Every January there is a spike in emails I receive from people who have been away from the Church due to being divorced and remarried without going through the annulment process and receiving a declaration of nullity. They all ask me how they can be reconciled to their faith and begin receiving the sacraments again. I am always grateful to receive these emails because it’s obvious the Holy Spirit is working in their hearts and calling them home to the Catholic Church.
Inevitably, they have grave misunderstandings about what the annulment process is and its purpose, so I’d like to take this opportunity to explain a few of the most common myths people have about the annulment process.
1. First is the idea that the annulment process dissolves a sacramental marriage, which is false. Many people believe the annulment process is the Church’s way of saying, “We’ll forget about your previous marriage(s) and give you the OK to get a new one.” If this were the case, then all the rumors about the annulment process being just a “Catholic divorce” would be absolutely true.
The truth is the annulment process cannot dissolve a sacramental marriage — only death can. The annulment process determines whether or not a sacrament took place on the day of the wedding.
If the verdict rendered is the marriage was sacramental, then nothing can dissolve the marriage bond, no matter what a civil court or new spouse says. If the determination is that no sacrament took place, then the spouses are not bound to each other in the eyes of God… they never were. In this case, the Church renders a declaration of nullity or “annulment” — simply a statement of their findings.
2. Second is whether Catholics remarried without receiving a declaration of nullity are welcome in the Church. Here is a segment of an email I recently sent to someone who asked why she should bother going through the annulment process after 21 years of re-marriage:
“You are welcome in your parish even though you remarried without receiving a declaration of nullity (annulment). You are welcome and encouraged to attend mass and other parish functions. What you are not permitted to do because of your remarriage is receive the sacraments.The Church considers all marriages to be sacramental, meaning on the day of the wedding a bond was formed between the spouses and God that is unbreakable – only death can dissolve this bond. If one spouse leaves and obtains a civil divorce, the marriage is only viewed as dissolved by the civil authorities, not by the Church. And so a second marriage after a civil divorce constitutes adultery.This is why the annulment process is in place — because the Church knows that, although a marriage can have all the appearances of being sacramental, often times there was something in the mix that prevented a sacrament from taking place on the day of the wedding (these possible reasons are called “grounds”). The annulment process gives a) the Church the opportunity to investigate what happened during the dating, engagement, and marriage periods, but especially what happened on the day of the wedding and b) provides much healing from that past relationship. You would be amazed at the emotions and hurt we are able to bury deep down and how it affects our every day lives.Another common misunderstanding is that children of a marriage that ends in divorce are considered illegitimate if the annulment process declares that marriage null. This is not the case and should not deter you from participating in the annulment process. Canon Law clarifies this for us here:
Can. 1137 The children conceived or born of a valid or putative marriage are legitimate.
“Valid” refers to a sacramental marriage and “putative” refers to a marriage that is assumed or alleged to be a valid marriage so if the annulment process declares your marriage to be putative or null, your children are absolutely considered legitimate.
More importantly, children are a gift from God and can never “illegitimate.” To quote Fr. Edward Peters, JD, JCD, a canon lawyer, in his book 100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments, he states:
“Babies are not illegitimate, no matter how illegitimate might have been the acts by which they were conceived. Babies are conceived in the image and likeness of God.”
I hope this helps any of you who have worried about these myths and may possibly have not considered the annulment process as a way to go. As always, I underscore the fact that along with gaining clarity and closure, the annulment process is a great source of healing.