Is My Annulment Invalid?

Q: I was raised Episcopalian. My first husband was baptized Catholic, but he never practiced his faith.  Our marriage was civil.  We moved to Europe, and later divorced.  I remarried another lapsed Catholic, civilly, then decided I wanted to become a Catholic.

The parish priest determined that my first husband 1) had been baptized Catholic, and 2) had not married in a church.  Once this was established, he proceeded with my reception into the Church, with no mention of the need for annulment of my first marriage.

Subsequently, the priest procured for me and my second husband a Sanation of Marriage. We thought we were good to go.

But then I contacted a woman in the US who has worked with divorced Catholics for 20 years, because she had been recommended as someone who might be able to help with unresolved pain from my divorce.  On hearing my history, she said I would need to get my first marriage annulled, that the Church recognizes as valid even a marriage done in Las Vegas by an Elvis impersonator.  When I told her this had been approved by my priest in Europe, based on his investigations into the validity of our marriage, and that I had an official document from the Archbishop rendering my second marriage valid, she said there was LOTS of confusion among priests about this stuff, that he had either been uninformed or trying to do me a “favor.”

So, I agreed to refrain from relations with my current husband until the matter was resolved….   However, a visit to your website seemed to confirm what my parish priest had done.

Was my first marriage considered valid according to the Church?  From this article in your blog, it would seem not.

Yet my confusion remains….  This woman appears to be a legitimate expert, yet after my research, and discovering that I already have a Sanation of Marriage, I would like a second opinion before I put all this time and effort into what may already have been accomplished.  Was my parish priest just trying to paper things over and get me in the door, or did he make the right determination? –Charlotte

A:  If your head is already spinning, know that this is actually a much more straightforward question than it sounds!  There are two separate issues here: the first is the validity (or not) of Charlotte’s first civil marriage to a Catholic, and the subsequent sanation of her current marriage; and the second is the self-proclaimed “expert” who evidently charges money for making false, nonsensical statements about people’s marriages, causing a lot of unwarranted grief and confusion in the process.  Let’s take a look at each of these issues in turn.

Charlotte was not a Catholic at the time of her first marriage to a Catholic, whom she married in a civil ceremony.  As we’ve seen numerous times before in this space, as a Catholic, Charlotte’s husband was required for validity to observe the canonical form for marriage (see “Can a Catholic Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” and “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” among many others).  This means, in a nutshell, that Catholics must marry in a Catholic wedding before a Catholic cleric, with two witnesses, in a Catholic ceremony that is in accord with the liturgical books (c. 1108).  This was true of Charlotte’s first husband, even though he was not practicing his faith, as was discussed in “Why Can’t an Ex-Catholic Marry Validly Outside the Church?

Since Charlotte’s first marriage to a Catholic was in a civil ceremony, the Church does not recognize it as valid.  This is a clear-cut case of lack of canonical form, which is required for validity.  And as we saw in “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?” the law permits bishops to allow their parish priests to handle these cases themselves as part of the prenuptial investigation, rather than sending them to the diocesan Marriage Tribunal.

This is clearly what happened in Charlotte’s case.  She approached her parish priest in Europe (where she was living at the time), asking to become a Catholic.  In the process, Charlotte also needed to regularize her marriage situation in the eyes of the Church (see “Which Tribunal has Authority to Annul My Marriage?” for more on this), and the priest was able to establish unequivocally that her first marriage was invalid.  The priest rightly concluded that there was no reason for this obvious lack-of-form case to be sent to the diocesan Marriage Tribunal for annulment; he had authority from the diocesan bishop to make that determination himself.

So far, so good!  Charlotte next tells us that the parish priest obtained for her a sanation of her second/current marriage. The concept of radical sanation was addressed at length in “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? (Part I)”—but in short, if a Catholic couple, or a couple with one Catholic party, has married invalidly because they failed to follow canonical form, and they want to correct this in the eyes of the Church, the marriage can be validated retroactively as per canon 1161.  Once the sanation has been completed, the marriage is recognized by the Church as having been valid from its inception (c. 1161.2).  This is what happened to Charlotte’s second marriage.

