What makes a marriage invalid?

I’ve met a lot of Catholics over the years who were able to get an annulment for a prior marriage and then remarried. I was under the impression an annulment would only be granted for simple and verifiable things such as lack of consent or defective consent. All of this has to happen on the day of the marriage.

If on the day of marriage, one spouse consented but was having an affair would that make the marriage invalid?
If one spouse said they were open to life but kept using contraception (such as the pill or condoms), does that make the marriage invalid?

Now say in the first situation, if the spouse cheating decided to end the affair after the wedding does that change anything? In the second situation if the contracepting spouse intended to have a child after marriage, but changed their mind does that change anything?

I just find it odd how annulments can be granted depending on how a situation is interpreted. I have met people who were able to get an annulment because their spouse was abusive but that was after the time of marriage, and other people were able to get an annulment because they found out their spouse had a mental disorder. Other people weren’t able to get an annulment because it was found they consented properly on their wedding day even though one spouse changed their mind about having children after marriage.

What makes a marriage valid in the first place?

Nothing that happens after the wedding can invalidate a marriage, once valid, always valid, but there are other things that will result in an invalid marriage (i.e. no marriage actually being contracted despite what the spouses think). Lack of consent is the biggest one, but lack of consent isn’t only limited to “shotgun weddings.” Marriage, by definition, is a life long commitment. If one or both spouses are not planning on staying together permanently (they think “I can always divorce if things don’t work out”) at the time of the wedding that will invalidate the marriage. Marriage also includes being open to children. A couple that plans on never having kids isn’t really giving consent to being married, thus that too will invalidate a wedding. Monogamy works the same way. If the groom is, before or during the wedding, planning on still being able to sleep with other women, that too will invalidate the marriage. Another common situation is when a Catholic, without proper dispensation, marries outside the Church (as I once did). In this case, even with perfect consent, the marriage is invalid. Hope that helps.

Canon law on the subject is complicated, but to break it down to it’s simplest form a marriage is valid when both parties, at the time of their wedding, freely and with full understanding consent to marriage as taught by the Church. The couple both have to understand that marriage is permanent (cannot be dissolved by divorce), for the procreation and rearing of children (open to life), exclusive (no cheating or open marriage agreements), and for the good of the spouses (mutual aid). There can be no fear or coersion, no fraud, no conditions, etc.

Nothing can invalidate a marriage validly entered into at the time of the ceremony, but what happens after the ceremony can be used as evidence that there was something wrong from the beginning.

The annulment process is not simple. First, a petitioner consults their pastor to see if they even have grounds. Then they begin to work with a Procurator-Advocate to fill out the required paperwork and gather evidence including Witness testimony, counseling reports, arrest records and hospital records pertaining to the marriage, etc.

Once the paperwork if filled out and evidence gathered, everything is reviewed by the local Tribunal. The Procurator-Advocate writes up a summary explaining why the marriage should be declared invalid. A Defender of the Bond writes up a statement explaining why s/he believes the marriage to have been valid. A Judge reads the evidence and those statements and makes a determination.

Once the Court of First Instance Judge has made his/her determination the case is sent to another Tribunal, called the Court of Second Instance, for review. If both courts agree the marriage was invalid, the Decree of Nullity is granted. If both believe the marriage was valid, a decree is not granted and the parties can appeal. If one court believes the marriage to have been invalid and the other believes the marriage was valid, the case is sent to Rome for a determination.

This is not a “rubber stamp” process.

The examples you gave are pretty common.

  1. If one spouse was having an affair when the marriage took place that could be grounds for nullity. Obviously, he or she didn’t place much value on exclusivity. Without the situation being disclosed to the other party, how could that party freely consent to the marriage? If one party conceals something in order to get the other party to consent to marriage it is fraud. If the affair ended after the wedding the marriage would still be invalid because A) exclusivity and B) the other party still couldn’t freely consent to marriage without knowing something of that magnitude.

  2. Contraception doesn’t necessarily make a marriage invalid, but it could. If the contracepting party had no intention of being open to children than the marriage would be invalid. If the contracepting party intended to have children later than the marriage would be valid. If the party contracepting went into the marriage with the sincere intention of having children and later changed their mind, that would seem to be a pretty gray area and above my pay grade.

  3. Abusiveness and mental illnesses effect consent for both parties. An abusive person is mentally ill. Mental illness calls into question both the ability to consent to marriage and the ability to fulfill the duties and obligations of marriage.

As for the example of the person who had an annulment denied because they consented properly on their wedding day and then one changed their mind about children later, the marriage was probably validly entered into. If it was not validly entered into, perhaps there wasn’t enough evidence available for the Tribunal to declare the marriage null.

