Sometimes, marriages fail, even when they start off with a solid footing and the best intentions. It's difficult when this happens, and it can feel even more overwhelming for Catholics, who believe that marriage is an indissoluble bond. When a marital relationship cannot be saved, civil law offers the option of divorce. If you know the Church's teachings, however, you know that divorce only pertains to civil (secular) law. Even with a divorce, a couple will still be seen as married in the eyes of the Church. For Catholic individuals who want to remarry in the Church, or who want that relationship nullified in the eyes of the Church for any other reason, the answer is to seek a nullity of marriage decree, commonly called an annulment. But how does that process work and who can grant an annulment?
The Annulment Process
The Church teaches that marriage is a sacramental union, which is why it is not something we can just end. However, there are certain elements that are necessary for a sacramental marriage. The necessary elements of a sacramental marriage include: both individuals must freely consent, the must intend to marry for life, they must intend to be faithful to each other and be open to the idea of children, they must intend to be good to each other, and they must make these vows before witnesses and a Church-appointed official. If any of those elements were not present when the vows were said, the marriage is considered to not be a sacramental marriage, and this not valid in the eyes of the Church.
The key element to keep in mind is that the annulment investigation looks specifically at the couple's relationship at the time their wedding vows were said. Those elements could be missing later — for example, if one of the couple enters into an extra-marital affair later on — but if all of those elements were present when the vows were made, the marriage will still be considered a sacramental, unbreakable union. Because the annulment process hinges on what was in the minds and hearts of the couple when they said their vows, not just in their actions, there isn't a good way to streamline the annulment process. There are a few exceptions recognized by the Church, but by-and-large, each marriage is investigated on a case-by-case basis. To do this, the petitioner will need to provide testimony about their relationship, and they will also need to gather testimony from family and friends who were close to the couple before and at the time of the wedding. This information is reviewed by a Church tribunal to determine if there are possible grounds for an annulment, and if there is, the relationship is investigated more thoroughly.
Who Can Grant an Annulment?
The Church tribunal, which is a group made up of Church-appointed judges, will go through all of the testimony provided. They may call upon individuals to provide further information in order to make their decision. Just like someone is innocent until proven guilty in civil courts, a marriage is considered valid and sacramental until it can be shown otherwise. At that point, the final assessment is made. If the marriage is seen as invalid or non-sacramental, a declaration of nullity will be issued.