Why Can’t He Get Married in the Church, If He’s Got an Annulment?

Q:  I’m dating a guy who got an annulment, and I’ve been assuming all along that maybe we’ll end up getting married.  Recently though I met his ex-wife totally by accident.  She has already remarried in [the Catholic] Church.  She kind of rolled her eyes and said some things to indicate that her ex (my boyfriend) can’t get remarried in Church.

Well that didn’t make any sense, so I just ignored it.  Until I mentioned it to him, that is, and he was evasive and tried to change the subject.  I can see he’s hiding something… I don’t understand how you could get your marriage annulled, and yet still be unable to marry again in Church.  How is that even possible? –April

A:  We don’t know all the facts, of course, but nonetheless we can figure out what has probably happened here in the canonical sense.  Let’s first do a quick review of what getting a marriage annulment actually means as a general rule; and then we can look at what most likely has occurred in this particular case.

As we have seen before countless times in this space (in “Marriage and Annulment,” for example), a declaration of nullity—a.k.a. an annulment—is a statement by a Catholic marriage tribunal that while it certainly appeared that these two people got married, there was some sort of factor present at the time of the wedding that invalidated their marriage.  Externally, it looked like they were truly man and wife, but in reality they weren’t.  Sometimes this happens because the wedding is not celebrated in accord with canonical form (something discussed in “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” and “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?,” among others).  Alternately, it could be that one of the spouses was impeded from marrying validly, as was addressed in “Canon Law and Consummating a Marriage,” for example. Or it could be that the marriage was invalid because the consent of one or both of the spouses was in some way defective (see “Canon Law and Fraudulent Marriages,” and “Contraception and Marriage Validity” for some examples of this).

Ordinarily, people request a marriage annulment because their marriage has failed, and they want to marry someone else in a valid Catholic wedding.  If their first marriage was null, that means they were never really married before, and so they are not impeded from marrying again in the Catholic Church.  (Strictly speaking, of course, it’s not a question of “marrying again,” since they were never married in the first place.)  The implication of all this is that one or both parties to the failed marriage now understand what went wrong and why—and if they marry in a new Catholic ceremony now, they are going to get it right this time.

Getting it right on the second try, however, means that whatever issue invalidated the first marriage is no longer present.  After all, what would be the point of marrying in a second wedding ceremony, if you simply make the same, invalidating mistake all over again?

If the first marriage was declared null because of a problem with canonical form, that usually can be corrected/avoided without much difficulty the second time around.  As per canon 1108, for Catholics to marry validly, their marriage must be celebrated by the local bishop or the parish priest, or another cleric delegated by one of them, and in the presence of two witnesses.  If the first marriage was null because the Catholic spouse(s) didn’t marry before the right Catholic cleric in a Catholic ceremony, it should be easy enough to fix this invalidating mistake the next time.

It’s likewise possible in some cases for an invalidating impediment, which existed at the time of the first wedding ceremony, to have ceased to exist by the time of the second one.  To cite a pretty obvious example, if the first marriage was invalid because one or both spouses were too young—16 years old for men, and 14 for women, as per c. 1083.1–this impediment will naturally disappear over time.

And as for defective consent, it’s very common for a person whose consent was flawed at the time of his first wedding, to have learned his lesson by the time he wants to marry someone else.  People who (let’s say) got married at the age of 22 might have exchanged defective consent because they were selfish and immature, and/or didn’t understand what marriage really entails and take it seriously—but now they’ve grown up and know better.  They might better appreciate Catholic teachings and the responsibilities inherent in Christian marriage now that they are older, and may therefore be far less likely to make the same mistake again.

In short, people in situations like these can learn their lesson, and make sure that whatever invalidated their first marriage won’t happen the next time.  Note, however, that in the types of scenarios described here, the assumption is that the person whose first marriage was annulled is both able and willing to ensure that mistakes made back then will not be repeated.  But this is not always the case!  Let’s illustrate this with a couple of fictitious situations.

Imagine that Roger and Sally’s marriage was annulled because Sally was always more interested in her career than in the possibility of becoming a mother.  She obediently nodded her head at the right times during their marriage-preparation class at their parish, and pretended to agree with whatever she was supposed to agree with; but in reality, Sally always intended to avoid getting pregnant, period.  Since she quietly told this to some of her friends before her marriage, there was sufficient evidence for the marriage tribunal to conclude that her consent at the time of her wedding was defective, as she was not open to children.  (See the abovementioned “Contraception and Marriage Validity” for more on this.)

But let’s say that in the course of the annulment proceedings, Sally explodes at the tribunal officials, and makes it abundantly clear that she thinks Catholic teaching about marriage involving openness to children is antiquated and foolish.  She indicates that she still values her career above all else, and will never be willing to raise children.  In other words, Sally’s thinking about Christian marriage is still flawed, and thus she still would not be able to exchange valid consent in a Catholic wedding ceremony.  The very problem which invalidated her first marriage persists.

