“Do I Need an Annulment?” and other common questions about divorce and remarriage

(Updated) On my radio show, I’m sometimes asked by callers questions pertaining to their marital status.

The twin issues of divorce and remarriage are extremely common today, and many people, including many Catholics, find themselves confused and unsure about what God and the Church require from them in this area.

This uncertainty has various causes, such as failure to seek answers from the competent authorities in the Church (e.g., canon lawyers) out of a lack of realization that they should do so (i.e., the result of poor catechesis), or because they were given erroneous information by well-meaning but ignorant fellow Catholics, or even because they are simply afraid of discovering what the Church’s answer to their situation might be and prefer instead to live in an “ignorance is bliss” cloud of unknowing. There are other reasons why many divorced Catholics don’t really understand what the Church requires, but the three just mentioned seem to me to be among the more common ones.

To help clarify these issues, I asked two canon lawyers, Jacqueline Rapp, JD, JCL, and Pete Vere, JCL, to write an article for Envoy Magazine that would cut through the ambiguity and confusion and answer the more common questions Catholics have about divorce and remarriage. Their article, “Do I Need an Annulment?” appeared several years ago in Envoy’s 6.2 issue, and I post it here as a service to all who may be wondering about that very issue, whether for themselves or for someone they care about.

As a Judge and a Defender of the Bond within our respective dioceses’ Catholic marriage Tribunal, we encounter misunderstandings every day about the declaration of nullity (or annulment) process. Often, the people who come into our offices question the need for an annulment before approaching a new marriage. Their misunderstandings commonly arise from misconception as to what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage, and consequently, why the Catholic Church judges some relationships not to be marriages.

What is a Christian marriage according to the Catholic Church?

In the law of the Church, many ingredients make up a Christian marriage. First, marriage is a covenant. The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides the following insight about the word covenant: “The theology of the covenant in the Bible is consistently a theology of divine promise. Whether in a profane or a sacred sense, the sacred authors utilize the berit [Hebrew for “covenant”] to trace the line of salvation history toward its divinely willed goal.” In short, the idea of covenant in the Bible is one of a strong pact between humans or between God and humans, in which each promises to assist the other towards a common goal.

In marriage, the covenant is between a man and a woman. The spouses establish this covenant through their marital consent, by which they intend to establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life. This means each spouse will assist and support the other in all areas of their common life, the best he or she is able, so long as the other spouse is alive.

Marriage is permanent and exclusive (monogamous). The goal of this covenant, by its nature, is the mutual welfare of the spouses (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) as well as openness to the procreation, welfare, and education of children. The Church commonly refers to the good of the spouses and the good of children as the two elements of marriage. All genuine marriages, whether Christian or non-Christian, must contain these elements. Such a partnership is commonly referred to as a “natural marriage.”

We base this understanding of natural marriage on the text of Genesis 2:18-25, which teaches that God’s will has established all marriage. True marriage is heterosexual (between a man and a woman); it is monogamous (one man and one woman); it is exclusive (the two form a new and unique relationship; the two become one); and it is permanent (if the two become one, this new union cannot be divided; a conclusion Christ confirms in Matthew 19:3-12).

The purposes of marriage are also taught in Genesis. First, we read there how God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:27-28). Thus marriage is about “fruitfulness,” or bringing children into the world and raising them to maturity (procreation and education).

In addition, we read in Genesis 2:18-25 that God created all the animals and brought them before Adam to be named. But a “suitable partner” was not found for him among them. So God created the woman, and Adam responded: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23).

This passage confirms what the Church teaches about marriage: that it involves the partners being suitable for each other through the sharing of strengths and weaknesses. When Adam says, “bone of my bone,” he is saying “this one is strong where I am strong.” And when he says, “flesh of my flesh,” he is saying, “this one is weak where I am weak.”

Thus canon law defines natural marriage this way: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its very nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children” (Canon 1055, § 1).

When both the husband and the wife are baptized Christians, this natural marriage takes on the element of sacramentality. A marriage between baptized persons is a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s love in the world. This means that the couple finds in their relationship a source of God’s grace, and through their partnership they assist one another in coming closer to God.

By the very fact that both the husband and the wife are baptized, their marriage becomes a sacrament. It is not a matter of where the wedding takes place or who officiates at the ceremony. Whether marriage is a sacrament is completely based upon the baptismal status of the parties.

