On the bishops' discussion slate: Streamlining anullments


On the bishops’ discussion slate: Streamlining annulments

By Elise Harris
Vatican City, Oct 7, 2014 / 06:02 pm (EWTN News/CNA)

The opening report for the bishops’ synod on the family touched on the process of annulments, noting that reform is being asked by many who often misunderstand the indissolubility of marriage.

General relator Cardinal Peter Erdo said the synod’s Instrumentum laboris – or “working document” – shows a “broad consensus in favor of simplifying marriage cases from the pastoral point of view and recounts increasing instances of a divorce mentality in the valid celebration of the Sacrament. ”

“With this in mind, it does not seem hazardous to believe that many marriages celebrated in the Church may be invalid,” he said in an Oct. 6 press conference.

Synod discussion will address the responses of many who filled out the questionnaire released by the Vatican last year in order to hone in on specific topics, saying they feel that the annulment procedure lacks “an effective and streamlined process.”

An annulment, officially called a Decree of Nullity, is the finding by a Church tribunal that on the day spouses exchanged their wedding vows, at least some essential element for a valid marriage was lacking.

Essential elements for a valid marriage include, but are not limited to, if one of the spouses did not intend to make a lifelong commitment to the other person, or if one or both of the spouses did not intend to have children.

As divorce is not allowed in the Catholic Church due to the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Matrimony, a couple may only obtain permission to separate and re-marry through obtaining an annulment, which declares the marriage invalid from the start due to the lack on one of these essential elements.

The so-called “divorce mentality” is often fostered by civil courts or tribunals, Cardinal Erdo observed, who frequently grant divorces to couples without many questions asked.

This practice “frequently leads parties to enter into a canonical marriage, while reserving the right to divorce and to contract another wedding should difficulties occur,” he said.

“Even without their being fully aware of the ontological and canonical aspects,” this idea renders a marriage invalid, he continued.

However, “To prove that a person did not consider marriage indissoluble, the party who went through this simulation of marriage needs to admit and attest to the circumstances and other elements.”

Cardinal Erdo went on to explain how the faith of the married couple seeking an annulment must also be evaluated “according to authoritative proposals,” primarily because the Church’s general principal holds “that the validity of a sacrament requires that the party intends to do what the Church does.”

“This via extra-giudiziale – a solution outside the juridical process – according to them could provide a manner to know, discern and thoroughly examine whether, because of invalidating circumstances, the process could conclude with a declaration of nullity by the diocesan bishop,” the cardinal observed.

The bishop, then, would “also propose a way to raise consciousness and conversion in the concerned party in light of a possible future marriage, where this simulation would not be repeated.”

Under particular fire in the annulment process is the Church’s requirement for having two appeals confirming the declaration of nullity of the marriage bond, the cardinal noted.

Beginning in the couple’s diocesan court, the appeal for an annulment currently must be sent to the court of the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota – the highest appellate tribunal in the Catholic Church, after it has been accepted by the diocese.

In the “Rota,” the appeal of the couple currently requires the approval of two judiciaries, who recognize the marital bond as being invalid.

One proposal in the renewal of this process calls for only one appeal in the “Rota” rather than two, with the second being required only if “within a defined framework, there is no appeal from either or both (spouses) or from the defender of the bond,” who is the official in the case charged with arguing for the validity of the marriage bond, Cardinal Erdo explained.

“A possible solution of this kind should, in any case, avoid any type of mechanics or impression of granting a divorce,” he went on.

“Nevertheless, in some cases, other guarantees might be necessary, for example, the obligation of the defender of the bond to make an appeal so as to avoid solutions which are unjust and scandalous.”

A commission to study a reform of the process of annulment was established by Pope Francis on Aug. 27. They are currently researching instances when only one appeal is required versus the usual two.

Also on the table for discussion regarding marriage are the topics of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation and civil marriages, which are considered to be areas posing particular challenges in terms of pastoral care.

I think there could be a better process for annulments. It is a paperwork nightmare, with first and second instance courts that can disagree with each other and lacking any pastoral counseling or care in most cases.


I find this whole idea to be rather scary.

I sympathise with those suffering through a long drawn out process, but the Church MUST be certain that a marriage is null.

I would prefer them to concentrate on making a marriage harder to obtain in the first place.

  • Try to look into some process to be certain that the betrothed are indeed serious on making a lifelong commitment.