As Charlotte notes, she and her husband “thought we were good to go.”  And they were right.  So what prompted all the subsequent confusion?

Charlotte says she sought “help with unresolved pain from [her] divorce” from a woman who “has worked with divorced Catholics for 20 years.”  The woman in question has a website (which will not be linked here!), describing herself as “a leading expert in the pastoral issues surrounding separation, divorce, Catholic Decree of Nullity, remarriage, and blended families,” and claiming that she “will expertly (sic) guide you.”

It’s interesting to note that this self-proclaimed “expert” doesn’t seem to have any professional credentials whatsoever in the fields of counseling/therapy, psychology, theology, or canon law.  But that didn’t stop her from thoroughly confusing Charlotte, with assertions which are nothing but gibberish from start to finish!  To begin with, although Charlotte already had an official finding that her first marriage was invalid due to lack of canonical form, this “expert” declared that Charlotte nevertheless has to go to another diocese and request an annulment, because “the Church recognizes as valid even a marriage done in Las Vegas by an Elvis impersonator.”  Needless to say, the “expert” provided no evidence to support this claim, which any parish priest on earth (canonist or not) should be able to tell you is utterly false.  It doesn’t sound like this “expert” has ever even heard of canonical form, much less recognized its relevance in Charlotte’s case.

Next, the “expert” blithely dismisses the undeniable fact that Charlotte already has official documentation from the European diocese where she was living at the time, attesting that not only was her first marriage established to have been invalid, but also that her second marriage has been sanated and is thus valid in the eyes of the Church.  It’s pretty offensive (to put it mildly!) to cast aspersions on either the competence or the intentions of a Catholic priest who has, by virtue of his office as pastor, authority to assist parishioners in their requests for annulment of their marriage—especially when the pastor clearly seems to have acted in full accord with canon law.  It’s also worth pointing out that no layperson has authority to second-guess the official findings of church officials regarding the (in)validity of the marriage of someone else.  If this “expert” really did have evidence that somehow the canonical process regarding Charlotte’s marriage was legally flawed, she could, in theory, respectfully take those concerns up the hierarchical chain, starting with the Archbishop of the European archdiocese in question.  Of course the “expert” didn’t do this, because she has no grounds for her claims.

If Charlotte were to seek a declaration of nullity from the US diocese where she currently lives, rest assured that bewildered officials of the Marriage Tribunal would tell her that it’s not necessary, because she already has one!  So why on earth would this “expert” make these baseless, nonsensical assertions to poor Charlotte, prompting her “to refrain from relations with [her] current husband until the matter was resolved”?  Unfortunately, the answer seems pretty clear: she wants payment for “assisting” Charlotte to obtain an annulment in the US.  The morality of such an action should be evident to all.

Strictly speaking, if a Catholic wishes to obtain a marriage annulment, there’s no need to pay anybody a cent for advance “assistance.”  Your parish priest should be able to help you—at no cost!—to get the procedural ball rolling with the diocesan Marriage Tribunal.  It’s certainly true that in some cases, a Catholic might prefer first to get some input privately from a canon lawyer, to make sure that a prima facie case for nullity exists; but there’s hardly an obligation to do this.  Thus it’s not at all clear what this “expert” is actually doing when she purportedly “assists” Catholics to obtain an annulment!  If Charlotte’s case is at all typical, it seems safe to conclude that Catholics seeking a marriage annulment don’t need “assistance” like this.

So Charlotte can move on with her life, as a Catholic validly married in the eyes of the Church.  The clergy of the European archdiocese where she used to live have already examined her first marriage and found that it was clearly invalid; and they also sanated her second marriage, validating it retroactively.  Charlotte would be wise to stick with her initial impression, that she and her husband are “good to go”—and stay very far away from unqualified “experts” who tell her differently.

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