A Catholic annulment is the process of investigating whether a marriage is valid in the eyes of the Church — it is not just “Catholic divorce.” During an annulment, the process investigates whether or not all of the elements needed for a sacramental marriage were present when the vows were said. Because it's a deeper look into a specific relationship, there are a wide array of different reasons annulments may be granted. However, even with as different as each relationship is, there are still some common reasons an annulment will be granted.
What Makes a Sacramental Marriage
In order to understand why an annulment might be granted, we first have to look at the intention behind the annulment process. In a civil divorce, there may not need to be a reason for the split beyond the couple deciding to divorce. That's distinctly not how an annulment works! The Church teaches that marriage is an indissoluble union; the only way to "end" a marriage (and we use this phrasing very loosely) is to demonstrate that one of the necessary elements of a sacramental marriage wasn't there when the couple said their vows — thus showing that a true, sacramental marriage never actually existed.
The necessary elements for a sacramental marriage include:
- That both spouses are free to marry, capable of consenting, and freely give their consent,
- That both spouses have the intention to marry for life (no matter what might actually happen later),
- That both spouses promise to be open to the idea of children,
- That both spouses intend to be good to each other,
- And that both spouses give their consent to all of those things in the presence of a Church-authorized minister and two witnesses.
If one of the above elements is missing, the marriage is not a sacramental marriage. So, with that in mind, the most common reasons for an annulment are those that show that a sacramental marriage wasn't actually there when vows were said. The Church recognizes 12 specific impediments to marriage that would nullify the vows made. That list includes things like being too young, having received holy orders, or being impotent. If one of those 12 impediments exists, the marriage is considered to not be a sacramental marriage. In addition to those specific impediments, however, the necessary elements also need to be met.
Common Reasons for an Annulment
As you can probably surmise from the above list, the most common reasons an annulment is granted are those reasons that clearly show a sacramental marriage didn't exist. So, for example, if one of the partners is infertile, whether they learned of it before or after the wedding took place, the union could be considered non-sacramental. Another common example is infidelity. Whether one partner was having an extra-marital affair at the time of the wedding or not, if there was never an intention to be faithful, that could lead to an annulment. An example that is less common than it used to be, is if one of the spouses was underage when the wedding took place, even with their guardian's permission, the marriage could be ruled as non-valid.