I think this is one of the most precipitous points. How to streamline the process, but still retain the obligation to the truth.

A few years ago I had looked into what it would take to get a JCL (aka canon law degree) and become a Defender of the Bond. I suspect many seeking annulments would be glad I couldn’t afford it as I would likely be perceived as being overly tenacious in those duties. I would feel I had a moral obligation to defend the bond until invalidity was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I think some of the processes could be modernized and perhaps better standardized to make gathering information easier and quicker. It might make sense to have a centralized system to facilitate gathering testimony, etc. rather than mailing interim documents back and forth. For instance a pastor could start the case online and it would automatically send requests for sacramental records that day. It could also allow the petitioner to check what is outstanding or missing, etc.

That being said, I hope they do not do away with the appeal to a court of second instance simply because it slows things down. Having two independent reviews is important. If they disagree then something was likely missed in the first hearing. The goal is determining the truth.

The purpose of streamlining should be to reduce unnecessary delays or redundancies. It’s primary goal should not be to cut things to the bare minimum so that the can be done as quickly as possible. I am all for speeding up information collection, but not for cutting parts out and leaving room for error.

We have healthcare.gov why not make anullmentcare.va ?

I don’t know if there are any bishops who would want to take a personal involvement in deciding marriage cases, even if the process is “extra-judicial.” He’ll probably just put it off on some canon lawyer/vicar sort of priest (maybe call him the judicial vicar) or other canon lawyer/judge in the diocese and that canon lawyer will have to have some staff to help him manage the cases. Before you know it, the who “extra-judicial” process will be handled in the diocesan tribunal.

Regarding the passages about the Rota–there are some significant errors. While it’s possible to appeal to the Rota (and I think that possibility will always be maintained, no matter what other changes might be put in place), the Rota does not handle all appeals. It only accepts cases that have been directly appealed to it or cases that have received conflicting Sentences in two lower Courts.

Yes, cases now must have two “affirmative” decisions before a person is declared free to marry. But, the Rota usually has nothing to do with it.


My understanding is that all annulment cases go thru the same process - which is where I think it could be streamlined greatly. As you suggest for starters, the basic information could be gathered faster and easier. But I’d also suggest that there could/should be ways for those with clear cut issues to have their case handled quickly based on standard guidelines. For example: I believe the cannon law age for marriage is 14. But I would think a reasonable argument could be made that here in the USA, if the people involved were under 21 years old, and the marriage occurred after 1980 (post-sexual revolution), and neither party is protesting against the annulment, then it could be granted without numerous witness testimonies, additional proofs, etc. based solely on the culture and immaturity of the individuals. I am not a theologian or cannon lawyer (so hold your fire!!! grin) - but why a situation like I described should be able to be handled quickly and with only simple documentation. Obviously, many, many cases are not “cut and dried” - but many, many are - so why not have a better system to move those out of the way so the tribunals can focus in depth on the “complex” ones?


You would probably have realized, pretty quickly, that your tenacity was only resulting in your head hurting after repeatedly banging it on the proverbial brick wall. So, you’d start to pick your battles. At least, that’s how things have gone for me…

I think the mandatory review of affirmative decisions is as good as dead. It’s only a matter of time.



Yes, the process is the same if it is a matter of examining the consent of the parties (impediments are a different, shorter process and defect of form can be, too). The age for marriage is a difficult topic because while I would have no problem in saying that people have to be 18 in order to marry (it is now 14 for girls, 16 for boys), other nations/cultures are not as “adolescent” as we are in the USA. So, I doubt the Church will raise the age all that much for the universal Church…maybe they’d make it 16 for both or 16/girls, 18/boys. Or, maybe the Church will allow local Conferences of Bishops to make a higher age, and have that requirement impact the validity of the marriage (as of now, a higher age on the local level only impacts the lawfulness of the marriage). Another factor is that non-Catholics are not bound by ecclesiastical law. I think most jurisdictions allow 18 year-olds to marry without any restriction. I could be wrong about that.

Regarding the speed of the process, if a case is “clear cut”, it tends to be processed pretty quickly. So, if you have a couple 18 year-olds, pregnant, parents demand marriage, with a two year common life, the case can be done in 6 months, no problem. This, of course, presumes that the Tribunal is properly staffed with competent personnel and the evidence is promptly submitted. These “easy” cases don’t prevent Tribunals from taking the proper time with the “difficult” ones.


