ASK FATHER: Is the “annulment” process in the US just a rubber stamp?

From a reader…


I have a quick question so I’ll keep this message short. Knowing several Catholics in my childrens’ Catholic school who have been divorced and remarried after getting an annulment, I wonder how to explain it all to my kids, and I begin to feel as if the annulment process in the US is a rubber stamp, basically. I know of no one who has ever had their annullment request rejected… [… Here’s where is stops being short…]

It’s one thing to have the whole culture against me, but it feels like the majority of the Church is against me too, and that makes me sad, angry, and frustrated. I’m just curious what your experience with marriage tribunals are. Do I have it all wrong? Thanks.

Short answers sometimes require longer responses.  In this case I asked a working, experienced tribunal canonist for an opinion.

GUEST CANONIST RESPONSE (slightly edited):

I can only speak for the handful of tribunals I know personally in the US (my own, and the several others where I’ve served).

I do know of some tribunals that seem to be more like the “rubber stamp” variety — perhaps they are the majority.  But I also know some tribunals that try to follow the Church’s law.

Tribunals can only accept petitions for matrimonial nullity if it appears that there is some foundation to the allegation that the petitioner is making, namely, that he thinks his marriage is null.

By “foundation” we mean that we look for preliminary indications and/or evidence that something is seriously amiss — that is, that based upon the initial intake of information, one or both of the parties suffered from an incapacity to contract marriage as the Catholic Church understands it, or intended something that the Church does not regard as marriage.  The Church’s teachings on marriage apply to all people — non-Catholics as well as Catholics.

So, if a petition indicates that there wasn’t anything really wrong, that the parties just “grew apart,” or that one had an affair and the relationship between the parties was never able to heal after that, then we generally turn people away and do not accept the case.   Most people are shocked when a tribunal won’t even accept their case.

That being said, the cases we do accept are those where we already “see” something wrong:  that at the time of the wedding one of the parties was an active alcoholic or a drug abuser or addict, or was suffering from untreated serious mental illness, or had grown up in a chaotic environment where the parents jumped from marriage to marriage or live-in partner to live-in partner and gave no example of what commitment and fidelity is, or that one of the parties suffered abuse and/or trauma (physical violence, sexual abuse, etc.).  These things can — but do not always — render someone truly incapable of matrimonial consent as the Church understands it.

When it is not a question of incapacity, then we look at intention:  did one or both of the parties intend to have something that the Church does not regard as marriage?  Did they intend a so-called “open marriage,” or a “child-free” lifestyle, or did they want only a temporary arrangement (e.g., until one gets a green card or until one of the parties inherits money, half of which can then be obtained by divorce)?  Or did they use the marriage for some other purpose — a purpose other than marriage itself?

There are other grounds — such as “force and fear” or condition or error of quality of person — but these are rare.  Most cases are decided on incapacity or simulation of consent.

Even so, at least at the tribunals I know, it sometimes happens that halfway through the case it appears that there is not going to be enough evidence to prove the marriage null — witnesses who do not corroborate the petitioner’s claims, or a lack of medical or psychiatric or criminal records, etc.

So sometimes we have to ask the petitioner to withdraw the petition, as the evidence is simply not there.  Other times we let the case go into abatement for lack of action on the part of the parties.   This scenario too usually means a shocked and angry petitioner.

So, no — “annulments” are not there simply for the asking, at least not in my tribunal.

However, once we formally accept a case, the likely outcome is that a declaration of nullity will be granted, because we do not waste the tribunal’s resources on cases where it’s just a failed relationship and there is no reason to believe the presumption of the validity of the marriage can be overturned.  In that sense, I can see how some people regard our work as involving a foregone conclusion.  But it’s a bit more complex than that.

Fr. Z adds: I am grateful for that good response.

Here is another, just in from another canonist with many years of tribunal experience:


I am always loathe to speak in generalities about something that is so individualized as a marriage nullity case. Of course, my preferences matter little in the grand scheme, and there are some general conclusions that can be drawn.

First off, a matter of terminology. We speak of “annulments,” whereas canon law utilizes the term “declaration of nullity.” It may seem a pedantic point, but it is an important one. An “annulment” almost sounds like something positive – something the Church either grants or withholds. Using that term, we become accustomed to sentences like: “The Church hands out too many annulments!” or “You can get an annulment if you pay enough money.” or “I’m a good person and I want to be a good Catholic, why can’t the Church give me an annulment?”

Using the Church’s terminology is more helpful – a declaration of nullity. It is a declaration, based on a canonical investigation and rendered after the judge or judges arrive at firm moral certitude that, in the case presented, the nullity of the bond of marriage has been proven. It is, if you will, a diagnosis.

