Marriage annulments: Facts and fictions

Interview of Fr. Christopher Beaudet Vicar Judicial of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
by Joe Towalski

What is an annulment?

An annulment - a declaration of nullity - basically says that on the day of marriage, from the moment of consent, the marriage that was entered into was not a sacrament. So a declaration of nullity says this marriage was sacramentally null from its inception.

What are some potential grounds for an annulment?

There are three ways a marital bond can be invalid. One is an impediment. For example, I cannot marry validly in the church because I already represent that spousal love of Christ to his bride through my vocation [as a priest]. So if I were to attempt a marriage - let's say I fooled everybody, went someplace, got married and everybody thought it was a sacrament, but in fact it was not - I was impeded. A prior bond is also an impediment. You can't be married to one person and then marry another.

The second way a marriage can be invalid is when there is no impediment and I give my consent, but my consent is defective - either because I am in error about what I am consenting to, or my freedom is somehow affected - I'm being forced into this. Or I'm in error about what marriage is. One may consent freely to marriage, but one's understanding of marriage may mean exclude children; or may admit of having other partners; or that it is not lifelong.

The third way a marriage can be declared invalid is if it was not celebrated according to "canonical form." In other words, a Catholic is bound to be married in the presence of a priest or deacon, and two witnesses. When a Catholic marries outside of that form and that Catholic party has not [received the church's permission to do so], then the Catholic Church does not regard that as a valid sacramental bond.

Why do we have this in the church?

We have it because of our sacramental theology. We also have it because, unlike other sacraments that are administered by the priest or deacon, the bride and the groom are themselves the ministers of the sacrament. The priest or the deacon witnesses that bond.

How does the process work?

Most often a person will begin at the parish level by going to his pastor. People should also know they can always call the tribunal directly and ask questions generically. Or if they want to come in and get some consultation, we would be happy to meet with them.

If it seems there might be something there and the person wants to pursue it, then he or she would write what's called a "personal history." They basically look at the relationship prior to marriage, the dating period, the moment of consent, maybe a few years into the marriage, in which they examine the marriage after the fact, after the divorce. The person has to be divorced.

There's an application to introduce a canonical trial. You can name witnesses, although you can do that as well during the process. You send all of that in to the tribunal, and then the tribunal will contact the party and assign an auditor or someone who will meet with that person to probe it further, to develop the grounds on which the investigation will take place.

The respondent, or the other marriage partner from before, who isn't initiating this process, is cited as part of the process and is invited to participate as well. He or she is able to participate as fully as the petitioner.

After all of the evidence is gathered, then both parties are able to look at what are called the "acts of the case." They're able to examine what will go before the judge. They have an opportunity to rebut, to add more evidence, to call other witnesses.

Then there is the defender of the bond. His job is to read all the acts of the case before it goes to the judge and look at the grounds on which this evidence is trying to overturn the presumption for validity. This defender of the bond writes a defender's brief to the judges and makes his argument for why the declaration of nullity should not be rendered.

The judges get all of that and then they take the law, Rotal jurisprudence - court decisions of the judges of the Roman Rota, the supreme marriage court of the church at the Vatican - learned opinions of scholars in the canonical field, articles that have been written on this particular ground's subtleties and nuances, and they will evaluate all of that and meet as a "turnus" - three judges. They discuss the merits of the case, the application of the law to it, debate it, and then each of the three judges renders a vote. If there are two affirmatives - you need a majority - then a decision for nullity is rendered.

And here's another mechanism in the procedure: If it's rendered in the affirmative, the declaration of nullity is still not yet granted. If an affirmative is granted by one court, the law requires that it is appealed to another court - a court of second instance, which reviews the case and can actually retry the case.

Where is the court for the archdiocese?

We have four. For our cases in first instance, we send them out to four other tribunals in second instance - Fargo [N.D.], Winona, St. Cloud and Sioux Falls [S.D.]. We keep it rotating.

Can the decision of the court of second instance be appealed?

Either party has the right to appeal the case, for example, to the Roman Rota in Rome.

True or false? An annulment is really "Catholic divorce."

False. A divorce decree says the marriage, which once was, no longer is. The declaration of nullity says it was null from the moment of consent. There is nothing to undo. There was not a sacramental bond from the very beginning.

True or false? The annulment process costs lots of money and exists because it's a moneymaker for the church.

False. There are costs involved in running the tribunal office. Currently, the tribunal requests $450. We waive fees all the time. We can do a sliding fee depending on someone's ability to pay. Receiving the services of the tribunal is not determined by whether or not you can pay. Even if you did pay the $450, you would only be paying a fraction of our costs involved in the process.

True or false? The church always grants annulments that are sought.

False. I would say there have been abuses in the past where declarations of nullity were granted because affirmatives were deemed more "pastoral." Oftentimes people approach the tribunal because they want to marry in the church, or they want to find peace. They have very good intentions, and so they were given what they were looking for because that's what was considered most pastoral. That, however, is not quite as common anymore, I'm happy to say. I certainly don't approach my ministry at the tribunal that way. It's hard to make sense of the mechanisms that I've been describing about protecting marriage if that's, in fact, the purpose of the process

True or false? The granting of an annulment makes the children born to that couple illegitimate.

False. The question asked [in the annulment process] is a very specific one. It's a theological one about the sacramental nature of that bond. It does not address explicitly questions of legitimacy of children because the children were had in what's called a "putative marriage" - it was thought to be valid at the time

True or false? If I'm divorced, I'm not in good standing with the church.

False. A divorced person is a fellow card-carrying member of the club of the wounded, the club of the sinner, the club of the broken along with all the rest of us. Being divorced does not relegate you to a second-class citizenry in the church. In fact, just the opposite. The church ought to have great pastoral solicitude to people who have suffered through divorce. Divorce is never easy for anybody. There are wounds. There are difficulties, hardships, broken dreams, broken hearts. So being divorced alone does not impede one from receiving holy Communion. It doesn't impede one from going to confession, from growing in holiness.

subtleties and nuances, and they will evaluate all of that and meet as a "turnus" - three judges. They discuss the merits of the case, the application of the law to it, debate it, and then each of the three judges renders a vote. If there are two affirmatives - you need a majority - then a decision for nullity is rendered.

And here's another mechanism in the procedure: If it's rendered in the affirmative, the declaration of nullity is still not yet granted. If an affirmative is granted by one court, the law requires that it is appealed to another court - a court of second instance, which reviews the case and can actually retry the case.