The primary issue I would have with your example is that it presupposes that persons under 21 are not cognitively capable of contracting marriage. Instead of assuming a marriage is valid we then do a 180 and assume that any contested marriage where one of the spouses was under 21 is invalid. It almost makes it an unwritten impediment. Your suggestion would likely require a change to 1083§1 to set the universal age to 21 and then allow for local ordinaries to dispense. Given the fact that many dispensations for marriage are automatically granted I don’t know that it would really make a difference.

From a practical point, much is made about the number of divorces where one of the persons was under 25, but it ignores the fact that a high number of first marriages after 25 still end in divorce. That shows that age, in of itself, is not the only cause. It is contributory, but likely is also tied to co-morbid conditions of being young (e.g. less economic stability). When I look at my peers (middle class couples, born during the 70’s), I know of only one divorce for those of use who married young (perhaps 1 out of 5 or 6 couples). Those that waited until later have divorces in the 25-35% range. So obviously being under 21 is not in of itself an impediment to a valid marriage.

Really what I think you are talking about is perhaps a set of cultural guidelines of things to look for that might invalidate a marriage under canon 1095. Something like “if 5 of these 9 conditions existed then the validity of consent if highly suspect”. It should not be a single criteria, but rather a set of conditions that show a clear pattern of invalidity. Based on dans0622’s previous post I believe that is likely already done in many cases.

You are right. I suspect I would have just became disillusioned. I tend to be the type that fights for the underdog and too often it seems like upholding the validity of marriage is a loosing proposition. By that I mean the resources directed at showing a marriage is invalid are significantly larger then those for the Defender of the Bond. I may be wrong on that point, but that is simply my impression looking in from the outside.

With regard to your point about the mandatory review, do you think this is a good thing? In other words do you think it actually adds value in real world situations or does it essentially become more of a procedural process where the original finding is assumed to be true? Should it be changed to only require the Defender of the Bond to appeal in cases where they feel morally that the first finding was incorrect? Is this one of your “pick your battle situations”?

I don’t mean to suggest that I have become disillusioned. I just now know what is reasonable to expect in a given case.

I think the second instance Courts tend to “assume the original finding is true.” The review looks at procedure and the argument offered in the Sentence. If the procedure was correct and the argument is at least minimally compelling, the second Court gives it a ratification. An over-turned decision is rare, even with an appeal. An overturned decision without an appeal is extremely rare. So, removing the mandatory review would not (in my opinion) mean that there will be many cases that would have been overturned but now won’t be. The practical impact will be minimal.

Since the review is so often a formality, what’s the point? Given that I think the review is usually a formality, I don’t mind if it is done away with. Ideally, I’d wish that second instance Courts would be more meticulous and diligent and that the review would be seen as something of value. If that was the case, I would be against discarding it.

These comments are based on a rather limited, yet real, experience of work with and in second instance Courts.


What drives me absolutely batty about this is that I keep seeing statements like “validity of a marriage within the Church” and “Indissolubility of the Sacrament…” There are an awful lot of us awaiting decisions who A) weren’t married in the Church (and so married with a less than clear understanding of marriage) and who now want to joint the Church or validly marry catholics and B) weren’t in sacramental marriages at all due to one or both spouses never having been Baptized.

I’d like to rabidly defend marriage and the annulment system, but it’s difficult for me to do so considering the above. I see two kinds of marriage in reality. One is the Sacrament of Matrimony as taught by the Church and believed sincerely by those of many religions and of no religion. The other kind of marriage is secular and more along the lines of co-habitation with legal benefits. In this kind of “marriage” one or both legal spouses believe that they can leave at any time, don’t need to be open to life now or ever, don’t need to be exclusive (“open” marriages are on the rise) etc. etc.

There are just too many people who entered into the second version of “marriage” and are now cut off from the Sacraments for years due to a decision made long before they had any understanding of the reality of the Sacrament of Matrimony.

In my case there can be little doubt the marriage was invalid. I, myself, entered into the marriage with the intention that it not be a permanent arrangement, with no intention of fidelity in word or deed and with the intention to prevent pregnancy permanently. Thankfully, I was able to contact 5 witnesses to these facts and 3 of them responded. The ceremony was a courthouse ceremony in Ohio with no waiting period or preparation. My ex was never Baptized, so the marriage was not Sacramental. My ex is not contesting the annulment. In fact, he sent back his paperwork with just one sentence written on it “I am not Christian and do not want to participate in this process.” You’d think there wouldn’t be much to do, yet my case was formally accepted over a year ago, the publication of the acts was over March 10, and I am still waiting on a first ruling. I was told it would take between 12 and 18 months for the entire procedure to be complete and I am already at the 14 month mark with no end in sight. To say the least it’s frustrating and painful. At Labor Day mass I actually broke down and cried when the small number of folks who attended went to receive and I couldn’t.