Let’s take the analogy of a medical diagnosis a step further. Dr. Bombay is a cancer specialist. He sees 15 patients one day, reads their medical charts, conducts an examination, mulls over the evidence and concludes that 13 of the 15 patients he sees have cancer. “Heavens!” The neighbors cry, “Dr. Bombay is simply rubber stamping all these cancer diagnoses! He’s passing out cancer like it’s candy!”

Now, it may be that Dr. Bombay is a bad doctor – and he sees cancer where it truly isn’t, or he issues diagnoses of cancer for immoral purposes, such as lining his pockets with profit.

Or, it could be that there is a wave of cancer sweeping through the town where Dr. Bombay operates.

Or, it could be that the only folks who truly have cancer come to seek Dr. Bombay’s diagnosis. If someone is healthy, why would they go see Dr. Bombay in the first place?

Let’s apply that to the situation on the ground in America. We have had a several-generation long assault on marriage, dating at least as far back as the legalization of contraception, through the promotion of the notion of no-fault divorce, free love, premarital sexual activity and cohabitation, up to the recent redefinition of marriage by the Supreme Court to include same-sex relationships. Almost no one has been immune to this full court press. Is it any wonder that the divorce rate has skyrocketed? Is it any wonder that even good, solidly raised Catholic men and women approach the altar with grave psychological defects, or a warped understanding about the indissolubility and integrity of the matrimonial bond?

The majority of officials working in marriage tribunals are good, sincere, and highly educated individuals. Yes, some of them may be lazy, incompetent, ill-intentioned, like our putative Dr. Bombay may be. The vast majority, in my experience, are solid canonists, swimming through a sea of the matrimonial cancer that so tragically infects our society. They see their work, on a daily basis, impugned by the left and the right (they’re either “too easy and liberal,” or they “put up too many roadblocks to people who just want to live their lives). They read case after case shot through with sin, abuse, immaturity, infidelity, and material sometimes so disgusting that, even if they weren’t bound by oaths of confidentiality they would not want to share in polite company. And they soldier on – not because they’re raking in generous salaries and cushy benefits, not because they’re earning heaps of praise, but because they are committed to Christ the Lord, His teaching on the indissolubility of the matrimonial bond, and the Church He founded which still upholds those teachings.

How do you raise children in a society where, it seems, so many putative marriages end up shipwrecked on the shoals of human intransigence?

#1 Live your commitment to your marriage with fervor, joy, love and lots of communication

#2 Point to relatives and friends in long-term marriages as example – “Philomena, wouldn’t it be awesome to be like Aunt Patty and Uncle Phineas who just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary? I hope you and your future husband have a marriage like that, unless you find out that the Lord has called you to that Carmelite monastery we visited last month when your mom and I took the family on that pilgrimage.”

#3 Pray for healthy marriages – pray for cultural sanity

#4 Don’t make fun of, or otherwise slam failed marriages to your children, but use them as examples for teaching, “Isn’t it so sad that Mr. and Mrs. Heavenrich decided to separate? I don’t know why it happened, and it’s not really our business to pry, but we should remember to pray for them very hard, it must be very sad for them. You should really make a point to be nice to Bobby Heavenrich in your class, it must be a tough time for him and he’ll need good friends.”

Fr. Z adds: Another good perspective, which makes an important, similar point.  What do you expect from a tribunal?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Bthompson says:

    In my experience, lack of sufficient maturity, seriousness, and understanding about Matrimony in our young people (due to bad catechesis, cohabitation, cultural decay, and we priests not preaching or preparing couples well) are at the root of as least as many anullments as, if not more than,”rubber stamp” tribunals.

  2. Matt R says:

    Also, whatever may be said for or against canonical form, it is still required for validity, and having that removes perhaps the easiest grounds for a decree of nullity. So, get the canonical ducks in a row!

  3. Ben says:

    I am one of the few Catholics who I know who has been through the Annulment process, and with my children in Catholic school it does make things interesting to explain at times. My ex-wife initiated it after the divorce. I wanted nothing to do with the process, and so she was able to use herself and her witnesses to present her case the way she wanted.
    For that reason, at times I questioned the validity of the Annulment itself, feeling much like the questioner. Through prayer I was able to trust and have faith that, no matter what was presented or said, the Holy Spirit guided the process.
    Children are smart. Explain to them the difference between divorce and annulment and they will understand. We don’t do them any favors by beating around the bush.