When does a marriage come into being?

Marriage comes into being through lawfully manifested consent – that is, there must be a taking of the other as spouse in a way recognizable to the community. When two people give themselves to one another in order to create a partnership of life and love (marriage), and they do so in a manner recognized by the community, they marry. For two unbaptized people, this can be in front of a justice of the peace in the middle of a field. For a baptized Christian, this can be wherever their faith community recognizes the marriage.

For Catholics, as a faith community, when at least one of the parties is Catholic, the Church requires the parties to express their desire to give themselves in marriage before a priest, deacon, or designated minister, with two witnesses. We call this the canonical form of marriage. If a Catholic desires to enter marriage with a non-Catholic, a dispensation (relaxation of the law) may be granted, allowing the parties to exchange their consent in another manner. Nevertheless, this kind of dispensation is the exception.

What is an “annulment”?

A Catholic annulment, also known as a declaration of nullity or invalidity, is a statement of fact by the Catholic Church. After carefully examining the couple’s broken relationship, the Church states that a valid marriage, as the Church defines marriage, never existed. It is not “Catholic divorce,” as some have called it, since divorce looks at the moment the relationship broke down and says, “A marriage existed, and now we are ending it.” The annulment process says, on the other hand, “From the very beginning, something was lacking that was necessary for this relationship to be called a marriage.”

Quite often, what is lacking at the time of the civil contract is one of the essential elements or properties of marriage we have noted. The mature consent of the spouses in undertaking the marriage covenant may also be lacking.
Of course, the Church recognizes the couple’s initial love for one another. It also realizes that this love led to some form of relationship. In addition, the Church acknowledges that there was a valid civil contract and recognizes that the spouses were lawfully married in the eyes of the state. Therefore, all children born of this valid civil contract are legitimate, according to the Catholic Church. In keeping with canon 1137, they are known as the legitimate children of a “putative marriage.”

All these civil and legal realities the Church recognizes. But the annulment process looks at an entirely different realm – the spiritual – which falls within the Catholic Church’s domain of competence to judge.

Why is an annulment necessary?

The Church teaches that marriage is permanent. If a sacramental marriage is created, no human power can separate what God has joined together (see Mt 19:6). According to the Church, not even a civil government with the power to end the civil contract (which the state calls “marriage”) can terminate a sacramental marriage.
For this reason, once two people stand in front of God and contract a marriage, if they enter into a marriage covenant as defined by the Catholic Church, this covenant cannot be dissolved so long as both parties remain alive. The marriage bond is in place until death. As a result, no new marriage covenant can be created with someone else.

Any person who has entered a genuine marriage remains bound to that spouse. The spiritual bonds of marriage, if formed, cannot be ended by civil divorce. In the eyes of the Church, divorce ends the various civil, financial, and legal bonds previously contracted between spouses, but not the spiritual bonds.
For this reason, the Catholic Church investigates, through the annulment process, whether an actual marriage, as defined by the Church, came into being. In carrying out this investigation, the Church examines various facts presented to the marriage tribunal by those seeking the annulment and their witnesses. If the Church then determines that no genuine marriage came into being, these individuals are free to marry someone else if that person is also free to marry.

Why do I need an annulment if I’m not Catholic?

If you’re not Catholic, but plan to marry a Catholic, you might be asked to go through the annulment process. This seems odd to most non-Catholics because neither person from the first union is Catholic. Therefore, why should the Catholic Church investigate this marriage?

The Catholic Church presumes the validity of any marriage between two people who are free to marry at the time of their wedding. (They must have no previous marriages.) Basically, if the non-Catholic religious community of either spouse recognized the marriage, so does the Catholic Church. Since marriage, as God created it, is permanent, then the Catholic Church must also investigate these marriages. Because the non-Catholic wishes to marry a Catholic, the Church’s law applies to the proposed marriage, since canon law still binds the Catholic whom the non-Catholic wishes to marry.

In short, the Catholic Church believes her teachings concerning the essence and the properties of marriage bind all people, regardless of whether they are Catholic, as part of God’s natural law.

Are there options for working with previous marriages other than the annulment process?