Hope I helped :slight_smile:

The book Annulment: The Wedding That Was by Michael Smith Foster is a good book if you want a thorough explanation with a lot of good examples.

This is a little dry (and old) but it accurately summarizes the problem, especially in America.


Accurate in what alternate universe?

To attack an article as long and impeccably referenced as that one, with all it’s nuances and examples in such a flippant way is not an argument. It is a rhetorical device that works on imbeciles, but not me.

Is there a particular part about it with which you disagree?

I prefer this article by far.


There isn’t one single reference in the whole document.

This is the author’s sour grapes about HIS experience.

Really? This single paragraph has 13 cannonical references alone:

“The ecclesiastical term for annulment is declaration of nullity. Tribunals never use the term annulment, since there is no such thing as the annulment of a consummated sacramental marriage. The Code of Canon Law describes 101 canons for trials in general, 170 canons for contentious trials, and another 37 canons for certain matrimonial processes. The most important canon for a contentious respondent (the party opposing an annulment) is probably canon 1598-1, which requires that parties be permitted to inspect the acts (evidence) of the case to guarantee their rights of defense, and which can be easily disregarded to avoid cumbersome delays and conceal biased opinions. Of equal importance for the bewildered respondent upon discovery that he or she was never married are canons 1417 and 1444, which permit an appeal of a decision by a U.S. tribunal to the more conscientious, canonically firm and unbiased Roman Rota, and which is routinely ignored to expedite a speedy conforming decision in the second instance. Other important canons are canons 1554, 1555 and 1576, requiring that parties be notified of witnesses and experts and given the opportunity to request their exclusion; canons 1534 and 1564, prohibiting the judge from asking the parties or witnesses leading questions; canon 1608 requiring moral certainty in the judgment; canon 1614 requiring a judgment to indicate the ways in which it can be challenged (including appealing to the Roman Rota); canon 1616 requiring a judgment to be corrected if there is material error in presentation of the evidence (including false testimony); canon 1620 enabling the Rota to nullify a decision by a U.S. tribunal; and canon 1634 giving the respondent the right to obtain a copy of the judgment.”

There are also references to the scripture, (Eph. 5:11, Mk 10:1-12; Lk.16:18; 1 Cor.7:10-11), direct quotes from papal encyclicals, and verifiable statistics (for example the numbers of American annulments granted).

But again, what PART do you disagree with? What specific FACTS are wrong or as you put it–from an “alternate” universe?


A marriage is valid, or not, depending on three elements: proper manifestation of consent (for Catholics, “canonical form” is generally required: express consent before authorized priest/deacon and two witnesses), proper consent, and freedom from impediments. Most of your questions regard proper consent. To your first two questions, the only possible answer is “those actions might be evidence of a defect in consent.” To the next two questions, the answer is “maybe.”

I can’t go into each and every detail so will only make a general point about proper consent and when it can be determined that one’s consent was defective. Canons 1095-1103 delineate the only grounds for nullity based on consent. Basically, the question is: what did you intend? Those canons ask that question in different ways and with different points of emphasis. (Canon 1095.3 is an anomaly in that it asks “What could you do?”)

A person’s actions are not, in themselves, “grounds” for a declaration of nullity due to defective consent. Those actions can provide proof of defective consent. Since a person’s consent is an internal reality (which is presumed to correspond to the external manifestation), tribunals have to depend on external actions. Certainly, there are times when those actions have to be “interpreted” or put in their actual context.


That is a good one too. Although, I would argue Fr Ligot pivots and equivocates with a sleight of hand here:

“We are able to inform the applicants right away if sufficient grounds do not seem to be present,” says Father Ligot. “When that is the situation, applicants often choose not to pursue the process, which is time-consuming and emotionally difficult for them. Thus, weaker cases are frequently not pursued, and the result can be a higher percentage of cases that result in nullity.”

This may be true, but only because of the lax standards in determining nullity.

The rest of it gets to some really interesting “reasons” though. Glad you posted it!

Listing the canons is not a citation. It’s a list. His interpretation is completely uncited-- it’s just his opinion, along with a bunch of unfounded accusations and pejorative slurs (“Jesuitical wizards… set on annulling marriages”, accusations that the tribunals “secure confidentiality” to “mask” their “loose adherence” to canon law).

No church documents, no tribunal documents. just slurs and opinions and unnamed people and supposed decrees he has access to.

He has no credentials in the Church. He is not a canon lawyer.

He cites no reference for his assertion regarding the number of decrees of nullity based on can 1095, just asserts it as fact.

This is a terribly written article, of a disgruntled person. It is not fact based. Almost every word is pejorative slurs against priests and tribunal members.

