Is an annulment just a Catholic divorce?
An annulment is just the opposite of a divorce. Divorce tries to break apart what God has joined together; an annulment simply recognizes that God never joined the couple together in the first place.
For many people, it’s shocking to learn that what they believed to be a real marriage was in fact lacking in key elements. But it’s important to remember that marriage is God’s idea. He established the conditions by which we enter into the sacrament of Matrimony. Christ bestowed the powers of binding and loosing on the Church rather than the civil authorities, so it’s the Church that defines Christian marriage. But here is a little understood fact: The priest doesn’t perform the sacrament of Marriage. He only “witnesses” the marriage. The husband and wife actually administer the sacrament to one another.
When the Church issues a declaration of nullity, it is saying that it withdraws its witness because it now sees that the conditions necessary for a valid marriage were absent. Scripture says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This gives us some rough guidelines for what constitutes a valid marriage.
Consent: Mature dedication to establish a new family unit.
Permanence: Commitment to a lifelong covenantal union with one’s spouse.
Fidelity: Consummation of the union through sexual intercourse with the expectation of children.
In short, the conditions for validity are “leaving,” “cleaving,” and “becoming one flesh.” Sometimes these conditions or their corollaries are absent in a mar riage. We can find this situation at times in Scripture when God set aside invalid marriages (see Gen 21:14; Deut 7:3; Ezra 9, 10; Mal 2:10-16).
An annulment is simply the recognition by the Church that what appeared to be a valid marriage was actually not. All an annulment determines is that at the time of the wed ding one or both parties lacked the ability to give proper consent or in some way violated the Church’s requirement for marriage. A divorce dissolves a marriage; an annulment says there was no marriage.
Al Kresta is CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of Kresta in the Afternoon. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” (Servant Publications/St. Anthony Messenger Press 2001).