Yes. For a person who was either Catholic or married to a Catholic, and did not marry according to the canonical form of marriage (in front of a Catholic priest or deacon with two witnesses), and if the Catholic Church’s permission was not obtained for this marriage (called a “dispensation from canonical form”), then the Church could process this case as a “Lack of Form.” The Church calls this an administrative process.

In this case, the individual must prove that one of the former spouses was Catholic, that the couple attempted marriage outside of the Catholic form without first obtaining the proper dispensation, and that the marriage is now irreparable. The individual must also establish that this marriage was never subsequently convalidated (commonly, and mistakenly, referred to as “blessed” by the Church.) Most marriage tribunals accept as sufficient proof of these circumstances the Catholic’s baptismal record, a copy of the marriage license, and the couple’s divorce decree. Nevertheless, depending upon particular circumstances, more evidence may be necessary.

If one of the spouses was not baptized during the first marriage, and the lack of baptism can be proven (provided the person applying for this process did not cause the marital breakdown), then a “Privilege of the Faith” case (or “Petrine Privilege” case) can be sent to the Holy See. If the Holy See approves, the non-sacramental marriage may then be dissolved in favor of a new marriage.

If neither of the spouses was baptized during their marriage, and now one of the spouses wishes to become baptized and marry a Catholic, provided one can prove the non-baptism of each former spouse, a Pauline Privilege is possible. In this situation, the diocesan bishop or his lawful representative, having established the non-baptized status of both parties, allows the non-sacramental partnership to be dissolved in favor of the new marriage. Of course, the spouse desiring baptism and the new marriage must first receive baptism.

A Basic Rule

If you are trying to determine whether you need an annulment, these explanations may be helpful. In any case, keep in mind one basic rule as you approach the process: If either you or your intended attempted a previous marriage, be sure to tell your priest. Before you attempt another marriage, the Church must address the previous marriage in some form or another, either by a documentary case, a privilege case, or a formal annulment process.

Copyright © 2003-2016 Envoy Magazine www.envoymagazine.com


  1. Dave

    There can be a misunderstanding of the annulment process from the opposite reason also. Some Catholics (like me) who are orthodox in their theology think that the annulment process is just another way of the Church to justify divorce and is a sham. Therefore, if I get a divorce and remarry, I just have to live with the fact that I will have to give up the sacraments. In my case, I chose the latter until —- my new wife wanted to become Catholic and get remarried in the Church. Then I was forced to look into the annulment process. I told the judge that I met with that I thought this was a sham but I would look into it anyway. Father said, give it a try and see what you think then. Was I in for a pleasant surprise. After going through the interview process and writing my responses to the extensive personal interrogation (I can’t think of a better word other than written
    psychoanalysis), I was shocked to discover that I really did not enter into my first marriage for the proper reasons. Then I became anxious for approval as I was now a believer in the process. Fast forward 30 years. My wife and I were remarried in the Church, have a wonderful marriage and spiritual life together. Thank you Lord for this second chance at happiness.

  2. Ceile De

    Nice article but you make it sounds like if you need one to remarry just apply for one. It’s not Catholic divorce – most marriages are not annulable and so most petitions will be turned down, no? If not, how is it not Catholic divorce? If it’s freely available for the asking, is any marriage safe? Grateful for your clarification.

  3. Mrs Doyle

    It’s not a matter of ‘just applying’ for one Ceile – you will need to go through the process if either party has been married before – Catholic or not.
    If you read the article again, annulments do not judge the current condition of the broken down relationship – they look at the foundations of the marriage, did the marriage fulfill all of the requirements to make it a marriage.
    Nobody ‘needs’ an annulment unless something goes wrong, that’s the only thing it has in common with divorce.

  4. Tom

    I think Ceile is right. The logic supporting many of these annulments is, shall we say, weak (lack of mental capacity to consent, changed our mind later about having children, made vows in Christian ceremony before non-Catholic clergy).

    Look, I get that they are all granted with the best of intentions. But the law of unintended consequences has been operating here: just like no-fault divorce, the explosion in the number of annulments in this country over the past 20-30 years has weakened marriage because it’s so easy to get out. And it certainly doesn’t seem to have boosted attendance at Mass or parochial school enrollments.

  5. Carol

    Does each diocese keep records of marriages and annulments? If so, can an interested party see the records?

