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The Attack on Annulments

Answers to common objections asserting that the Church confirms too many decrees of nullity of marriage

Rose Sweet

“The Church hands out annulments like candy on Halloween!”
“All you need is money and you get an annulment.”
“Annulment? What a joke; it’s just Catholic divorce.”

In my nearly thirty years of ministering to the separated, divorced, and remarried, I’ve regularly heard these objections. In fact, they’ve been lingering for decades and have already been rationally addressed by others. But, having been in the trenches for so long, I offer my personal observations. I’m not a canon lawyer, but I have sat with hundreds of people as they pour out (maybe for the first time) stories of deep regret and years of marital nightmares. Their truths must be considered in this discussion. Let’s take a brief and focused look at the claim that today in the Church in the US there are too many annulments. The answer may surprise you.

What is annulment?

The proper term is “declaration of nullity.” It is not the same as a civil annulment and does not make anything “null.” Rather, after a civil divorce and thorough investigation, a Church tribunal declares that a marriage (assumed to be valid according to Church law) actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union. My book How to Understand and Petition for Your Decree of Nullity (TAN Books, 2011) offers more helpful information, as does catholic.com.

A declaration of nullity frees both parties from the presumed marriage bond, and each may then live a single life or attempt marriage again in the manner the Church requires. What seems to rankle annulment critics the most is the possibility of remarriage.

Who is making this claim?

People who argue there is an annulment “scandal” include those who are:

  • Genuinely concerned that marriage is being slowly deconstructed by our culture (it is) and perhaps also by the Church (it isn’t)
  • Hurt or even furious (and fighting against the shame) at having their own marriage declared null
  • Resentful that they have to stick it out in their less-than-happy marriages and hold to their difficult vows while others seem to be getting off so easily
  • Afraid that if the Church loosens any rules, all hell will break loose

Some who did not want the divorce and had their marriage annulled feel violated and betrayed not only by their spouse but also by the Church. In their anger, they criticize almost anyone who seeks annulment and the tribunals that help them. I know a few cases where—after annulment was locally granted—a party appealed to the Roman Rota, the highest church tribunal. After a long wait and years of wrangling in court, Rome nonetheless upheld the local tribunal’s declaration of nullity.

I can’t imagine the hurt and anger one must feel in that situation—to sincerely believe that you had a valid marriage bond and to submit to the authority and wisdom of the Church, which finds differently. Especially when you know it is fallible men and women in the Church who made the decision. Parties in this situation need our love, patience, and understanding.

What is the basis for the claim?

I am a divorced Catholic, with an annulment and now remarried. I am one of those who are deeply disturbed at the high number of both divorces and annulments in the US. I wish more people could love each other rightly and stay married until death parts them.

But critics of annulment claim that there are too many annulments granted in the Church not because there are
more divorces but primarily because of tribunal negligence, mismanagement, or even sinister motives. That’s not logical, but I understand the fear and anger that needs to be directed somewhere.

I believe the real objection is not that that there are too many annulments but that there are too many that are granted.

It reminds me of those huge, multi-car pileups that happen occasionally in the winter and spring along California’s Interstate 5 corridor when the Tule fog rolls in thick as a blanket. Imagine criticizing the local hospital for arbitrarily or at least carelessly issuing too many death certificates. Were the physicians too inexperienced to determine if the patient was really dead or not? Did they have some agenda motivating them to abuse the California civil code regarding death?

It seems for fifty years or more a thick fog of societal breakdown has settled in on our minds and hearts and, as a result, far too many marriages have crashed. Even though one can find incompetence anywhere, the real problem facing tribunals isn’t in issuing too many declarations of nullity. The numbers are mostly a result of our cultural “fog.”

