In the Roman Catholic Church, annulment is a canonical procedure according to the Church's Canon Law whereby an ecclesial tribunal judges whether the bond of matrimony in a particular case was entered into validly. A number of conditions are necessary for the sacrament of marriage to be valid. Annulment is not the ecclesial equivalent of a divorce. A "Declaration of Nullity" is not a dissolution of an existing marriage, but rather a determination that a marriage never existed.

According to the Church, an annulment affirms the Scriptural basis of divorce and at the same time affirms that in a true marriage, a man and a woman become one flesh before the eyes of God. The Church's teaching on marriage is that it is a Sacrament and that it is only validly contracted by the two individuals. Various impediments can render an individual unable to contract marriage.

For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case, the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged. -Catechism of the Catholic Church


A reason for annulment is called an diriment impediment to the marriage. Prohibitory impediments (which do not exist in the Latin Church), such as being betrothed to another person at the time of the wedding, make entering a marriage illicit but do not invalidate the marriage. Diriment impediments, such as being brother and sister, or being married to another person at the time of the wedding, prevent such a marriage from being contracted at all, the result is a putative marriage.

Diriment impediments or grounds for annulment include:

  • Consanguinity
  • Psychological state precluding ability to consent
  • No intention, when marrying, to contract a lifelong relationship (simulation of consent)
  • No intention, when marrying, to have children
  • Deception of one party by the other in order to obtain consent, and if the partner had been aware of the truth, would not have consented to marry
  • Abduction with the intent to compel marriage (known as raptus), constitutes an impediment as long as he/she remains in the kidnapper's power. (The abduction of a man constitutes an impediment in the Eastern Church but not in the Latin church.)
  • Failure to adhere to requirements of canon law for marriages, such as clandestinity
  • Impediment of Crime, bringing about physically (or through moral cooperation) the death of one's own spouse or the spouse of another, with the intention of marriage
  • Undispensed defect of form, form being marrying in the prsence of a priest or deacon and according to the required form of words.


For just cause, some impediments can be dispensed. A dispensation relaxes the law in a particular case, prior to the marriage. While some relationships cannot have the impediment of consanguinity dispensed (up to the third collateral line), a marriage can be allowed between cousins. This renders the marriage non-annulable on the grounds of consanguinity. If an invalid marriage has been contracted, and the diriment impediment can be dispensed or ceases, a convalidation can take place or sanatio in radice can be granted to make the marriage valid.

Pope Benedict XVI has been critical of dispensations for purely psychological reasons and has stated that canonists should no longer grant annulments for superficial motives. His predecessor John Paul II also held similar views. Raymond Burke, the Church's chief canonist, has closely followed the Pope's declarations on the matter. [1] [2]


Marriages annulled under the Catholic Church are considered as ab initio, meaning that the marriage was invalid from the beginning. Some worry that their children will be considered illegitimate if they get an annulment. However, Canon 1137 of the Code of Canon Law specifically affirms the legitimacy of children born in both valid and putative marriages (objectively invalid, though at least one party celebrated in good faith). Critics point to this as additional evidence that a Catholic annulment is similar to divorce; although civil laws regard the offspring of all marriages as legitimate. However, there are some significant differences between divorce and annulment. Divorce is concerned merely with the legal effects of marriage. Annulment, however, is also concerned with the reality of whether or not a true marriage was ever formed. This leads to the second difference. At least in most countries, divorce is always possible. However, not all applications for marriage nullity are granted.

An annulment from the Catholic Church is independent from obtaining a civil annulment (or, in some cases, a divorce), although before beginning a process before an Ecclesiastical Tribunal, it has to be clear that the marriage cannot be rebuilt. Some countries, such as Italy, allow the annulment process to substitute for the civil act of divorce. In many jurisdictions, some of the grounds that the Catholic Church recognizes as sufficient for annulment are not considered grounds for a civil annulment, in such cases the couple will often need to be divorced by the civil authorities to be able to re-marry in the jurisdiction. Once the Church annuls a marriage it would generally prefer that the marriage be subsequently annulled by the civil courts, however should this not prove feasible then a civil divorce is acceptable.

If someone has been married previously and the first spouse is still alive, he or she must get a Declaration of Nullity before entering into a marriage in the Catholic Church, even if neither party in the marriage was Catholic (privilege of faith being separate cases). The Catholic Church treats as indissoluble and valid every marriage when it is the first marriage for both parties. However the Church does not recognise as valid a marriage when one of the parties is Catholic but the marriage was not celebrated before a Catholic minister, unless a dispensation was first obtained.

In order to obtain a declaration of nullity, the parties must approach a Catholic diocesan tribunal. Most applications for nullity that are heard by the tribunal are granted because one or both of the parties are judged to have given invalid consent. In order to give valid consent, the parties must give it freely. They must have a basic understanding of what they are doing and have given some thought and evaluation to their decision to enter marriage (canon 1095, Code of canon law 1983). They must be capable of fulfilling the promises they make on the wedding day; that is, not suffer from any psychological infirmity (canon 1095) that will prevent them from giving themselves in a partnership of the whole of life that has as its ends the well-being of the parties and the procreation and education of children (canon 1055). They must intend the words that they speak on the wedding day; that is, intend to form a permanent and faithful partnership, open to sexual acts that are procreative (canon 1101). Serious failures in these areas can allow a possible successful application for marriage nullity. There are other reasons that might justify an allegation of invalid consent, such as a serious error concerning the person to whom marriage promises are made (canon 1097), one party being seriously deceived by the other at the time of the wedding (canon 1098) or one of the parties being subjected to force or grave fear without which the marriage would not be occurring (canon 1103).

Church tribunals are courts. As with any court, the person bringing the matter before the judges must prove his or her case. Tribunals will advise applicants as to how they can present the evidence necessary to prove a case. Of course, not every application is successful. The tribunal judges always have the difficult task of distinguishing those unions that were flawed from the outset from those valid marriages that have broken down.

Recognition of the process of annulments by Eastern Orthodox tribunals

The Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches (CCEO) in canon 780 follows the Second Vatican Council's teaching that the tribunals of the Orthodox Church have a valid annulment process to declare a marriage null. Only divine law and merely civil effects of marriage are not considered valid actions by a tribunal. In other words, if an Orthodox tribunal holds that the marriage was invalid from its inception, that decision would be accepted by a marriage tribunal in the Catholic Church. However, some of the Orthodox churches allow a second or third marriage in oikonomia (economy), which is not permitted in the Catholic Church. This concept states that the first marriage was valid, and the second is allowed in the economy of salvation. The Catholic Church would see this as contrary to divine law, and so not a valid act. The same impediment would exist as with divorce or "dissolution" of a bond (annulment) that is not favor of the faith.[3]

See also


  1. Vatican sharpens message on marriage annulments
  2. Pope warns of easy opt-outs for troubled marriages
  3. Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2000 "13. Canon 779 - Juridical Status of An Annulment Granted by a Coptic Orthodox Church", F Steven Pedone and James I Donlon (eds), Canon Law Society of America, 2000, pp 39 - 51

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