  6. Ceile De

    Mrs Doyle – thanks for your comments but frankly it shouldn’t take too much to figure out if couple were opposite sex, of age, not related beyond forbidden bounds, not drunk or intoxicated at time of ceremony, and if marriage was consummated. My point is that yes you have to apply but they’ll ALWAYS or NEARLY ALWAYS find something attributable to psychological immaturity to justify a decree of nullity. If other contracts were held to same low standards with parties in effect infantalised no contract could be enforced. The system is a sham.

  7. William

    My wife, who married at a young age to her first husband went through the annulment process in order to marry me in The Church. It took over a year and a half. To second Dave, it was an extensive personal interrogation of a whole day, where she came out crying several times during the process. Paperwork and more paperwork, questions and more questions. This is no pay $500.00 and get one… We know of several couples who were denied as well.

    1. markymark

      As a single man, I have found myself in situations where I must refuse to even go on a date with a divorced woman, let alone start a serious relationship or even consider marriage, because it would be wrong, simply wrong.. and it hurts, it hurts deeply but Love demands it. Wait for the annulment, wait, just wait or move on. God prefers that we get to heaven even if we have to suffer loneliness in this life because there is something greater that awaits us in the life to come. Remember the words of Jesus “Unless you deny yourself, you cannot become my disciple”. and to quote St. Augustine “right is right, even if no-one is right, wrong is still wrong even when everyone is wrong”

  8. jdrep

    If a couple was married in the church without disclosing that one of them hadn’t baptized, would they be seen as just living together in a sinful relationship?

    If the marriage was successful and lifelong but an annulment was never sought, would the marriage still be considered invalid in the eyes of the church and God?

    Also, if the unbaptized person became baptized after the marriage took place, what would be the proper course of action?

    1. Stephanie

      1. No; that would simply be a non-sacramental, valid marriage. A marriage does not have to be a sacrament in order to be valid. Marriage is only a sacrament if both husband and wife are baptized Christians and of course the marriage is entered into validly. And I think the priest or deacon would know at the time of the wedding that one person was not baptized because if I’m not mistaken you need to get a recent copy of your baptismal records to apply to be married in the Church. If you don’t get one then that means you were never baptized. Although if someone was baptized outside the Church I think there must be some way to record that that person was, in fact, baptized; maybe a date and a witness signature or something, so that a certificate/record can be made?

      2. I think a marriage would still be considered valid even if it was entered into invalidly because they did not know it was invalid… and if they did at some point find out it was invalid (maybe in their studies they learn that they could in theory get an annulment), they can get their marriage convalidated so the annulment is not possible because the marriage would be valid from that point on.

      3. It’s not necessarily ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ but the marriage would become sacramental once the unbaptized person became baptized (assuming the other one was baptized at the time of the marriage; both people need to be baptized to be a sacramental marriage).

      1. Paul

        Stephanie, this part of your response to #2 makes no sense to me:

        “I think a marriage would still be considered valid even if it was entered into invalidly because they did not know it was invalid.”

        Are you making a distinction between “considered valid” and “valid”? If not, how could a marriage be real if there is no marriage bond due to an impediment, regardless of the subjective awareness of the couple?

  9. Lyn

    I married someone who is divorced and have been together now for 16 years.over the years as I have come to now the Lord I have always wondered what to do about my marriage!we got marri at a registry office.i worry that I am living in sin and need help fixing my situation!!please advise…

  10. lin

    I developed a friendship with a single man – which eventually led to stronger feelings- and he had to stop communication with me- I understand it- but I didn’t completely
    I am in the process of starting annulment- for the healing of my self as this reality has made my heart ache. I don’t ever want to feel this sad again.

  11. LaurieO

    One thing bothers me about the annulment process. Why must a couple get divorced first before applying for an annulment? If you go through the entire annulment process and find out your marriage is valid, then you know you can’t date, etc and you may work harder with your spouse. But if you find out your marriage is indeed invalid, then you can proceed with the divorce. I am not saying the Church is wrong-I just don’t understand the order of things.

    1. Thomas McNally

      Laurie, You do not have to get a divorce before you get an annulment. You only need to be married. The reason to get a divorce would be for a civil reason. There is no such thing as divorce in a catholic marriage. If your marriage was declared invalid in the eyes of God, then by law you would proceed to obtain a civil divorce/

      1. Joel

        In our diocese, they will not begin the process unless the couple has civilly divorced.