Criticisms of the number of annulments include:

  • Tribunals are “rubber stamping” annulments on a regular basis.
  • Divorce is facilitated, and thus promoted, by compliant tribunals.
  • Parties only imagine some ground of nullity to be freed of their matrimonial bonds.
  • They and their witnesses pervert the truth to find freedom.
  • With the help of some crafty advocate, they construe a bogus defect.
  • Annulment is merely a modernist semantic deception to permit divorce and remarriage.
  • Tribunals don’t understand jurisprudence and Christian anthropology.
  • The Roman Rota overturns the majority of US appeals.

How bad is it, really?

Of course, some parties or witnesses can exaggerate or lie, and judges can make imprudent calls. Bishops can fail in ensuring tribunal personnel are well-trained and unbiased in their approach. But—like our civil courts—the tribunal’s system of policies, procedures, and accountability largely expose and catch these potential problems.

If these claims are anywhere near correct, that means hundreds of thousands—at least—of men and women, their witnesses, and their advocates all deliberately lied on their petitions and responses. It means most judges were incompetent. Those are a pretty unreasonable assumptions.

I’ve served as a consultant and advocate in hundreds of cases over the past ten years, and I have encountered only one man who wanted to lie through his teeth. I told him I could not help him. The rest were open, receptive, willing to admit their sins, desirous of being obedient to God through the Church, and thankful for the graces that came from going through the process, as painful as it was.

Any legal process can be misunderstood and misused to distort justice and cause personal and social harm, but I believe the above claims are mostly biased and tend toward misdirection and exaggeration. For instance, the Roman Rota—the highest tribunal and court of appeals in the Church—has indeed overturned a majority of submitted US annulment cases.

But you rarely hear the rest of the story: it reviews only about ten to twenty US cases per year. If they overturned all—and they do not—this is fewer than about .008 percent of all US cases. This is clearly not an epidemic. And it does not mean that the original affirmative decisions from the US were loosely or carelessly decided.

What about canon 1095?

Those who accuse tribunals of granting excessive annulments focus particularly on what they think is far too liberal a use of canon 1095, a grounds for nullity based on the “psychological incapacity” of one or both parties. The Code of Canon Law states that those are incapable of contracting marriage who:

  1. Lack the sufficient use of reason
  2. Suffer from a grave defect of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties mutually to be handed over and accepted
  3. Are not able to assume the essential obligations of marriage for causes of a psychic nature

Some believe these conditions have been too loosely applied and should be reserved for only a very few rare cases where a party is shown to be psychologically “deranged.” Some trigger-happy tribunal judges notwith-standing, there is no evidence of misuse of the canon in anywhere near a majority of instances. Objections seem to be more emotionally charged than rational.

Most people are capable of marriage, but it’s also true some should never have wed. It’s not unusual to hear the engaged couple’s parents say, “This isn’t good, but what can we do?” or “They just aren’t ready, but who are we to interfere?”

Even pastors or others who prepare couples for marriage, when they see “red flags,” are reluctant to refuse a wedding. Sadly, another ten or more difficult years go by before an almost certain civil divorce. The Church has always under-stood, as Jesus indicated, that not all people were capable of marrying, or should marry.

In working with peti-tioners and respondents with tribunals acorss the county, my experience has revealed:

  • Canon law beautifully upholds the dignity and permanence of marriage and the dignity and rights of the parties.
  • The process ensures full participation by the parties and affords them plenty of opportunity to present truth.
  • Most tribunal staff and judges are highly educated and qualified.
  • They do not involve themselves emotionally with the parties and focus primarily on competently interpreting the law.
  • They maintain strict canonical requirements for proving grounds for nullity.
  • They do not hesitate to call in professional experts to help them make sound and proper decisions.
  • They love the law and care deeply about upholding it.
  • When a party cannot present sufficient evidence for nullity, it is not granted.
  • They are not motivated by money or any other political or personal gain to grant declarations of nullity.
  • They submit themselves to scrutiny by other tribunals.

What is the history?

