Do some divorce situations require no annulment?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: Are there certain divorce situations for Catholics that do not require annulments? I'm thinking about Justice of the Peace marriages, marriages at sea or even marriages conducted by someone who is ordained online. How does the Church handle these types of divorce situations? (Corydon, Indiana)

A:All marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise.  There are certain situations where the Church might declare a union invalid even without a full formal marriage-nullity investigation.  However, even though it may not be a full formal nullity investigation, since all marriages are presumed valid, each prior union requires some type of lesser but still thorough investigation.  That each prior marriage needs to be investigated holds true for marriages of Catholics and even those of non-Catholics who desire to now marry in the Catholic Church.

Technically, declaration of nullity -- the more accurate term for what is popularly called an annulment -- is just what it sounds like. It's an official declaration by the Church that, while a union might have appeared on the surface to be a binding and valid marriage, that union was affected by a serious problem that prevented a valid marriage from being contracted in the first place.

There are a number of reasons a marriage might be determined to be invalid, such as: a defect of consent on the part of one of the parties (for example, one of the parties never intended to be faithful or open tothe possibility of children); or a psychological condition that rendered one of the parties unable to consent to marriage or otherwise incapable of fulfilling the essential obligations of marriage. Such reasons are rarely what we would call manifest, or readily and unquestionably obvious in an objective way. Proving that someone was unable to marry because of psychological issues or a lack of proper intention, for instance, requires a focused investigation and serious consideration from well-trained and unbiased Tribunal officials. This is the typical way the Church grants declarations of nullity in Catholic tribunals and is what we refer to as the formal process.

But as you observe, there are some situations where the usual in-depth formal process for marriage nullity is not required. Specifically, it should be noted that all the examples you mention are cases where a Catholic was married in a non-Catholic ceremony without the Church’s authorization (i.e. dispensation).

In addition to all the normal human, universal requirements for a valid marriage -- such as sufficient freedom, insight and willingness to embrace all the obligations marriage entails -- Catholics have a unique obligation to observe canonical form: for a Catholic to marry validly, he or she must do so in the context of a Catholic wedding ceremony with a priest’s or deacon’s witnessing the vows along with two witnesses.  If a Catholic is marrying a non-Catholic, for a serious pastoral reason it may be possible to obtain a dispensation from canonical form from the local bishop or his delegate. This would allow the Catholic to marry validly in a non-Catholic religious ceremony.

Since we know that Catholics need to observe canonical form for the sake of validity, if a Catholic marries in a non-Catholic wedding without a dispensation, then it clearly follows that the resulting marriage would be null. The circumstances of a wedding outside of canonical form are a matter of plain historical fact, and are generally very clear-cut and black-and-white. Therefore, unlike more subtle reasons for marriage nullity based on invalid consent, there is no need for a lengthy formal process to determine and declare the nullity of a marriage that lacked canonical form. Lack-of-form cases are typically a matter of submitting relevant documents like a petition, baptismal and civil marriage certificates, and a divorce decree, and they can be resolved relatively quickly.

Also keep in mind that individuals who were never Catholic are not bound to canonical form, which means that a religious or even a secular marriage of two non-Catholics would be presumed valid until proven otherwise, requiring a formal nullity investigation which is the same as for two Catholics married in the Catholic Church with a priest or deacon witnessing the vows.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].