There is a legal term used in the annulment process that has been getting a lot of attention recently, and that is the term lack of form. The common misconception about the ramifications of this term for someone seeking a decree of nullity is this: if you use or are instructed to use “lack of form” as grounds to argue you didn’t have a valid marriage, you will almost be guaranteed a decree of nullity from a tribunal, and in some cases, it will dictate you only need to go through the short form of the process and will have your decree in a matter of weeks. This is a misconception. If you have been told either of these things, I urge you to take a little time before jumping to conclusions about your own former marriage and what the outcome of the annulment process will be for you.
To help explain my point, I’d like to refer to an article I wrote a few years back, in which I explained the teaching of Canon Law on what constitutes a sacrament. It states that two things MUST be present for a sacrament to be a sacrament; matter and form. Matter refers to the person or thing involved and form refers to the rubrics, or the words and actions of the sacrament.
For example, you can have a priest pray the Epiklises or words of consecration (form) over an Oreo cookie (matter) but you will not get the Eucharist.
Another example would be in the sacrament of baptism, in which you cannot use Coca-Cola, lemonade, or any other liquid besides water (matter); it must be water that is poured over the head and the words (form), “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” spoken during the pouring. Anything different would not constitute a sacrament. It seems simple, but with a marriage, it’s not always that clear cut.
Now that we’ve defined what constitutes a sacrament, let’s look at that in terms of the sacrament of marriage, and the “lack of form.”
Most Catholics believe you must be married in a physical parish church as part of validating a marriage and that anything different would invalidate the marriage.
But did you know that a couple may ask for permission to hold the ceremony at the beach and if granted permission, is perfectly acceptable? The officiating priest would file a petition with the bishop’s office requesting permission for a “lack of form” and if it is granted, the wedding may be held in a location that is not a church. So even though the couple’s wedding has a “lack of form” they still likely have a valid marriage, because they presented themselves freely and with the intention to create a permanent and exclusive union with the intention to procreate. So “lack of form” has no bearing in this instance on the validity of the marriage bond. This is why it is so important to properly file a petition for the annulment process after divorce and allow the tribunal their due process in examining your case; so you know without a stitch of a doubt that you are either free to marry, or bound to your ex-spouse.
Automatic deal breakers for having a valid marriage are if one or both spouses get married without intending to create a permanent and exclusive union that is open to life. That is an example of when the matter is lacking. The rubrics of the sacrament dictate how vows must be pronounced, where the wedding takes place, the prayers the priest will pray, etc. It would be quite difficult for the average person, themselves, to determine the validity of a marriage, based upon a single deviation of form. That’s why the annulment process is there to help, if it’s approached with the right frame of mind.
What could be the wrong frame of mind? Well, approaching the annulment process as a “condition” for getting re-married. The best advice to take is don’t get involved in another relationship until you have a decree of nullity (annulment) in your hand. Otherwise, two things will happen:
- The annulment process will become an ultimatum you give the Church; “Give me an annulment or I’ll have to get re-married elsewhere.” You don’t want to be in this position, believe me.
- If this becomes your pathway to another marriage, you will completely miss out on the healing nature of the process. There is a reason why so many people refer to it as the 8th Sacrament. It’s a time to face the truth, grieve the marriage, lay the memories to rest, experience personal growth, and finally, move forward with peace. Missing out on that aspect alone would be a travesty, in my humble opinion.
My best advice to you is to approach the annulment process with a spirit of openness and a desire to learn and heal.
Feel free to send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org