April 15, 2008
We get that a lot in our office: “I don’t understand how the Catholic Church can say a marriage never happened.” “I don’t understand why an annulment is necessary.” “Can’t you people leave well enough alone? They’re divorced, it’s over and done with. Let them marry again if they want.” Most people, even Catholics, don’t understand how the Church can declare a marriage invalid. After all, it lasted X many years, there’s children involved, it’s a ploy to get more money. Questions, excuses, downright hostility, we get them all here!
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is permanent – no one, including the State, has the power to break the marital bond between the couple. The State says that because marriage is a contract, it can be broken, simply because one or both parties want it. However, the Church takes marriage to a higher level: it is a covenant, and so it cannot be broken because it creates a bond between the parties. Think of it this way: God made a covenant with Abraham. Both of them were bound by the terms of that covenant. Abraham swore to follow His instructions, and God swore that He would multiply Abraham’s descendents. Neither of them could break the covenant they made, no matter what Abraham and/or his descendents did later on (God never breaks a covenant He makes). The covenant between them is permanent. The covenant of marriage is the same way. Even if the marriage ends in divorce, that bond or connection between the couple still exists.
How can a marriage be invalid? The Church teaches that marriage, like all the other sacraments, is dependent on two things: matter and form. The ‘matter’ in this case is the consent of the two parties; the ‘form’ is how they get married (i.e., in front of the priest who witnesses their vows). If one or both of these is defective for some reason, then the marriage is invalid. The only way to be sure that a marriage was invalid is to examine it. We look at what happened during the courtship, engagement, wedding day, and marriage itself. Things that occurred at these different times can sometimes point to a cause of invalidity.
When we examine a particular marriage, we start with the presumption that the marriage was valid. Then we sift through the testimony of everyone who participated, and try to see if there are overwhelming reasons why the marriage would be invalid. Sometimes it’s very obvious; for instance, one of the parties may have been so drunk at the wedding that there is no way he/she understood what was happening (this is just one example of a reason that a marriage could be declared invalid). Other times, it’s not so clear, and we have to dig a little deeper to try to find if there was anything there. In some cases, there is no evidence at all that the marriage was invalid. If that happens, we can’t continue with the process.
To answer the questions at the beginning: A declaration of invalidity does not say that the marriage never existed; it merely states that the covenant did not begin. As for children, an annulment does not mean that they are illegitimate. Legitimacy is a civil term, not a Church label. For someone who is Catholic, or who is marrying a Catholic, and who has been married previously, an annulment states that the person is free to marry in the Church. Therefore, the Catholic party is able to receive the Sacraments. The length of time that a marriage existed has no bearing on the validity of the marriage: we’ve done cases that lasted anywhere from less than one year to 40+ years. As for the money part – we ask the person who initiates the case to pay a very small portion of the costs of the process. The true cost, including, research, time, copying documents, salaries, etc. can be upwards of $2000. No one is ever turned away because he/she cannot contribute to the cost.
Marriage is a covenant by which the spouses make a mutual gift of the whole person to each other. It is the only sacrament in which the spouses are the minister, and because marriage of that sacramentality, the Church takes responsibility for and interest in its validity, celebration, and vitality. That’s the reason for all the rules about marriage preparation, where a wedding can be held, who can witness the vows, etc. At the same time, the Church also has a responsible interest in marriages that fail, which is why there are programs such as Retrouvaille and Marriage Encounter, we’d rather have couples reconcile and live together than see them in our office.
Mary Tarver is a tribunal judge who was formerly employed by the Bismarck Diocese. She now works as a tribunal judge in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.