Divorce and annulments in the U.S. have definitely escalated in recent decades. Let’s take a brief look at information according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate based at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.:

US annulments granted:
1969: 338
1974: 28,918
1989: 72,308 (peak in the 1980s)
2015: 22,767

What happened? In the late 1960s, American tribunals became rightly concerned about a growing number of divorced Catholics and the relatively few declarations of nullity being decided. After careful scrutiny, in light of the Second Vatican Council, new psychological insights, and the American Procedural Norms (effective July 1, 1970), tribunals began to revise archaic norms and—among other changes—address incapacity due to psychological defects. By the end of the decade, US tribunals were able to legitimately grant thousands more declarations of nullity on psychological grounds.

Canon lawyer Ed Peters, a consultant to the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, writes that then, in the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law, canon 1095 became the “single canon which most directly allows tribunals to address the canonical impact of mental, emotional, personal, psychological, psychiatric, and even chemical traumas suffered by persons attempting marriage.”

Although everyone struggles with at least some low level of psychological immaturity, bias, selfishness, and sinfulness, who can deny that these factors, if grave enough, can severely impede one’s ability to prudently enter into marriage or live it out?

The pope weighs in

In 1981, Pope St. John Paul II addressed the Roman Rota with concerns that annulments, “if they were to multiply as easy and hasty pronouncements,” would cause people to consider marriage less seriously. He was right to caution against any laxity.

In 1987, as annulment numbers rose, he again spoke to the Rota, warning against loose interpretations of canon law and that use of psychological grounds and experts should be balanced with Church law and consideration of the whole person. But he also lauded the advances in psychology that permitted tribunals to more thoroughly assess a person’s ability enter or live out marriage as the Church intends:

In any case, there is no doubt that a profound knowledge of the theories developed and of the results achieved by the aforementioned sciences offers the possibility of evaluating the human response to the vocation of marriage in a more precise and discriminating manner than philosophy alone or theology alone would allow (“Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota,” Feb. 5, 1987).

Higher numbers of annulments granted in the US is a result of at least a couple of factors that are often ignored: our tribunals lead the world in a high level of daily operation compared to many Third World countries, and we as a nation tend to take our religion more seriously than many other countries.

What is the truth?

Not all failed marriages are invalid. Too many people divorce when, with professional help and God’s grace, they could have turned their marriages around. With self-will run rampant, they seek the quick and easy “cure” of civil divorce which in such cases is a grave sin, causes great harm to the spouse and children, and generates a wide and horrific ripple effect throughout the culture and subsequent generations (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2382-2384). No-fault divorce made it easier for people trapped in abusive situations to find relief, protection, and freedom, but it also has been abused and has brought about serious social damage.

Justice is failed in some annulment cases. I don’t deny that some-times imprudent tribunal judgments cause a failure of justice to parties and their families. This is certainly a painful tragedy and, indeed, a scandal. Dioceses should take every step to ensure this never happens. It’s also true that some cases that should be granted an affirmative decision are blocked by lack of witnesses or lies from the other party. Those, too, are a miscarriage of justice.

Not every annulment petition is granted. Often, a petitioning party will share with a pastor or parish consultant their extensive background and marital circumstances that reveal no reasonable or apparent grounds for nullity. Without belief of a legitimate case, the petition is abandoned and never submitted to the tribunal. Some weak cases are put on hold or withdrawn. Many petitions never make it to the judges’ desks.

Those that do have been carefully and sometimes rigorously reviewed so that they are considered sufficiently strong. Part of the reason a majority of submitted cases are granted nullity is not because of careless judges but because the suspect ones have been weeded out along the way.

Many broken marriages have legitimate grounds for nullity. Let’s face it: we live in an increasingly post-Christian world with higher rates of narcissism, addictions, sexual confusion and disorder, alcoholism, drug use, depression, suicide, and more. Due to a wide range of reasons, many sociologists assert that the US population is also more emotionally adolescent than ever before.

Most young people sincerely believe they have a right to divorce if things go bad; permanence in marriage is desired but not vital to them. Many never want children. These realities will manifest in greater numbers of defective marital consent and difficult or abusive marriages.