  12. Susan

    My husband and I have been married for 15 years. He was married for 6 months before that. Neither of had been baptized, nor previous wife. We finished RCIA, and were allowed to be baptized, confirmed, and receive First Communion. We received those sacraments while our Lannulment was being processed. We were also told by our parish priest that we were allowed to continue to take communion, even though the annulment had not been finalized. In hindsight, this doesn’t seem right, and we have never taken communion again as the annulment is still processing. Can anyone weigh in? We are seriously concerned that we are in a state of mortal sin.

    1. Thomas McNally

      I can confidently say this; You cannot commit a mortal sin unless you know it is a mortal sin and consciously decide to commit that mortal sin. If you were told you can receive sacraments by a Catholic priest you have not consciously committed sin. You should pray the rosary as much as you can and through the intercession of the blessed mother,God will show you the way. Until your annulment is processed you should live as brother and sister.

      1. Patrick Madrid

        While it is true that freedom, knowledge, and sufficient reflection are necessary for formal culpability, one still can be materially guilty of committing a mortal sin, but not formally culpable. For example, a woman who, out of ignorance or coercion, agrees to be sterilized for the purpose of eliminating her fertility. Her culpability may be greatly diminished or even non-existent, but the objective act is still a mortal sin. Anyone who, after the fact, becomes aware that a given act was objectively mortally sinful, should mention it in the sacrament of confession.

  13. sally high

    That is interesting about the fact that the church sees the marriage broken from the start. There sure do seems like a lot of rules and stipulations. Heavy emphasis by the church placed on terms.

  14. Curt

    With regard to lack of form, what happens if you had a lack of form finding for a first marriage due to one spouse having been baptized Catholic and not getting the dispensation to marry outside the church. You get married to a second catholic and then learn that the first catholic spouse had never gone through Confirmation and had actually left the church prior to the first marriage? Wouldn’t that first marriage be valid? Would it make the second marriage invalid? Would having a declaration of nullity for the first marriage automatically validate the second or would that marriage have to be convalidated?

  15. Holly Denman

    I was divorced 15 years ago after a 26 year Catholic marriage. My husband left the church and remarried. I have never remarried and have no intention to do so. I tell people I am married because in the eyes of the Church I believe I am. Because I am a cancer patient I expected to die first which I think would allow him to return to the sacraments if he desired to. But now he is sick and it is very possible he could die first. I have considered pursuing and annulment so the sacraments would be available to him if he wanted them Am I wrong or being too nice?

  16. Liv B.

    What is scarcely heard on Catholic social media, ect., is that the church does allow for marriage separation in some cases. Where there is any kind of verbal, mental or physical abuse. If one of the spouses has an addiction problem, with drugs or alcohol, it is very possible that the children will grow up and follow that path, or become depressed and/or suicidal. Such extreme verbal/mental abuse also affects physical health of spouse and or children (stress affects the physical nerves, etc.). Here is what the Catholic church teaches:
    2383 The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law.177


    1649 Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond which remains indissoluble.159

    2383 The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law.176
    If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.


    3. Grave danger in common conjugal life (c. 1153 § 1)

    According to c. 1153 § 1, there is a legitimate cause for separation when a spouse makes common life too difficult. Making the common life unduly difficult is a generic expression that indicates a series of varied circumstances that can make conjugal cohabitation very difficult or impossible. With this expression, the legislator makes way for all those manifestations of cruelty-verbal or physical abuse, harshness, and lack of consideration towards another-that produce a common life that is practically impossible.

    Physical cruelty includes violent conduct and physical aggression against one’s spouse or one’s material assets, cruel or merciless treatment through beating, etc. Moral cruelty involves offensive conduct, in word, act, or omission, against the dignity, honor, and feelings of the person, through slander, insults, disregard. For separation due to physical or moral cruelty to be lawful, the following conditions are necessary:

    – it must be grave, such that it makes common life dangerous for the spouse or children;

    – it must be repeated, because if it were merely occasional, it would not create the fear for future common life, which justifies the separation;

    – and separation must constitute the only means of avoiding the danger involved in common life.

  17. Nana Sue

    My daughter eloped to Vegas 13 years ago to get civilly married. Year later civil divorce. I was told she would not need an annulment because the marriage was not a sacramental one. Is this true?

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