Q. What is an annulment?
A. This is a question that affects many Catholics since so many families are touched by divorce. I know the direct pain of divorce, as several very close family members of mine and their spouses have divorced.
Perhaps a clarification in terms is a good place to begin. The term “declaration of nullity” more accurately describes the reality than “annulment.” The term “annulment” may imply that the Church is breaking the bond of marriage, which is not what happens.
A sacramentally valid marriage, which is consummated, is unbreakable and not able to be annulled by anyone on earth.
A declaration of nullity does not break the bond of marriage. Rather, after investigation, it declares that the marriage did not exist from the beginning. All marriages are presumed valid, but sometimes after an investigation by a marriage tribunal, it is discovered that there was some invalidating impediment present at the time of the wedding.
A sacramental marriage, recognized by the Catholic Church, is between a validly baptized man and woman. Usually, a marriage in the Catholic Church is preceded by an extensive preparation process that includes the taking of a premarital inventory; the gathering of documents (baptismal certificates and affidavits and the signing of a prenuptial questionnaire); the attending of an Engaged Encounter weekend, the attendance of an introductory session of Natural Family Planning, etc.
However, sometimes impediments (they can be many and varied) do not allow one or both of the spouses to freely enter into a sacramental, permanent and exclusively binding lifelong marriage.
If a couple divorces and reconciliation is not possible, they are able to ask the marriage tribunal to investigate the sacramental validity of their marriage.
The process can be complicated for someone not familiar with Church processes in this regard, and it can be time consuming because of the number of cases before each marriage tribunal, and the time required to contact and invite participation of those involved.
The process should begin with your pastor or nearest parish priest. Contact him and set up an appointment to discuss the process with him.
A couple of other related issues: as a priest, people sometimes ask me: ‘if I am simply divorced but not remarried outside the Church, can I go to Communion?’ The answer is yes, if you are in a state of grace – that is, not mindful of mortal sin – you can still receive Communion.
Also, people sometimes ask: ‘if I am divorced, am I still allowed to attend Mass?” Yes. All people are welcome to attend Mass and we very much want you to attend Mass.
Also a recommendation: if one is divorced and waiting for a declaration of nullity, one should not be dating someone else. A person is bound to their marriage unless it has been proven null. There are too many pitfalls to one’s faith if they enter another relationship, and a declaration of nullity is not granted. I believe it is important for me to say that a declaration of nullity is not a guarantee; marriages are always presumed valid until proven otherwise. There are marriages which are sacramentally valid, yet sadly end in divorce. This is why the marriage preparation process has real value and is necessary for an excellent lifelong marriage.
Another thing people sometimes suggest to me is that an annulment is about money. That is, if you have enough money you can get a declaration of nullity. This simply is not true. Currently, the Diocese of Lincoln does not charge any fee for seeking a declaration of nullity.
If any reader does not know how to begin the process of petitioning for a declaration of nullity please contact me here at: Ask the Register, 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln Nebraska 68506, and I will help you.
This question was answered by a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln. Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.