Let's talk about Annulment

Could anyone please explain the Catholic perspective on Annulment vs Divorce?

Struggling to understand why the Latin Church says that a marriage was invalid, rather than admit that sin has caused the couple to be divorced.

Full disclosure, I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and in our communion we allow divorce and remarriage in the Church up to four times–although I have never heard of anyone actually getting divorced four times in Orthodoxy (apart from that rascally Byzantine Emperor that the Canons may or may not have been created to suit his personal needs). :wink:

Any thoughts: @OrbisNonSufficit, @Margaret_Ann, @CathBoy1, @dochawk?


Sin may have resulted in divorce, but Jesus rejected divorce. The marriage vows are binding for life. A valid consummated marriage cannot be broken,


It gets iffy, but the idea behind annulment in the Catholic Church is that the marriage was never valid in the first place.
Hence if there was no marriage form the beginning, there is no marriage now and there is no need for divorce (within the church, civil marriage falls under civil law) seeing as there is no marriage.

I know firsthand of a couple who have had an annulment within the Catholic Church on the basis that the groom was drunk on his wedding day, they were together for 15+ years and he was somewhat of an alcoholic throughout.
Nevertheless they had a two-year engagement leading up to the day of marriage, yet the Church deemed that the marriage was indeed invalid seeing as though he was intoxicated on the day of.

Sadly they have children together and it has been very hard on the children, and neither one of them are happy that they are divorced, and neither are looking to be remarried, yet they can’t seem to reconcile with each other, He has considerably cleaned up his act and now talks of becoming a lay brother.

This particular couple is the only couple I personally know so it is really the only example I can give, I will say that the sheer number of annulments within the Catholic Church today versus in years past is quite astounding and it sure does seem like it is a Catholic version of divorce, although in practice it shouldn’t be.

I knew of a couple in my former parish who had been married about 25 years. Then the husband began having an affair with a former nun. Ultimately there was a divorce, an annullment, and the husband married his paramour. His (first) wife never believed the marriage had been invalid, and considered herself still bound by her marriage vows. She never sought to remarry. I’m not second guessing the tribunal because all I know is hearsay. In theory a spouse who wishes to defend the marriage bond could contest an annulment on appeal.

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Seems like trying to find a loophole reason that was obviously not an impediment to marriage in the first place, then retroactively dig up a problem and then dress up the separation with a legal fiction in order to not say “divorce”. :face_with_monocle:

Obviously I am not advocating for divorce, which is sinful according to Our Lord’s word in the Gospel of Matthew, but the discipline of the Western Church regarding marriage and divorce causes great cognitive dissonance. How could one be married for fifteen years then have it declared invalid and thus treated in the eyes of the Church as if it never happened?

Hmmm…wouldn’t that be the only grounds for divorce according to Christ’s words?:

“And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.” Matthew 19:9

Also, I’m curious as to what the canons of the Western Church say about annulment/divorce, as opposed to the canons of the Eastern Church. Any sources?


It has caused a lot of problems for their family, as for the how, it’s not as though they didn’t live together for 15 years, just according to the law of the Latin Church the sacrament of marriage was not valid at the time of marriage due to him being intoxicated on the day of.

In the eyes of the Church their time of living together and having children together for 15+ years was as any two people living together in a civil (not sacramental) marriage.

I suggest the book Annulment: The Wedding That Was by Michael Smith Foster

These are two separate things.

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So the Church in essence revoked the Sacramental Marriage, but recognized the civil marriage? Would that mean retroactively they were living in a state of sin?

No. Not at all.

Part of the process of investigating a marriage is to determine the truth from when consent is exchanged; not trying dig up excuses to get out of it. When clergy or advocates first meet with someone who is preparing to petition for a deceleration of nullity the first thing we tell them is that we are not looking for an outcome but to determine if there was a doubt that would impact the validity of the marriage from it’s outset. I try to be very frank with them that they should not expect a positive declaration and should focus on wanting to know the truth. I was trained not to dig for reasons, but to ask why they think their marriage was invalid. My job is to help them understand how any issues might impact their ability to consent to marriage, but I don’t sit down and say “here’s a game plan to get you the best outcome”.

One of my theology professors, who is also a canonist, laid out an argument about why it is very dangerous to think of divorce being acceptable.

He started with several passages of scripture where God is described as the bridegroom and his people (first Israel and then all the baptized) are called the bride. We have the Divine as groom and the corporal as the bride. In the hypostatic union the corporal and divine are wed in a single being, Christ. In his argument, he states that human marriage is an imperfect reflection of God’s marriage covenant to his people. If mankind can divorce then why doesn’t God divorce us? We are unfaithful. We try to lie to Him. And dozens of other sin against God, our faithful spouse. Using the excuse of sin as a means to leave a marriage basically says that we, God’s bride, are free to leave Him whenever we find something better and he can cut us free to find a people that won’t sin against him. Anything less in his opinion is to say that God has not part in marriage and it is purely a human affair.


I knew another couple who had been married a long time. After many years, the wife wanted a divorce and annullment. She stated that she knew she had not been mature enough to enter into marriage when they wed. He said she had certainly been an adult woman who knew what she was doing, She further claimed that the marriage was emotionally abusive. The tribunal approved the annulment.

I knew a non-Catholic coworker who was assuredly drunk on his wedding day. That marriage has lasted for a long time and they are now enjoying their grandchildre.

