|What is an Annulment? (Part 1)|
by Father W. Becket Soule, OP (Used with permission)
Couples can, of course, enter many different kinds of unions. They are not, however, entitled to call all of them “marriage.” They may only use the word “marriage” when their union meets the conditions and contains the elements that are demanded by their community. For the Christian community, and particularly for the Catholic Church, marriage has a certain God-given content. For Christians, there is always another witness to marriage: Christ himself. The Catholic Church believes that it can use the word “marriage” only when it is marriage as God created it, when it has the minimum of the content that God gave it. If that minimum content is not there, then the union may be called by whatever name people wish to give it, but as for the Church it is not marriage.
Precisely because the Church holds so strongly to the indissolubility of marriage, it must face the question of who is married. Since she believes that there is a content to marriage, proper Church authority can sometimes declare that people who have been through a wedding ceremony are not married.
This is the meaning of an annulment, or to speak more correctly, a declaration of nullity. A decree of nullity is a declaration that despite outward appearances and their good faith, a couple has not entered into a union which has all of the content necessary for marriage, and thus each of them remains free to get married, unless a prohibition is attached to the sentence or decree of nullity.
Thus a declaration of nullity is essentially different from a divorce. A divorce states that two people, who had been validly married, are married no longer. A declaration of nullity, on the other hand, states that because something which is necessary and indispensable for a valid marriage was missing at the time two people exchanged consent, a valid marriage has not come into existence. It is thus clear that an annulment is not a divorce, “Catholic” or otherwise.
The idea that two people can go through a wedding ceremony and still not be married is not a new one. In the Christian tradition, we can find the roots of the declaration of nullity in the New Testament. Christ says to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well: “You are right to say you have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband” (Jn 4:17-18). St. Paul condemns the Corinthians for allowing a man to enter into a union with his father’s wife (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-8). The practice of declaring certain unions invalid has continued ever since.
Every legal system has some procedure for declaring marriages invalid. Civil courts do so only rarely, principally because divorce is much simpler and cheaper to obtain than a decree that a marriage is null and void.