  4. Akita says:

    If it looks like a rubber stamp and smells like a rubber stamp and almost every divorced and remarried couple (meaning several) this gentleman encounters at his child’s school has obtained an annulment it’s likely that sadly they are given out like m &m candy. It appears as if the canonist above is swimming against the tide.

    [And I think this is a well-informed canonist who knows the score in quite a few dioceses.]

  5. wmeyer says:

    I have had reason to learn much about the process, as I had to petition the Tribunal before I came into the Church. Here is what I can tell you.
    1. In my case, it most assuredly was not a rubber stamp process. Much paperwork, and about 33 months, start to finish.
    2. In my wife’s case, also not rubber stamp, though my current pastor says it should have been handled under Pauline Privilege, rather than annulment. Again, much paperwork, and 36 months.
    3. In the case of a family member for whom I was a witness, much less paperwork, and elapsed time of 10 months.

    I can highly recommend Dr. Edward Peters’ book on the matter. It will help you to appreciate what is really happening.

    That said, will point out that the implementation of the process is up to each diocese, and that seems to me inequitable. The canons are universal, as should be the process under which validity of the marriage is adjudicated. There are also rather large diocesan differences in burden of documentation, processing time, and fees.

    As I was waiting, not altogether patiently, my counselor in my own parish kept telling me how much better it was than it had been, when a case might not be concluded in under a decade! I was not consoled.

    Fr. Z.: I am being careful in editing, as I am not being offered the preview button. Intentional change?

    [Thanks for proof reading. Yes, I was made aware that people could not post comments from their mobile phones because of the Preview step.]

  6. Fr. W says:

    In response to the “guest canonist”. This is well stated and my experience as well. I have served for many years of my priesthood as a Defender of the Bond, as a judge, as well as Judicial Vicar for a few years in my diocese. I really cannot add to what you have already stated. Judges are tasked with conducting an honest investigation of the nature of consent at the time of the wedding. We are required to come to moral certitude. And, we are accountable to God. Thank you for your comment.

  7. David says:

    As the guest canonist says, things must always have been different in different dioceses, but I can say that in situations I was aware of myself (i.e., I make absolutely no sweeping pronouncements about this), if a divorced and remarried person seriously and consistently showed evidence of wanting to live a complete life within the Church, grounds for annulment managed to be found. Of course one might reply that such evidence was lacking if the person did not conform to the marriage laws of the Church, but even thirty years ago there was a “people are weak” attitude that was silently accepted in these situations. Which is one of the great ironies of the “Amoris Laetitia” controversy, in that the Pope made into a public doctrinal crisis of major proportions something that was being handled privately without general alarm in the Church.

    Again, I make this comment solely out of a personal experience.

  8. swvirginia says:

    My annulment, from 30+ years ago, was certainly no rubber stamp. I had to answer two pages of questions, and my answers, which I made an effort to be thorough, ran more than twenty pages. It was difficult to get witnesses, but I managed to do that. It took about a year. The reflection and soul-searching it required was difficult, but it led me to a good marriage–three beautiful children, now grown, and a twenty-five year marriage–my wife died of cancer several years ago.

  9. baimac says:

    98.7 % Cases Decided Against Validity of Marriage (2012).
    According to statistics provided by the 2012 Official Catholic Directory and the Canon Law Society of America sixty-two active tribunals granted annulments in the first instance to 98.7 percent of the petitioners on average. These tribunals cover the population of half the Catholics in the U.S.
    SOURCE “The Current Marriage Crisis in the Light of the Original Creation and the Code of Canon Law.” RomanSymposium. Rome. 26 September 2015.

  10. JesusFreak84 says:

    Didn’t the Holy Father change the process earlier this year? I remember reading and wondering if more “rubber stamping” was going to be done by already-overworked Bishops =-\

  11. JuliB says:

    My SO went through the process and rec’d a declaration. I personally felt that it was a correct assessment, but disagreed with the reasons they cited. Oh well.

    I think what people need to keep in mind is that many people self-select out of the process after learning about the “grounds” (for lack of a better word) and the amount of work that goes into it. It was a difficult process, and they were pretty upfront about what they are looking at in terms of analysis.

  12. baimac says:

    With the non-profit organization Mary’s Advocates, I work to reduce unilateral no-fault divorce and support those who are unjustly abandoned. We teach respondents in nullity cases how to uphold their procedural rights in defending the validity of their marraige. Below is a comment from a participant in our e-mail support group. He describes the pastoral care that he imagines would be appropriate in a marriage crisis:

    So take the case of the man who commits unprovoked adultery.

    He then files for civil divorce so he can marry the woman with whom he is committing adultery.

