Scriptural Basis for Annulments


Other than Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 (adultry/fornication), are there any passages of scripture that serve as the basis for the church practice of annulments?


Not really. Keep in mind though that an annulment doesn’t do anything sacramentally. It can’t dissolve a valid marriage - all it can do is investigate whether or not such a marriage exists. So it’s really just an adjunct to assist in properly applying the theology of marriage.


What is a valid marriage?


I think there was one passage in which it said there was no grounds for divorce unless the marriage wasn’t valid, for some reason.


I have always answered that the 3 “F”'s and a “T” must be present at the time of marriage:

FREE - no arrainged or shot-gun marriages, mature enough to understand it
FRUITFUL - agrreeing to welcome children if they come
FAITHFUL - No open marriage stuff
TOTAL - accepting that marriage is ‘until death do you part’

These definitions can be expanded upon but if any are not in place at the time of the marriage then the validity of the marriage could be called into question.


At the time a couple weds, there must be nothing which canonically prevents them from being married. If there are none of these impediments, the marriage is valid.

For example, Canon 1083 §1. says “A man before he has completed his sixteenth year of age and a woman before she has completed her fourteenth year of age cannot enter into a valid marriage”. Therefore, if a 15 year old boy cannot marry a 15 year old girl.

An “annulment” - technically a decree of nullity - simply says that at the time of the marriage there was an impediment which prevented a valid marriage from taking place.

In the example from Canon Law, lets say the 15 year old boy uses a fake birth certificate that shows he was 18 and marries the girl. 10 years go by. One or both apply to the Church for an “annulment” - essentially they ask the Church to look at their marriage and determine if there was an impediment. The Church does this and sees the boy was really only 15 at the time. Since this is an impediment, a valid marriage never existed and the couple were therefore never married in the eyes of the Church.


More accurately, these verses which talk of pornia refer to a state where there is an impediment to marriage (e.g. the marriage of siblings). It is often translated as adultery but that is incorrect. In fact, my understanding from the many threads here on the forums is that anyone applying for an annulment will be told initially that infidelity during the marriage is not grounds for a decree of nullity.


True . . unless the infidelity was present from the start . . .then most likely, the marriage was never valid. But if you mean 20 years into the marriage and there is one occasion of infidelity, that is not grounds for a Decree of Nullity.


Infidelity isn’t a basis, but the lack of an intention to form a monogamous marriage is. Hence why infidelity from the start or chronic infidelity can sometimes lead to a decree of nullity.


Apart from Matt. 5:32 and 19:9, two passages that support the practice of annulments are Matthew 14:3-4 and Mark 6:17-18. In those passages, John the Baptist confronts Herod because he married his brother’s wife. John the Baptist does not tell him that he must divorce her; he tells him, “This marriage is unlawful.” That’s basically a declaration of nullity.

A third biblical argument for annulments is the argument from marital rules. The Old Testament contains rules about who you can and can’t marry in Deuteronomy 22:30 and 22, Leviticus 18:5-20 and Leviticus 20:10-21, and other places. The New Testament contains rules about who you can and can’t marry in 1 Cor. 5:1, Mark 10:1-12, and other places. Now if someone tries to marry in violation of these rules, then their marriage is invalid because that’s what rules do. If nothing was different when you violated the rules, then they wouldn’t mean anything. So the very existence of rules suggests that some marriages (those in violation of the rules) are invalid, and that’s all an annulment says.


FYI, those passages do not refer to annulments at all. Annulments have no effect on the validity of the marriage.

What those passages DO permit is for the civil bonds binding the couple to be severed. The couple no longer owe the marital debt to each other, nor can claim it. It allows for them to live apart. But adultery is NOT grounds for a recognition that there was not a valid marriage.

The root of annulments is found in Matthew 10:9


What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

What the marriage tribunal attempts to discover is if God really HAD joined the two together.

If He did, adultery does not break that bond. If He did NOT, then there is no bond to break, the couple were never joined in the first place.


Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 19:9 are a little more complicated than your description suggests, IMO. For one thing, the Greek word translated “fornication” or “unchastity” refers to any kind of sexual immorality, not just marital unfaithfulness. Because it refers to many kinds of sexual immorality, the verse is frequently interpreted as referring not to marital infidelity but to an immoral or illicit sexual relationship between the spouses. Under that interpretation, these passages do support annulments because if their relationship is illicit from the start, then their marriage is invalid and they have an obligation to separate.

I myself do not accept that interpretation. But it is compatible with Catholic theology and is the explanation preferred by the New American Bible in its footnote on the passage. For myself, I prefer the interpretation which holds that these verses offer grounds for separation under extraordinary circumstances while still forbidding remarriage. And that has the support of many Church Fathers and is compatible both with the text and with Catholic theology.


I think this is an answer more for logic than Scripture. Scripture and Tradition provide the basis for marriage. Logic can help us answer if a marriage has taken place, or conversely, if one has not, and it can also help us answer what consequences either or both of these situations result in.

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