Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness

He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt. 19:8)

Scripture tells us that “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and it doesn’t sound like Jesus was too thrilled with how Moses handled it, since “it was not so” in the beginning. But, what about annulments?

First, let’s be clear that divorce and annulment are utterly different. One erroneously says an indissoluble marriage covenant can be ended before death (divorce), and the other truthfully says that sometimes an attempt at marital consent doesn’t really “make marriage” because of some defect (annulment).

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Yet, they have in common the fact that human weakness lies at the heart of both. If we were not weak and wounded creatures, we simply wouldn’t need the annulment process. But we are, so we do.

Annulments Serve the Truth of Indissolubility
It’s going to sound counterintuitive, but the Church’s annulment process exists to preserve the truth of the indissolubility of marriage. This sacred truth is so important that an explicit process to determine whether marital consent should be declared “null” is absolutely necessary. Why? To maintain the other side of that coin—those occasions when marital consent cannot be declared null.

In light of the awesome sanctity of indissolubility, the Church offers this legal process as a last resort. That is, whenever a man and woman capable of free and valid consent to marriage actually attempt to consent to marriage, every effort must be made to honor that attempt. Even in cases in which it’s obvious that an impediment to marital consent existed before the attempt, it is the desire of the Church that such an attempted union actually be realized and made into a valid marital union, through convalidation (marital consent validly “re-exchanged” before the Church’s minister), if at all possible.

The Church wants couples who are capable of a valid marriage, and whose attempt at marriage didn’t actually achieve it, to seek all appropriate avenues to make good on that attempt. This is especially important if there are children born to the attempted marital union.

Not Just “A Mere Formality”
As this might seem far from familiar, let me share the words of Pope St. John Paul II regarding a specific canon in the Code of Canon Law, regarding the duty of the tribunal judges who take on marriage cases:

Can. 1676: Before accepting a case and whenever there is hope of a favorable outcome, a judge is to use pastoral means to induce the spouses if possible to convalidate the marriage and restore conjugal living.

Of this Canon, Pope St. John Paul II says that it is “a norm which is not to be taken as a mere formality” and “is to be applied faithfully as a very important expression of pastoral concern for spouses experiencing difficulties” (January 18, 1990, Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota).

In a later address, he also says:

The attitude of the Church is, in contrast [to a “divorce mentality’], favorable to convalidating, where possible, marriages that are otherwise null…. It is true that the declaration of the nullity of a marriage, based on the truth acquired by means of a legitimate process, restores peace to the conscience, but such a declaration … must be presented and effected in an ecclesial context that is totally favorable to the indissolubility of marriage and to family founded upon it. The spouses themselves must be the first to realize that only in the loyal quest for the truth can they find their true good, without excluding a priori the possible convalidation of a union that, although it is not yet a sacramental marriage, contains elements of good, for themselves and their children, that should be carefully evaluated in conscience before reaching a different decision (January 28, 2002, Address to the Prelate Auditors, Officials and Advocates of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota).

In saying this, the Holy Father is not impugning the process that faithfully renders authentic declarations of nullity—he’s just placing that process in the appropriate pastoral context that is always to favor every attempted marriage that is still capable of being convalidated rather than abandoned, no matter what stage of divorce or the annulment process the man and woman may find themselves:

Every correct judgement of the validity or nullity of a marriage contributes to the culture of indissolubility, in the Church and in the world. It is a very important and necessary contribution:  indeed, it has an immediate practical application, since it gives certainty not only to the individual persons involved, but also to all marriages and families (January 28, 2002, Address to the Prelate Auditors, Officials and Advocates of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota).

Why Is This Important to Know?
We see in the Holy Father’s words real evidence that the Church desires that couples truly do everything possible to honor their original first attempt at marital union (remarriages raise other significant questions) even when their attempted marital consent is known to be null. Even if it means convalidating an invalid marriage. Such pastoral solicitude is not only for the good of the man and woman, but it is obviously a sincere attempt to do everything possible to preserve stable family life for children who often greatly suffer after a permanently severed spousal relationship, concretized by civil divorce.

What I’ve said thus far is the proper backdrop for my headline statement that annulment is a concession to human weakness. It is human weakness that allows a man or a woman to appear to enter a valid marriage while not really doing so. That weakness requires the Church to re-examine marital consent that was previously presumed valid, to see whether it was.

What a lot of people miss, however, is this: When a divorced Catholic does receive a declaration of nullity, it may ease that person’s conscience and may permit them to “move on” in freedom from a truly irreparable relationship. But the declaration of nullity also represents yet one more opportunity to be morally certain that the attempted marriage really is irreparable.

But Wait… There’s More
The Church’s priority on indissolubility raises other vital, but often overlooked questions for the divorced Catholic—what if I believe in my heart that my marriage really is valid, despite the divorce and despite any feasible possibility of repair? What if I don’t want to pursue an annulment? What if I know I gave valid marital consent even though my putative spouse may not have? Am I obligated to have my marriage declared null?

The correct answer is of course not. Think about it. If I really believe I meant what I said about marrying for life, for better or worse, until death do us part, even if I’m abandoned by my spouse, it doesn’t automatically mean that I “need” an annulment.

The sad thing is that I’ve encountered well-meaning Catholics who wrongly say the decision NOT to pursue an annulment is “pathological” when in fact it’s heroic and virtuous.

I’ll explain it this way: when two people enter into a covenant, but only one “means it,” the one who “means it” has ipso facto remained faithful not only to his or her own words and will, but also faithful to the covenant itself. Now, before anyone says how crazy it would be to remain faithful to a covenant that really wasn’t a two-way covenant, I’d think again.

Isn’t that what God has always done with us? Isn’t the Old Testament filled with nuptial-language examples of God’s relentless fidelity in the face of his “adulterous” chosen people? Isn’t that kind of fidelity the same kind that Christ the Bridegroom shows his Bride, the Church, from the Cross?

Now, yes, it’s true that we humans are not God. Not all of us can rise to such a virtuous and selfless act that favors fidelity over justice, so to speak. But this is another way “annulment” is a concession to human weakness—we may not all be strong enough to endure infidelity as God has, remaining ever-faithful in its face. God extends to us that right, in justice, to have his Church judge whether the twofold consent really made the covenant of marriage, or not.

So, while a divorced Catholic may know he has the right to pursue an annulment, he may also know that sometimes not exercising a right is a more heroically virtuous choice. And given that marital consent is supposed to be irrevocable and certain, why should anyone be surprised if a divorced Catholic resolves to be faithful to his irrevocably expressed consent?

Dear Catholic readers, don’t tell such folks that it’s a “pathological” choice or pressure them toward an annulment so they might marry again. Recognize heroic virtue when you see it.

Even when the human condition is so weak that it requires last-resort processes and judgments like declaring marital consent null, we can still be inspired by those among us who choose a path of godly virtue even in the face of that human weakness. Jesus said it best in Matthew 19:

He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

It might be a sobering thought for many if they really understood that, just like Jesus tells us regarding Moses and divorce, the whole existence of the annulment process is a consequence of the same “hardness of heart” that compelled Moses to permit divorce. Annulment, like divorce, is a concession to human weakness.

Editor’s note: pictured above is a detail of “The Marriage of the Virgin” painted by Raphael in 1504.


  • Jim Russell

    Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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