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Why Does Catholicism Refuse To Acknowledge Divorce And Only Allow Annulment?

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Let’s First Look at How the Catholic Church Defines Marriage…

Matrimony or marriage in the Catholic Church is defined as a covenant where husband and wife in a partnership render mutual help and service to each other. Such a commitment would seem to assume the existence of maturity, knowledge, freedom, and psychological capacity.

What is an Annulment?

shame of divorce from church

“Annulment” has an unfortunate stigma attached to it and is actually a term used to refer to a Catholic “decree of invalidity.” The process does not actually invalidate anything. Instead, a Catholic tribunal (which is a Catholic Church court) declares that the marriage which was initially thought to be valid under the law of the church has actually fallen short of at least one element that is required in a binding union.

For a Catholic marriage to be regarded as valid:

  • spouses must be free to marry
  • can both legally consent to marry
  • they can freely exchange their consent
  • purpose to remain married for life, to remain faithful to one another, and are open to having kids
  • desire the good of each other, and
  • their consent to marry is before at least 2 witnesses and in the presence of an authorized Church minister.

A decree of invalidity does not in any way deny the existence of a relationship, nor does it assume that the marriage was entered into with ill or immoral motives. The tribunal will only issue the decree if the ingredients necessary for a true marriage are missing.

Does The Annulment Make the Children Illegitimate?

annulment and illegitimate children

Absolutely not!  Children born into a marriage that was later annulled are still considered “legitimate” within the Catholic Church. (Code of Canon Law, canon 1137). When the couple married, it was assumed it was a marriage entered in “good faith” and therefore kids conceived under this assumption are considered legitimate.

In the U.S., the annulment of a marriage in the Catholic Church does not interfere with state civil laws. Such a process is unrelated to civil issues such as child custody, alimony, visitation rights, parenting, illegitimacy, or property division.

Is There a Difference Between a Civil Divorce and an Ecclesiastical Decree of Invalidity?

Yes, there is a difference between the two. A civil divorce involves a civil dissolution of marriage where the division of marital property, child custody, and spousal support are settled. Here, the ex-spouses are declared free by the civil authority to enter into a new marriage with another person. On the other hand, the Church’s tribunal will declare a marriage null and void only if there is evidence that the marriage was not canonically valid. This is what is normally called an “annulment.”

What Is the Catholic’s Stand on a Civil Divorce?

The Church will tolerate a civil divorce if it is the only way to ensure the protection of certain rights, and property or care of the children. If this is the case, the action may not constitute a moral offense. However, the Church does not grant freedom to remarry after the finalization of a civil divorce.

Can I Apply for A Decree of Invalidity?

The Catholic Church recognizes marriages of non-baptized Catholics or non-Catholics. Whether you are a Catholic or not, baptized or not, you may apply.

Will I Automatically Receive a Decree of Invalidity?

No. Just as every divorce case is unique, every application before the tribunal is judged according to its merits and will follow the same canonical procedure. The Philippines’ Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) reports that from applications made between 2010 and 2011, 6 percent of such petitions were either denied or dismissed. Sometimes the evidence presented before the tribunal only proves that the marriage broke down, but it doesn’t prove the invalidity of the marriage during consent or spousal incapabilities.

The denied or dismissed petition may be reintroduced at a future time when there is available information or testimony to support the grounds for annulment.

If I’m a Catholic Divorcee Do I Have to Obtain a “Decree of Invalidity” Before Marrying Again in The Church?

Yes, a divorced Catholic must have this decree before remarrying. Similarly, if a Church member wishes to marry a baptized or non-baptized divorced partner, this decree must first be issued by the Tribunal before any new union is officiated in church.

The Church tries to withhold and remain faithful to Jesus’ teachings about marriage’s lifelong commitment (Matt 19:1-10). As such, unless a person’s spouse has died, the Church requires a Decree of Invalidity before marrying someone else. The tribunal will investigate the validity of the marriage and confirm whether it was a truly valid or invalid marriage on the wedding day.

This can be an emotional issue. For instance, if a person who intends to marry a Catholic comes from faith or tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage, it may be hard for this person to understand why he/she needs to go through the tribunal process. In this case, it would be helpful to speak to a Priest or Deacon if being married in the Catholic Church is important to their partner. 

What About a Failed Marriage?

The Church knows that we live in a “fallen world” and understands that the world is not a perfect place. Sometimes even valid marriages fail.

The Church does not advise people to stay in failed marriages – but it often tries to encourage reconciliation, especially in marriages with children involved. Separation or even civil divorce is sometimes necessary, especially in cases where there is abuse. However, the Church believes that separation or civil divorce to a valid marriage does not mean the ex-spouses should remarry, because it is God who joined them together in a lifelong bond.

The Church believes that a separated or divorced person therefore should live in a manner that shows he/she is still married. They shouldn’t remarry, date, or cohabit with anyone because that would be adultery.

How Much Will It Cost Me for The Canonical Process?

The Tribunal is funded by the Diocesan Coffers. However, it is only fair for the benefiting parties to contribute to the defrayment of any expenses. Filing an annulment with the Tribunal requires a $600 payment. $150 of this is a non-refundable deposit at the start of the process and then $450 is billed as the case progresses. Making smaller instead of lump-sum payments cannot hinder the progression of a case because it can be tailored to fit any budget.

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Mike Mwangi

Most people will agree with me that divorce is a very difficult time. And for me, I’ve taken the path of helping people through this transition of life by giving them information that will make their lives a lot less stressful as they adjust. I work in a legal research role with Divorce Mistakes Network and have assisted leading law firms with research and delivering relevant content for those facing divorce. Whether lawyer, law firm, or other divorce-related professionals (mediators, financial advisors, accountants, therapists, counselors, etc) I help bridge the gap between legal minds and those affected by divorce. Let’s connect with ideas for content that helps everyone successfully conquer divorce.

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