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The Difference Between a Divorce and an Annulment

Bulletin Article by Fr. David Kime

A Message From Fr. Kime - Oct. 3, 2021

In today’s Gospel Jesus talks about the original purpose of marriage. I’d like to clarify a few of the concerns around marriage and the difference between divorce and an annulment. First, I’d like to start with a note of compassion. The Church always has the desire to defend and assist a marriage so that it does not dissolve into divorce. The overarching desire of the Church is to save a marriage because of the example of permanence. However, sometimes a divorce can actually be the best choice for a couple. The experience of divorce is always painful. A person’s hopes and expectations are lost and many people admit to feeling a sense of failure because of divorce. The pain of divorce reminds us that something is always lost. Nevertheless, there are times when it is the only option. The Church does not condemn people who suffer this trying experience, rather the Church seeks to assist them and help them and console them in the midst of their experiences.

Today Jesus talks about the indissolubility of marriage. As Catholics we believe that a valid marriage does not end until the death of one of the spouses. A valid marriage can only end at the moment of death because it is at that moment that the vow is ended. “I will love and honor you from this day forward till death do us part.” The vows made in marriage are made for life therefore when one party passes from this world to the next the moral obligation of fidelity to that person ceases.

Nevertheless, we all know that the pain of divorce is a reality for many Catholics. People then naturally ask, “What does the Church really teach about marriage and divorce?” “Is divorce the same thing as an annulment?” “Isn’t an annulment just a fancy Catholic word for civil divorce?”

Let us consider what an annulment actually is. First, it is not “Catholic Divorce.” It is actually the opposite. An annulment is a declaration that a valid marriage never took place. It is not permission to leave your legally wedded spouse but rather a declaration that the spousal union never took place. When a person enters into a valid, sacramental marriage, no power on heaven or earth can destroy the bond. However, it sometimes happens that people have a ceremony and from the outside it looks like a valid marriage, but it isn’t. There was a Church and a Mass, and a priest and the vows were spoken correctly. It appears to the casual observer to be a real marriage but upon investigation, the Church declares that something was missing from the beginning that prevented the bond from happening.

When the Church declares a marriage null or grants an annulment, she is saying that no valid, sacramental marriage ever existed. This does not affect the status of the children or in any way reduce the beautiful things that the couple may have shared. The Church declares the marriage “null;” that it never took place. The Church says that while it appeared to be a real marriage, nevertheless because something essential was absent, what looked real never actually took place. This declaration of nullity or annulment says that the bond that was supposed to have happened - because of some defect - did not happen. Therefore if the person wants to get married “a second time,” it is actually not a second marriage but rather a first marriage because the original ceremony did not cause an actual, sacramental, life-long bond.

There are a lot of reasons why the Church may declare a marriage null. There may have been a misunderstanding about the permanence of marriage; a lack of discretionary judgment that prevented a person from making a real commitment; emotional immaturity or some coercion and force that was exerted on one of the persons getting married; and many other causes besides these. I think the important point to keep in mind is simply this: The Catholic Church believes in the permanence of marriage as a beautiful image of God’s love for the world, but there are times, when a marriage appears valid but may not be valid because something was lacking from the beginning. It is only the Church who has the authority to make this decision.

If a Catholic person ultimately ends up in divorce, it is important that the person ask the Church to investigate the validity of the marriage to see if the marriage was invalild from the first moment so that they can pursue a new relationship. If the marriage is declared null, then the person can marry “again” or really for the first time. Until a marriage is declared null a Catholic is not free to attempt a second marriage. Further, Catholics who were previously married and “remarry” without a declaration of an annulment are not free to receive communion until they are validly married by the Church - following an investigation and a declaration of nullity. These persons are certainly invited to participate in Mass every weekend; they are members of the faithful; they have a beautiful place in the Body of Christ and of his Church, but they should not present themselves for communion.

As a final note, if anyone reading this article is in need of an annulment, please come and speak with me. I want to help you. The Church wants to help you in your healing process. Many, many people who enter the process of annulment say that it is a very healing process. They are finally able to let go of guilt and experience a new freedom. Our God is a God of love, and this world is messy, it is for this reason that God gave the Church to the world to help us in the midst of the pain and trials of this life to know that there is something greater than this world: the redeeming love of Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Rev. Dave Kime


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