Most critics don’t know the truth. To judge whether someone should have divorced or not, or whether their annulment should have been granted, one must spend hours personally interviewing and assessing the circumstances of the parties. They must consider detailed witness testimony and psychological assessments. They need professional, psychological, and canonical training to make wise judgments. Those who claim there are too many annulments because of abusive tribunals are only theorizing. They have no factual basis for their claim.

More people today want to be in union with the Church. After psychological impediments as grounds, the second highest number of granted annulments is to Catholics who have married invalidly outside the Church.

Since the early 1960s, many even have believed they could marry on a beach, a mountaintop, or in their living room. Now divorced and remarried, they are aging, and at least one of them may be seeking a deeper faith. With an explosion of media awareness and evangelization, more people in divorce situations or irregular marriages are coming forth to “get right with God” and be in full communion with the Church. That is a good thing! If that also means an increase in the number of people seeking and receiving annulment, then praise God!

What is the answer?

So, does the Church hand out too many annulments?

Yes, but only because for decades as a culture and even as a Church we have failed ourselves and our children in the proper teaching, modeling, supporting, and defending of Christian truth, sexual morality, and marriage—not because of widespread abuse by dishonest parties, nefarious church tribunals, and others who work in the process.

Sidebar 1: Some People Aren’t Capable of Marriage

A divorced woman in my office sobbed, “He actually spit in my face on our honeymoon.”

Too many people who in their youth learned to tolerate high levels of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse marry into it—and suffer even starting on the honeymoon. In marriages of nice, Christian people who look “normal” from the outside, there can be all manner of insidious behavior including violence, sexual degradation, incest, and death threats. I’ve even encountered tales of witchcraft. Certainly, these are not the norm, but no longer are they isolated cases.

There is so much pain and shame to these dark secrets that outsiders—even close family—never know. These couples tithe, attend Mass, and send their kids to Catholic school. They are at parish missions and in Bible studies. People are shocked, and many condemn them, when they divorce.

Far too many use marriage (and the other person) to escape abusive homes, obtain financial security or other assets, avoid bitter loneliness, satisfy sexual compulsions, and more. In a me-centered culture, more marriages are entered into on false pretenses, for gravely selfish reasons, or with no real intent or capacity to hand over all the fundamental and essential rights and obligations due a spouse.

Psychological incapacity, sadly, is not so rare that is can be limited to an extraordinary phenomenon. So, the Church in its wisdom understands that when a marriage falls apart, the parties have a right to ask the Church to help them take a thorough look at what happened and what was going on in the first place. It may be that, despite a wedding, no marriage bond came into being. Being able to determine this is a matter of justice.

Sidebar 2: What’s the Solution?

These are certainly not all, but they would make a good start!

  • Better marriage preparation, starting in the home. Mom and Dad are the first teachers of marriage fundamentals (personal virtue, sacrifice, commitment, and hard work) to their children.
  • Improved marriage catechesis starting in elementary school and high school—particularly with less church-speak and a language that reaches the deepest desires of the human heart.
  • More interiorly focused marriage preparation questionnaires. Some marriage prep programs even use the annulments questionnaire to help expose hidden and potential impediments.
  • For tribunal workers, advocates, catechists, counselors, and teachers: a better understanding of the inviolability of marriage and the sacramentality when both parties are baptized.
  • For bishops, clergy and all who teach the faith: more personal fidelity to Jesus Christ and no watered-down version of the truth.
  • For everyone: a reminder that the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls and that charity and mercy do not relieve one of the obligations of following the law.
  • Better trained—and more courageous—pastors to help those couples who are not ready or properly disposed to delay marriage and instead better discern and/or prepare.
  • A team of well-trained field advocates at every parish to accompany those after civil divorce to navigate their way through the annulment process—not just push paperwork.
  • More support groups focused onhelping the divorced who do not obtain annulments to move forward as married-living-single individuals and find happiness and holiness outside marriage.

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