This makes more sense, using St. Paul’s teaching as marriage being a shadow of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Thanks for the insight.

I still struggle with the idea of validity/non-validity, which is probably just my Eastern Orthodox background.

Personally, I know an Evangelical woman who once found out that her husband had cheated on her in the early years of their marriage, after an 18 year old girl showed up on their doorstep and said she was the daughter of that affair. The Evangelical woman (to her everlasting benefit) decided to forgive her husband, they went through intensive counseling with their pastor and they are happily married even to this day. To me that story teaches how a mature Christian heart should react to infidelity, with forgiveness and renewed love towards the offender.

Not quite.
In the eyes of the Church, in light of new evidence (him being drunk on the day of his wedding) the sacrament was never conferred, under the law of the Latin Church (as I understand it, which in this matter isn’t much) both parties are to be of sound mind for the sacrament to be conferred (valid), he was intoxicated at the time of his wedding and since intoxication impedes your mental capacity, it was deemed that the sacrament was never conferred.

Think of it this way:
You are brought to trial for robbing a bank, all evidence points to you being guilty, you are convicted and after 5 long years new evidence comes to light concretely proving your innocence, you are brought before a judge and he recognizes that you never were guilty and you are released from prison.
Now the new evidence doesn’t change the fact that you were in prison for 5 years, it only proves that you never committed the crime.

Definitely not the best analogy lol, but hopefully you get the idea.

More or less.

This is a wonderful ending to a difficult situation.
She is a shining example of a good Christian, this particular situation would be horribly difficult for anyone.

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That might be. Much of Latin practice is based on middle ground between Roman and Germanic law. If I remember correctly, in Roman law the exchange of consent in public formed a contract and the obligations they impose (i.e. “I’ll give you 200 dinari for your villa” - the villa was sold at the agreement even if possession had not changed hands). In like fashion, the exchange of consent made the marriage. In Germanic law, the marriage took place upon the exchange of possession. It’s part of the reason for the distinctions around ratified (i.e. consent exchanged) and consummated (i.e. the husband has taken “possession” of his bride in the marital act).

The Roman roots of the law is important because if there is defect in the agreement then it invalidates the contract. So if you thought I agreed to sell you my villa on the Palatine Hill for 200 danari, but I was agreeing to sell you a villa near the port of Ostia then we obviously were agreeing to different things even if you gave me the 200 dinari right then and there. That is part of the understanding of validity with regard to issues around defect of consent.

I do not know enough about how eastern practices and understanding of law (perhaps Greek or Egyptian?) influences the theological understanding of marriage.

If someone were in a putative marriage (i.e. they both believed that the marriage was valid) then there is no sin ascribed to them. If one went into the marriage knowing that they had say an intention against children and hid that from their spouse, then the one that hid that intetion would be liable for their sin, but the aggrieved spouse would not be.


I was just guessing here as I honestly don’t know.
@Usige answer seems pretty on point:

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Lord have mercy.

Extending that then, the legitimate children would be considered illegitimate, etc?

I found this article that says that the Orthodox follow Roman-law under Justinian, and then whichever laws of the country in which the autocephalous church resides. It also mention the Council of Trullo (692. A.D.), which is the basis for Eastern Canon Law, but was rejected by the Western Church.

Again I was just making a guess, my knowledge on this aspect is admittedly lacking, but I seriously doubt that the legitimate children would be considered illegitimate, although these questions are best left to a canon lawyer.

CathBoy1 is correct.

Can. 1138 §2. Children born at least 180 days after the day when the marriage was celebrated or within 300 days from the day of the dissolution of conjugal life are presumed to be legitimate.

Can. 1139 Illegitimate children are legitimated by the subsequent valid or putative marriage of their parents or by a rescript of the Holy See.

Basically that says that essentially any child born 6 months after the marriage was attempted (i.e. a putative marriage) and up to a year after common life had ceased would be considered legitimate. Can 1139 further states an illegitimate child becomes legitimate through the subsequent marriage of the parents (whether valid or putative). There are no provisions in the current law for a legitimate child to subsequently become illegitimate upon a declaration of nullity.


The canon law is the same on the topics of divorce and annulment in both Latin canon law (CIC) and eastern canon law (CCEO). The main difference in practice is that the eastern Catholics are to have their marriage blessed by a priest (not a deacon or layperson) for validity, and there are some differences in impediments to marriage also *. Note that Catholics can marry with un-baptised with a dispensation along with specific promises, unlike the Eastern Orthodox. When the marriage is not with two baptised spouses, then it is not a sacrament and is dissoluble. Only the valid consummated sacrament (two baptized) marriage is indissoluble. A marriage is presumed valid because the Church blessed it, but may not actually be valid because mistakes are made, or consent is not correct, or fraud, etc.
* impediments: affinity, public propriety, and spiritual relationship

From Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

In many regions, greater compromises emerged later, particularly as a result of the increasing interdependence of Church and State. In the East this development continued to evolve, and especially after the separation from the See of Peter, it moved towards an increasingly liberal praxis. In the Orthodox Churches today, there are a great many grounds for divorce, which are mostly justified in terms of oikonomia , or pastoral leniency in difficult individual cases, and they open the path to a second or third marriage marked by a penitential character. This practice cannot be reconciled with God’s will, as expressed unambiguously in Jesus’ sayings about the indissolubility of marriage. But it represents an ecumenical problem that is not to be underestimated.

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