Maybe the Tribunals could triage cases. Simpler cases, such as those in my situation, could be routed to one Tribunal team to make their handling more efficient and perhaps only require one ruling instead of two. Cases that are more complex such as when the couple were both catholic and received pre-cana or where a spouse is fighting the dissolution could be routed to a different Tribunal team and still need two rulings due to the complexity of the case.

Exactly. I’m a Catholic civilly married (8 years with children) to an unbaptized man who was previously married for less than 8 months. The circumstances of his previous marriage (engaged after 5 days of meeting, married 8 weeks later) do not allow for much in the way of witnesses to the dating and engagement period. In fact, he didn’t speak much to friends or family members at all about his whirlwind relationship. Post-divorce, he was contacted by the man with whom his wife cheated a few months after the marriage. He suspected she was cheating (her compulsive lying was the reason for the divorce) without any proof until after they divorced.

The Petrine Privilege should be made available at the diocesean level just as it is for the Pauline cases. Holding non-Catholic natural marriages to the same standard as Catholic marriages with preCana prep makes no sense to me. Until there is a major change, my husband doesn’t want to go through with the annulment process. It just rehashes a lot of heartache for him.


While the Pauline/Petrine cases are not part of the “annulment process”, your suggestion is a possibility and there is no doctrinal reason preventing such a delegation of the Pope’s power.

Does your local Diocese not process “Petrine” cases?


Is there variation in the process in different states?

I was married by a Justice of the Peace in my home, we were both baptized (me Catholic, her Russian Orthodox) and my annulment literally took a week (I was surpised becasue my priest said it’ll take two). I think it was approved because of non canonical form (or however you spell that).

Unless I misunderstood stomething the only differences between your situation and mine is that I was Catholic when I married my ex and my ex was Baptized. You’d think my annulment would be troublsome and yours would be easy. It seems that converts are put through the ringer more than cradle Catholics that fell away for a bit.

I think the Diocese provides preliminary paperwork to assess whether or not the marriage comes within the parameters of the “Petrine” cases. But don’t all those cases end up in the Rota for adjudication? Can that authority be delegated to the local tribunal for adjudication?

Another question; I haven’t asked about the process because I thought Petrine cases were for spouses/fiancee who want to marry a Catholic and become Catholic themselves. My husband doesn’t want to become Catholic and I believed that we would be pushed into the annulment route- he won’t do that. If we could petition for a dissolution without the 45 page annulment questionaire, I may be able to convince him.

When we married, I wasn’t a practicing Catholic and I believed we could get the marriage convalidated later because I didn’t think non-sacramental marriages counted. There’s lots of confusion out there.


Yes, I should have been clearer. The process starts at the diocese and then has to be sent over to Rome (not the Rota, but the CDF, who examines the file and presents it to the Pope). As of now, it cannot happen in any other way. I asked my question because there are some diocese which do not even try to process such cases.

No, the person does not need to become Catholic. This was once a stipulation but hasn’t been, since the 1970s. In a case such as yours, the “favor” would be for your faith.

While this is not as rigorous as a nullity case, it is still a very particular and exact process. Here is a link to it…perhaps it will be comprehensible to you. The main point is that it must be possible to prove his non-baptism (parents’ testimony is best, along with his own). There are other requirements but that’s square one.



Yes, this is sort of the kind of thing I was thinking of (without knowing what kind of situation would fit exactly) - cases where basics are there that anyone would have a doubt as to the sacramental nature of the marriage, no one is contesting the issue, the basics are easily proven - so why do they go through a whole process if instead they could be quickly reviewed and approved because they meet several specific criteria? :confused:

You were a catholic who married outside of the Church without dispensation. Your case is more of an administrative process. You didn’t need a formal trial annulment because your marriage wasn’t presumed valid as it was done with a defect of form. Because neither I nor my ex were catholics marrying outside the Church we were not bound by Canon Law and our marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise. Which means lengthy formal trial annulment. :frowning:


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