For the past several weeks, we have been looking into the great beauty of the sacrament of Matrimony and the many graces that Jesus gives to married couples through this sacrament. However, human sin is still very much a part of our everyday life, and all relationships are affected by sin. This has negative effects on marriages. You may have heard the word “annulment” used in the conversation about Catholics and divorce. My intention with this column is to briefly explain the distinction between a divorce and an annulment and hopefully dispel a few misconceptions.
It is true that that Catholic Church does not allow for divorce, and this is for a very simple reason: Jesus condemned divorce by his teachings. He said, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). Moses allowed for divorce in his teachings, but the words of Jesus explain why this is no longer the case: “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). In the same conversation, Jesus said, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matthew 19:6). God is the one who joins a couple together in a sacramental marriage, and human beings have no authority to separate what he has joined.
A declaration of nullity is not the same thing as a divorce. A declaration of nullity declares that a marriage never took place to begin with. This declaration can be granted for several reasons. A common reason is that the marriage did not take place in the Church. (Read last week’s article for why Catholics must get married in the Church.) Another reason why a Catholic could seek a declaration of nullity from the Church is that one of the spouses on the wedding day was not capable of entering into marriage, or simply lied at the statement of the vows. At the wedding, both the bride and groom promise to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, etc. Tragically, some people later find out that their (apparent) spouse had actually lied on the wedding day, because they were having an affair at the time of the marriage. Sometimes, a man or woman is not psychologically capable of entering into a marriage, but this is not discovered until later on. There are priests, psychologists, and laypeople who are trained to help investigate situations like these to determine whether a failed marriage ever took place to begin with.
There are some situations when Catholics can and should seek a physical separation or even a legal divorce from their spouse. In a case where one of the spouses is abusive, it is best for the physical and spiritual well-being of the spouses that they live separately for a time or permanently. However, a legal divorce does not mean that the sacrament of matrimony never took place. It is possible that even a sacramental marriage can fall apart because of the presence of sin and the choices that people make. Even if a Catholic seeks a legal divorce, the Church still considers that person to be married sacramentally. This is not in itself a reason to stop coming to Church or stop receiving Holy Communion. However, a Catholic is not free to enter another marriage unless a declaration of nullity is granted by the diocese.
Talking about divorce and annulments is not easy. We do not live in a perfect world, and some marriage situations are admittedly complicated. However, God gives many graces to married couples, and it is worth the time and effort to make sure that the marriages among our parishioners are valid and receiving all the graces that God desires to give them.