Marriage and Annulment

Q: One of my best friends was raised Catholic like me, but she stopped going to church when her parents got their marriage annulled. She says that it’s ridiculous for the Catholic Church to say her parents weren’t married, since they had three children and lived together for nearly 20 years. She is also angry because if her parents aren’t married, that means she’s illegitimate. I don’t know what to say to her. Wasn’t it wrong for the Church to say, after so many years, that her mother and father were never married? And how can the Church declare that she is actually an illegitimate child?  –Patricia

A: Without a doubt, marriage annulment is the most widely misunderstood concept in the entire Code of Canon Law. To many, it appears to be merely a form of “Catholic divorce,” a covert way to get around the Church’s teaching that marriage is for life.

In reality, the concepts of annulment and divorce couldn’t be less similar. At the heart of the issue is the notion of validity. When a marriage is annulled, this is an assertion that the sacrament of marriage, administered at the couple’s wedding, was invalid. What does it take for a Catholic marriage to be valid? Let’s first take a look at the general concept, and then see how it is applied to the sacrament of marriage.

The term “validity” refers to whether or not the external administration of the sacrament actually has spiritual effect.  Sacramental validity requires the correct formula of words, the correct matter, and the right intention on the part of the minister of the sacrament who has the authority to administer it. As an example, look at a child’s baptism. You see a priest pour water (the valid matter for this sacrament) over the baby’s head, saying “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” which is the valid formula of words for this sacrament.  You have no reason to doubt that the priest—who certainly has the ability validly to administer the sacrament of baptism—sincerely intends to baptize this child while doing this, so presumably his intention is correct.  It looks like the baby really was baptized, right?

But now let’s say that by some mix-up, it is discovered that the priest poured not water, but rubbing alcohol or some other clear liquid on the baby’s head instead. The baptism was invalid, because a valid baptism requires the use of water, and no substitutions are permitted. Using the wrong matter for the sacrament meant that the baby was not baptized at all, and the baptism would have to be done all over again. The action of the priest in this case had no effect.

In other words, when it comes to the sacraments, external appearances are not everything!

But we don’t hear of invalid baptisms very often, while invalid marriages appear to be commonplace. What is the reason for this?

Marriage law is extremely complex, so a complete explanation of all the possible reasons why a marriage might be declared null is outside the scope of a single column. (Many canonists spend their entire professional careers in this one specific area of law.) But one of the chief reasons for the prevalence of invalid marriages is the issue of the intention of the minister of the sacrament.

Most Catholics probably assume that at a Catholic wedding, the priest or deacon is conferring the sacrament of matrimony on the bride and groom. But in reality, this sacrament is administered not by the cleric, but by the spouses themselves! Canon 1057.1 explains that a marriage is brought about by the lawfully manifested consent of the spouses, and nobody else can supply that consent for them. The priest or deacon who is present at the wedding is said to assist at the marriage, by asking the spouses to manifest their consent and receiving their vows in the name of the Church (canon 1108). Consent makes the marriage—and conversely, a defect in the consent of either one or both of the spouses renders the marriage invalid.

In order to exchange proper consent, both parties to the marriage must understand what exactly marriage is all about, AND they must be mentally and emotionally capable of agreeing to it.  So what is marriage all about?

Under the old Code of Canon Law (abrogated in 1983), marriage was described fairly simply as a contract, giving each spouse rights over the other’s body—in blunt terms, consent to sexual intercourse. Consent was, under the old law, fairly straightforward, which is one of the reasons why marriage annulments used to be relatively uncommon. But in recent decades, theological developments led to a much more holistic approach to the concept of marriage. The current code’s canon 1055.1 repeats verbatim some of the wording of Gaudium and Spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, is of its own very nature is ordered to the well being of the spouses and the procreation and raising of children. Many of the writings and sermons of Pope John Paul II—particularly those focusing both on the “Theology of the Body,” and on the dignity of the human person in general and of women in particular—also reiterated these theological points in an emphatic way.

Now marriage is no longer described in technical terms, as a contract, but in more theological and abstract terms, as a covenant. It is not only intended for the procreation of children (although of course that remains a key component), but more broadly, it is a partnership of their entire life. When exchanging consent, the bride and groom must understand and appreciate what this means. After all, how can they exchange consent if they don’t know what they’re consenting to? This is a major reason why pre-Cana conferences are required nowadays in the United States: to ensure that the future husband and wife know exactly what they’re getting into, and are able to do it.

And capability is another key factor in the consent equation. Canon 1095, for example, addresses the incapacity of persons to give consent to marriage if they lack sufficient reason (such as those who are mentally ill, mentally retarded, senile, or insane); if they suffer from grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning essential matrimonial rights and obligations; or if they are unable to assume the essential obligations of marriage because of some type of psychic defect. When an annulment case comes before a diocesan marriage tribunal, judges frequently spend long hours seeking to determine whether this canon may apply to one or both of the spouses. Cases involving spouses who were drunk or under the influence of drugs at the time of the wedding may fall under the first part of this canon, as they lacked sufficient reason at the time they manifested their consent. Persons who were physically or sexually abused as children have at times been found by a tribunal to have had remaining emotional problems that were so severe as to render them incapable of assuming the essential obligations of marriage, in accord with the final section of this canon. And here in our own country, where children grow up in a cultural atmosphere that glorifies the individual, and that encourages them to immediately run from any unpleasant situation, canonists have actually pondered whether a typical bride and groom should be presumed to be capable of understanding and willing the irrevocable and total self-giving that Catholic marriage entails!

Given the circumstances, it should not be too surprising that there are so many marriage annulments, especially here in the U.S. On the one hand, Catholic theology has “upped the ante,” so to speak, in requiring spouses to consent to much more than merely a contract for rights over the other spouse’s body, as in previous generations. On the other hand, in our current social climate, more and more persons of marriageable age have significant problems that may render them unable to give their consent!

While this is one of the common reasons for a marriage annulment, it is definitely not the only one. There is no way of knowing, from the information Patricia has provided, why the marriage of her friend’s parents was annulled, but it should be clear that the fact that they lived together and had children does not in itself mean that they were married in the eyes of the Church. As we have seen, the issue in an annulment is not what happened after the wedding, but what took place during it!

Is Patricia’s friend now considered illegitimate? Canon 1137 states specifically that children who are born of a valid or of a putative marriage are legitimate. A putative marriage is one into which at least one of the spouses entered in good faith (canon 1061.3). In other words, if it were shown that both bride and groom simply went through the motions at their marriage ceremony, without even intending to exchange consent in the Catholic sense of the word, their marriage would not be putative and their children would in fact be illegitimate. This rarely happens—so it is highly unlikely that this was the finding in the annulment proceedings for the parents of Patricia’s friend. In any case, it is incorrect to assume that all children born of invalid marriages are automatically illegitimate.

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