Now let’s invent another scenario.  Bob and Margie were married in a Catholic ceremony, but Margie later obtained a civil divorce, because Bob was physically violent to both her and their children.  Psychologists found that Bob had some sort of a mental disorder, which rendered him unable to control his emotions and restrain his violent tendencies.

When Margie sought an annulment of their marriage, the tribunal investigation discovered ample evidence that Bob had in fact been suffering from this problem all his life, and at the time of his marriage it rendered him mentally incapable of consenting to marriage as the Church understands it.  The tribunal granted the annulment, as per canon 1095 n. 3.  But Bob still suffers from this mental problem—and would be no more capable of consenting to marriage today than he was at the time of his marriage to Margie.

You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to appreciate that people like our imaginary Sally and Bob can indeed be told by a tribunal that their first marriage was invalid—but if they were to marry again in a Catholic wedding ceremony, it would be just as invalid as their first marriage was, and for the same reasons.  So why would the Catholic Church allow them to make the same mistake twice?

It doesn’t.  Instead, a marriage tribunal can, under such circumstances, impose a vetitum on one of the spouses (or on both of them, if appropriate).  The Latin word vetitum, which is etymologically related to the English word veto, means “forbidden,” and it is used to indicate that this person may not marry again in a Catholic wedding ceremony, unless somehow his/her situation changes.

The vetitum is found in the former canon 1684.1, which made reference to a person who obtained an annulment being free to marry in a new Catholic ceremony, unless a prohibition (or vetitum in Latin) has been attached to the declaration of nullity issued by the tribunal, or the local bishop has forbidden it.  Note that in practice, a vetitum doesn’t have to be specifically included in the actual tribunal decision; it could be a separate notice issued by the bishop.

Regardless, the vetitum is also mentioned in the former canon 1685, which asserted that when a marriage tribunal granted an annulment, it had to notify the bishop of the place where the marriage had been celebrated.  He, in turn, was to ensure that the declaration of nullity was recorded in the marriage register of the parish where the wedding took place, and the baptismal register(s) where the Catholic spouse(s) had been baptized.  As we saw in “Canon Law and Marriage Records,” it is vital that the sacramental records of all Catholics are updated when necessary—in this case, to show that an annulment was in fact granted on such-and-such a date.  But if a vetitum has been imposed on one or both spouses, that is critical information that the former canon 1685 said has to be included in the registers too.  Think about it: what could happen if our imaginary Bob or Sally wanted to remarry in a Catholic ceremony, and faulty parish record-keeping meant that the priest preparing them for the new marriage—not to mention their fiancé(e)—had no idea they’d received not just an annulment, but also a vetitum?

By the way, readers may have noticed that we’ve just been talking about “the former canon 1684.1,” and “the former canon 1685.”  That’s because in 2015, Pope Francis issued his motu proprio Mitis Iudex , which (among many other things) rearranged the numbering of the canons in this particular section of the code.  The part of the former canon 1684.1 pertaining to the vetitum is now found in the new canon 1682.1; and the former canon 1685 has now become canon 1682.2.

You can find these two canons translated into English in the text of Mitis Iudex found on the Vatican’s website, linked above.  Inexplicably, however, the Code of Canon Law that is found on the Vatican’s website still has not been updated to reflect these important changes.  Two years later, it continues to show the old canons 1684.1 and 1685.  (If you’re amazed, know that canonists are too.)

Nevertheless, both before and after Mitis Iudex was issued, the Code of Canon Law has been silent on the procedure to get a vetitum lifted.  Logically, though, it’s clear that if the person can show that circumstances have changed so significantly that the reasons for the vetitum no longer pertain, then either the marriage tribunal which imposed the vetitum in the first place, or the diocesan bishop can remove it.

What would happen if a person on whom a vetitum had been imposed, somehow managed to marry again in a Catholic wedding ceremony anyway?  Technically, the existence of the vetitum in and of itself would not invalidate the wedding, although it would be illicit. The distinction between validity and liceity was discussed back in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II.”  (There are rather involved theological reasons why a vetitum would not render a marriage invalid; they center around the Church’s understanding of marriage as a natural right, and are referenced in canon 1077.)

Applying all of this now to April’s particular situation, we can reasonably conclude that she’s quite right to think that something is going on here, which her boyfriend isn’t telling her about.  It appears that for reasons unknown to April, the marriage tribunal imposed a vetitum on him, which prevents him from marrying again licitly in the Church.  If April is seriously hoping to marry this man one day, this issue would have to be acknowledged and resolved—but the only one who can do this is April’s boyfriend himself, as April has no control over the matter at all.

If we look at this from April’s perspective, it should be easy to appreciate that the purpose of a vetitum is not merely to hinder someone from marrying again, but also to protect that person’s new spouse from a marriage that will presumably fail for basically the same reasons as the first one.  The Church is, in this way, trying simultaneously to balance its acknowledgement that a first marriage was null in the past, with its pastoral concern for the parties involved in a second marriage in the future.

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