming children; or if one spouse was psychologically unable to commit.

In these cases, the Church tribunal – after a thorough investigation and in the light of all the evidence available to it – may judge that an essential element was, from the beginning, not sufficiently present for a valid marriage. In that case it may declare the marriage ‘null’ and the individuals ‘free to marry’. This is very different to a ‘divorce’ which recognises that there was a marriage (in the eyes of the state) but that it has now been cancelled.

In some cases where a marriage is not sacramental, for example when a party to a marriage was not baptised, or where the marriage was not consummated, the Church is able to dissolve the marriage. The Church tribunals deal with these cases as well.

Although Church tribunals grant many declarations of nullity and freedom to marry, not all applications are successful. In some cases, a person’s marriage may have ended civilly but be determined to be valid in the eyes of the Church, and no declaration of freedom to marry can be made.

Even in such difficult circumstances, marriage can still signify the creative work of God, the demands of a love which forgives and redeems, and the hope of a future encounter with Christ (Familiaris Consortio 13).