Annulment Origin and History


Since Roman Catholicism seems to be distinct and in contrast to the Protestant and Orthodox traditions in offering annulment, how did this develop? What’s a good book or website to understand how annulment was first conceived and how it developed?

I’m considering going through the process but would like to be confident that it is a process ordained and blessed by God. (I’ve done web searches and gotten several books but have been frustrated; lots on process but almost nothing on how it evolved.) Thank you.


St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to Polycarp, chapter 5, written about A.D. 110, indicates that the bishop is the approving authority in the Church with respect to Christian marriages:But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.

The Catholic Encyclopedia briefly mentions some of the history of the Declaration of Nullity in its article on “Divorce” (section I. A. 4):That separation and remarriage of the separated parties may not take place merely on account of private convictions of the invalidity of a supposed marriage, but only in consequence of an ecclesiastical judgment was taught by Alexander III and Innocent III in IV Decretal., xix, 3, and II Decretal., xiii, 13. In the earlier centuries the summary decision of the bishops sufficed…Pope Alexander III reigned from 1159-1181; Pope Innocent III from 1198-1216.


God bless you, Todd! I’ve been pursuing this for months, ever since I entered RCIA (now a card-carryng RC!). Wished I had found you and “Catholic Answers” sooner. I wouldn’t have imagined that this info would have been so hard to come by.

I had exhausted searches on the EWTN and websites, Google, etc. As far back as I had been able to pin it down was, as you mentioned, the 12th century. Had tried searching Scripture for “annulment,” “nullity,” “nul” in every version of the Bible listed on to no avail. It was driving me crazy, so thanks for saving my sanity!

It’s gratifying and reassuring to know that the groundwork for annulment was laid as far back as 110 AD. Any idea why the Protestants and (more surpisingly) the Orthodox didn’t embrace this? Particularly since the Catholics and Orthodox were one Church in the 100’s AD (weren’t they)?

Thanks once again. / Nady


the history of the Church, namely the bishops, having authority over marriage of Christians begins with the apostles and early fathers. the NT in Acts and in Pauls letters gives apostolic instruction on marriage, including two rules now called the Pauline and Petrine privilege relating to the dissolution of marriages between Christians and non-believers for instance. I have not time now to look up references but will this evening when I get home from work. I believe a search on the home page on This Rock will yield quotes from the Early Fathers on marriage.

there is no such thing as annulment. The canon law tribunal of the diocese investigates a marriage, a legal process like any legal investigation with witnesses, lawyers and judges, and issues a decree of nullity if the marriages is found, under canon law, to be invalid. The history of what we commonly call annulment therefore as a legal process begins with the history of the development of formal codified canon law. For this see a good general church history. This development began when the bishops of Rome, the Popes, gradually took over some of the civil functions of the Empire as it crumbled in the West and the legions deserted and left Romans to the barbarians.

The various revisions of canon law, including the general one in 1917 and the latest in 1983, plus some commentaries on the law published recently (last 100 years is recent in Church history) have led to the way the process is administered now.

the development of the canon law cannot of course be divorced (npi) from the development of doctrine and theology relating to the sacraments, especially marriage, and of the Eucharist from which it derives its grace and its analogy to the relationship between Christ and His Church. the underlying ground for the insistence of the Catholic Church that a valid marriage may not be dissolved by any earthly action or power rests on Christ’s declaration of the same, except as he specifies in cases of illegality, which the Church takes to mean, in cases where the marriage is not valid from its inception. IMO Christ was being prophetic here in anticipating development of law related to the sacraments.

The teaching of the Orthodox is similar and comes from the same roots, and the differences, as far as I can see and I am no expert, lie in the definition of “illegality”. I do not believe the Orthodox bishop would recognize civil divorce alone as dissolving a marriage, but that there is some church law procedure involved as well.

as far as Protestants, most mainline denominations adhered to the gospel principal until the Lambeth Conference in the 1930s (convocation of Anglican leaders) “legalized” both divorce and artificial contraception. They will have to answer to God for those actions, beyond the scope of current discussion.


I suggest the book Annulment: The Wedding That Was by Michael Smith Foster. It’s a very good book on the topic of the Church’s teaching on marriage and nullity.

Matthew’s gospel brings up the idea of a marriage being invalid based on an illicit marriage (one between close kinship)-- it is often mistranslated as “unchastity” or even “adultery”.

The Epistles discuss the dissolution of the bond-- not the same as nullity-- via the Petrine or Pauline Privilege. So, the idea of the Church binding and loosing in cases of marriages goes all the way back to the bible.

The early Canons of various Councils begin to develop regulations regarding marriage-- and it would seem to follow that “nullity” would be a concept developing right along with it for if someone transgressed the Canon their marriage would not be valid.

For example the Canons of Elvira from c. 306 AD have many regulations regarding marriage.


Thanks go to 1KE and puzzleannie for the additional tips and advice.

puzzleannie, my search skills need sharpening, I guess; couldn’t find the early fathers’ comments on marriage nullity, but will try again. If you are pleased to turn up more specifics, I won’t turn them down, for sure!

1KE, before I invest in yet ANOTHER book addressing annulment, does this one by Foster review its origin and history in addition to process?

Again, thanks and God bless you, folks! / Nady


I honestly don’t recall. I have read it, but I gave it away several years ago. Perhaps you could look on Amazon, maybe they have the TOC online.


My son went through the process of annulment. It was difficult and time consuming but it was the greatest of all blessings for him. He learned much about himself. Healing has truly begun for him and for his family.


OK. Thanks, 1ke. Will check it on out at Amazon

And thanks for the encouragement, Helen. Sounds like annulment is worth doing even if one did not intend to remarry (which I’m not inclined to do at present anyway), just for the self-understanding and healing! Much obliged. Valuable perspective.

Being a victim of divorce is unfortunately something I’m all too familiar with as a former Protestant. The annulment concept is fresh territory for me as a new RC, and I just have to build trust and confidence in it. Please be patient with me.

Peace, grace, mercy, and many blessings to you both from mighty Yeshua Ha’Mashiach! / Nady


I would advise looking into this, especially when you are not involved with someone. That will take the pressure off and it will help you to see and think clearly. It will be my prayer that you are able to find the same sympathy that my son experienced.


Sounds like a good word, Helen. Much obliged. Thanks for caring and taking the time to respond! / Nady


Yep. What she said.

In retrospect I wish I had began the annulment process shortly after my ex-wife left me.

It is a difficult time consuming process that is worth every bit of the effort.



Thanks, Chuck. It’s been 4 years since my Protestant ex-wife (I was Protestant then, too) divorced me. I’ve accepted it but not healed yet. She had and still has no interest in reconciliation. So it’s either embrace the single life or explore annulment.

What was your ex-wife’s reaction to the annulment process, and the kids’ reactions (if you have any)? My concern is it would stir up a lot of animosity in the family.


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