A reference means making a statment, then LISTING the authoritative source. It doesn not have to be a particular format (like a foot note or bibliography). You can disagree with his understanding and interpretation of those sources, but he does point the reader where to go and find them.

You STILL have not demonsted a false statment he makes. His numbers for annullments are over the place. In fact, the previous article up thread “Annullment Nation” has the exact same figures.

The funny thing is, this is a topic which is debatable, but it hasn’t started yet. Just flat out rejection of the person who wrote the article.
One of my favorite arguments is “this person is not an educated and bona fide expert on subject A therefore they cannot possibly add anything to the discussion about it.”


I question the accuracy of the article. From my own experience, I can conclude that–today–there are not nearly the number of nullity-inducing procedural irregularities he recounts. He is also, indeed, not an expert in canon law. So, some of his references and conclusions are off. For example, the requirements of canon 1598.1 can’t be “easily disregarded.” Have they been disregarded? Yes, they have. But they cannot be easily disregarded. Canon 1616 has nothing to do with false testimony. The Roman Rota does not, and never has, “nullified” 90% of US cases. I know what he is trying to say but he took a short-cut and ended up being wrong.

That being said, I would certainly agree that many tribunal decisions have violated the procedural law and were themselves null. I agree that there were and are “wrong” decisions. In other words, I would have come to a different decision. I see those cases all the time. But, that’s my opinion and unless I’m a Judge on a particular case, that opinion is irrelevant.

This discussion should really be in another thread…not that this issue has not already been addressed at length in these forums.


I wondered about the Roman Rota issue. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Is there data on how many American cases appealed that way are reversed?

From my perspective, the smoking gun is the money. Since so much of it comes from the US, it stands to reason that that church leaders do not want to rock the boat and lose butts in the pews. It is pretty difficult to not notice the correlation between the onslaught of lax civil divorce law in the US and the enormous increase in American annulments. There can be many theories about why that has occurred, but that’s mine.

I have to agree there is a strong relationship between the divorce rates and annulment rates in the US, but I don’t want to derail this topic too much.

I was asking in particular because I’ve noticed Catholics tend to give leeway to certain things and think it’s permissible to get an annulment in certain situations, without realizing there is an entire story behind the situation. Is it reasonable to say a marriage is invalid if a couple has had children, but the husband or wife changes their mind and then starts to contracept? I have talked to people who think that should be a reason to get an annulment! In fact, one person had a PRIEST say this!

Sometimes at church when there are marriage formation activities going on, or activities for those already married I am surprised to meet all of the people who are in their second marriages from a divorce. I’m wondering how all those people were able to get an annulment.

FTR, I’m partially asking out of curiosity for myself too because I’ve been told I have grounds for an annulment. My situation is a bit complicated because of other issues, but people also make assumptions that when a Catholic married couple doesn’t have children it must mean one or both spouses never intended to have children and therefore, the marriage is invalid. I specifically asked the scenario about the contraception because if one person in marriage always uses contraception, and then both people agree to start trying for a baby does it mean their marriage suddenly became valid when the other spouse stopped contracepting? I just find a lot of this stuff absurd, as if Catholics are trying to find a pass for annulments and divorce to start over.


Those people have a profound lack of understanding of the sacrament and what validity means.

Many of them likey had either ligamen or lack of form cases.

Contraception per se is not grounds for a decree of nullity.

A permanent intention against children, present before the marriage, is a very specific thing. And of course would have to be provable in the external forum.

And, yes, if a person who had defective consent or intent forms new intent of the will and gives consent (even privately) it would indeed make an invalid marriage valid.

Can.* 1157 The renewal of consent must be a new act of the will concerning a marriage which the renewing party knows or thinks was null from the beginning.

Can.* 1158 §1. If the impediment is public, both parties must renew the consent in canonical form, without prejudice to the prescript of ⇒ can. 1127, §2.

§2. If the impediment cannot be proven, it is sufficient that the party conscious of the impediment renews the consent privately and in secret, provided that the other perseveres in the consent offered; if the impediment is known to both parties, both are to renew the consent.

Can.* 1159 §1. A marriage which is invalid because of a defect of consent is convalidated if the party who did not consent now consents, provided that the consent given by the other party perseveres.

§2. If the defect of consent cannot be proven, it is sufficient that the party who did not consent gives consent privately and in secret.

§3. If the defect of consent can be proven, the consent must be given in canonical form.

Am I correct in understanding intentions matter, and are a part of consent? I was told intentions and consent were two entirely different things.

I realize that the OP is looking for answers to some specific and complex questions but I believe this statement is an excellent starting point.

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