From a reader…
My diocese’s website says, “A declaration of nullity does not say that the marriage never existed,” yet the site also says that a declaration of nullity means “that the marriage was invalid from the moment of the wedding.” These statements seem contradictory. Can it be the case that the marriage both existed and was always invalid, or is one of these statements in error?
The Church refers to a marriage which has been declared null as a “putative marriage”. There was something that resembled a matrimonial covenant, but, in fact, there was really no marriage. Sometimes even well-meaning people speak of the work of an ecclesiastical tribunal as dealing with the sacramentality of marriage, and determining whether or not a specific marriage was sacramental. This is incorrect. Tribunals examine sacramental marriages (marriages between two baptized persons) and natural marriages (those marriages wherein at least one of the parties is non-baptized).
The question before a tribunal is: “Has this marriage been proven to be invalid because of [ENTER SPECIFIC ALLEGATION(S)].”
Let’s not say that the diocesan website is in error, but it is certainly unclear.
A declaration of nullity does say that what appeared to be a marriage for however many years, really wasn’t a marriage. In declaring it to be invalid, the Church does not erase history. There was something there that had the appearance of a marriage. People of good faith were right to treat it as such. If both parties, during the course of the common life, truly thought themselves to be married, then, all things being equal, [read carefully] they were not guilty of the sin of fornication when they engaged in sexual relations with each other. Children born to such a putative marriage are legitimate. This status is not affected by a subsequent dclaration of nullity (can. 1137). Any contracts entered into by the spouses of a putative marriage as spouses remain in effect (subject to the arrangements of the civil law, can. 22).