In the life of the Church, we live in unique times. Never before has so much sensationalism surrounded papal pronouncements. Unfortunately this type of sensationalism is almost always based on misconceptions and misreporting and becomes a breeding ground for confusion among the Faithful. The release of two documents by the Holy Father this week related to the canonical procedure for declaring the nullity of a marriage is a case in point. What makes these documents particularly prone to this type of sensationalism is the fact that very few people understand what it is the Church teaches regarding declarations of nullity. Therefore, the documents themselves and what was actually reformed has very little chance to be understood. With this in mind, what exactly does the Church teach regarding what are commonly referred to as annulments?
By far the most common misconception is that the process of declaring a marriage null is simply a Catholic loophole around Our Lord’s prohibition of divorce. The Church however is quite emphatic that marriage is indissoluble, teaching that “[I]n his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it ‘what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’” (CCC 1614). By indissoluble the Church means that a valid, consummated marriage can never be dissolved with a right to remarry. This means that marriage is both intrinsically indissoluble (cannot be dissolved by contracting partners) and extrinsically indissoluble (no earthly authority can annul it). Only death can separate man and woman in marriage.
The Church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble is not and cannot be changed by Pope Francis, despite widely disseminated media reports to the contrary. The changes that the Holy Father is implementing represent no change in Canon law either, only procedural changes that hopefully make access to Marriage tribunals easier.
One can see from the Catechism that the indissolubility of marriage hinges on two things, namely, validity and consummation. Validity is something that is determined at the time the marriage takes place. This is an important distinction between divorces and declarations of nullity that cannot be overlooked. Divorce essentially says “I shouldn’t have married this person” while a declaration of nullity says “I didn’t marry this person.”
The Church says that a valid marriage hinges on three principles. The first is that there are no canonical impediments to marriage. What this means is that they are capable of marriage. Some obvious impediments would be that they are already married (even if they are divorced), too closely related (consanguinity), too young, or unable to consummate the marriage (impotence). Some impediments such as disparity of cult (a Catholic who wants to marry a non-baptized person) can be removed by special dispensation. It is worth mentioning as well that when someone’s first marriage is to a divorced person that marriage is not valid due to impediment of a valid prior marriage bond.
The second condition of validity is that the each spouse freely exchanges his or her consent. This means that something like a shotgun wedding would not be considered valid. Along the same lines the couple must understand what marriage is and what they are actually consenting to. This means they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children. Given the success of the cultural attack on marriage, these things are no longer a given for anyone who enters into marriage. While they may be grounds for declarations of nullity in the future, the Church ought to take very seriously her role in forming society in what marriage really is to avoid much heartbreak now. This is where telling the truth in and of itself is always an act of charity.
Finally, the third condition is that their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister.
Marriage between baptized persons is always intrinsically indissoluble and is extrinsically so once it has been consummated. A valid marriage that has not been consummated may be declared null by the Pope if one of the parties so wishes or through the profession of religious vows. Consummation is so important simply because it becomes a visible sign that the two have in fact become one flesh in marriage and serves in some ways as a completion of the act of becoming married.
Cardinal Burke when he was Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, lobbied against the use of the term “annulment” because it adds to the confusion. In most people’s minds the term is constitutive and suggests a cancellation of a reality (like returning a shirt you bought but did not fit). What a declaration of nullity truly is though is a declaration that a marriage never actually existed.
What also adds to the confusion is the role of the Tribunal specifically. Their role is not merely administrative, but juridical in that they are trying to uncover the truth as to the validity of the marriage. This will always take time because it is in almost all cases difficult to discover the mindset and circumstances of the couple at the time they exchanged vows. They are seeking an objective judgment that requires careful examination. Certainly this process should be as streamlined as possible, but because the vocation to marriage is so intimately tied to the salvation of both parties it can only be so efficient while maintaining justice.
It is also worth mentioning that declaration of nullity is concerned only with the question of whether a marriage is valid, not whether it is sacramental. In an address to the Roman Rota in 2001, St. John Paul cautioned about trying to make an unnecessary distinction between natural marriage and marriage as a sacrament. He said that
“[W]hen the Church teaches that marriage is a natural reality, she is proposing a truth evinced by reason for the good of the couple and of society, and confirmed by the revelation of Our Lord, who closely and explicitly relates the marital union to the “beginning” (Mt 19: 4-8) spoken of in the Book of Genesis: “male and female he created them” (Gn 1: 27), and “the two shall become one flesh” (Gn 2: 24). The fact, however, that the natural datum is authoritatively confirmed and raised by Our Lord to a sacrament in no way justifies the tendency, unfortunately widespread today, to ideologize the idea of marriage – nature, essential properties and ends – by claiming a different valid conception for a believer or a non-believer, for a Catholic or a non-Catholic, as though the sacrament were a subsequent and extrinsic reality to the natural datum and not the natural datum itself evinced by reason, taken up and raised by Christ to a sign and means of salvation.”
When two Christians marry (i.e. those who have been validly baptized) the natural reality that is marriage is raised to a Sacrament. Note that it need not be two Catholics, but only two validly baptized Christians that bestow the Sacrament of Matrimony upon each other. This is often a source of confusion for many people as to what constitutes a sacramental marriage and what doesn’t. All valid marriages between Catholics are sacramental because you can’t be Catholic without being baptized. However, a valid marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic is sacramental, while a valid marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person is not.
It is also worth mentioning that non-Catholics are not generally under the authority of canon law concerning marriage, so marriages between non-Catholics are generally recognized to be valid unless proven otherwise. Some of these marriages are sacramental (when both parties are baptized) and some are not (when one or both are not baptized).
Regarding the documents in general, the major news organizations labeled Francis’ reforms as “radical” suggesting there were fundamental changes to the whole process. What they failed to mention was that all of these changes were procedural and none of them represented changes to the grounds for a declaration of nullity nor a lowering of standards. The reason why clarity on this issue is so important is because the Church truly is the last voice left for a sane view of marriage. When the world mistakenly sees annulments as “Catholic divorce” she loses much credibility. The world will not listen to what the Church has to say when it is not reflected in the way its members live and so a proper understanding is vital to the Church’s evangelism.