    Then he goes to the Church and says, “I want my marriage investigated for validity.”

    What should happen is the tribunal should respond, “You have broken Divine and Canon law in committing adultery, in separating from your lawful spouse and in approaching the civil courts for a no fault divorce. Until these issues are addressed, you may not petition the tribunal for an investigation into the validity of your marriage.”

    Further, he should be fraternally corrected as well as his partner in adultery, and canon 915 should be applied to him if he refuses the correction and his partner in adultery. Continued effort should be made as prudence dictates to lead him to repentance.

    Now, if his wife were to approach the tribunal and ask for a investigation into the validity of the marriage, the tribunal should respond, “Do you wish for a permanent separation from your husband on account of the adultery, or can you be persuaded to reconcile with him if he should repent?” And if she wishes for a permanent separation and cannot be persuaded to be willing to reconcile, then the case could be accepted if there was reason to believe the marriage was invalid.

    But if there are children involved, extra effort should be made to reconcile the couple, and a time of waiting before accepting the case in the hope that time could bring about a reconciliation or show that reconciliation is not unlikely as wounds have time to heal and the good of the children is focused upon.

    What is done instead is that the cause of the separation and whether reconciliation is possible or likely is not considered at all. It is most unjust to the innocent spouse to allow the guilty spouse to question the validity of the marriage. Such a one has a biased interest in the marriage being declared invalid, and it gives them reason and hope to continue in their crime. It greatly impedes repentance.

    And you must remember, that even if the marriage is invalid, the normal thing would be to get married to the person you have been one flesh with and if there are children for their sake as well. It is in the power of the faithful with the help of grace to marry and be faithful, to avoid giving grave danger of body or soul to their spouse or children, and to avoid adultery.

    We are moral agents, with some exception for the truly insane and gravely mentally handicapped.

    There are cases where reconciliation is impossible. For example one spouse is serving a life sentence in prison.

    There are cases where it is unlikely. There are drug addicts and other forms of slavery that are hard to over come and most people don’t although perhaps this is because of a lack of will in our society to require drug rehabilitation and follow up monitoring, and similarly with the abuse of alcoholic drinks. And I would add pornography and fornication as well. These are crimes, (not according to our society), but they also have aspects of addiction that normally need outside help to prevent relapse.

  13. hwriggles4 says:

    About seven years ago, I was a witness in an annulment case. I turned in 11 pages of handwritten testimony that required much thought. I learned about the process, and the annulment was granted. One thing that helped was my friend began the annulment process literally within weeks after his civil divorce was finalized, and the grandmother of his ex wife acted as a witness in his behalf. This was a short marriage (18 months).

    One thing I learned was going back to the time of the wedding. Now I know why if someone filed for an annulment 20 years after a civil divorce was finalized, witnesses may be dead, and most people don’t have an incredible memory.

    That said, I wish more priests would say, “if you don’t have an annulment you should not be dating, because you are currently not available for a Sacramental marriage.” I do know people, including my friend, who received good advice and did not attempt to enter into a new relationship until a decree of nullity was received. Many who have gone through the annulment process said it was part of their healing process, and it brought them closer to the Church.

  14. ex seaxe says:

    I think this:- “lack of medical or psychiatric or criminal records” is a problem in justice. The lack of legal quality evidence does not mean that the facts claimed are untrue. But then I know even less about about canon law processes than I do about Anglo-American law. I suppose the tribunal is not looking for a criminal standard of guilt in judging a marriage.

  15. Cincinnati Priest says:

    With all due respect to some of our post-ers above, I think that two different things are being conflated: whether the process is time-consuming and perhaps emotionally difficult, on the one hand; vs. whether or not it is almost certainly going to be granted.

    By the use of the term “rubber stamp,” I believe that most people are referring to the near certainty that the declaration of nullity will be granted, rather than the length or complexity of the process to get there.

    In the former interpretation, it appears from the evidence of baimac that, in fact, it might well be a rubber stamp process.

    I am not a canonist, so I am not belittling the comments of our guests who are so trained. It would be interesting to observe what percent of cases were started but not finished (asked to be withdrawn). If the percentage is not very high, then according to baimac’s data, it would be hard to escape the conclusion that, in the U.S., for whatever reason (cultural, catechetical, etc.) we do in fact have a[n albeit lengthy] rubber stamp process.

    I am not sure that is good and just, but again, I am not canonically trained, beyond the basic education a priest receives in seminary.

  16. farrellapparel says:

    Dear Fr. Z, I would like to hear from a canonist who is not part of the annulment industrial complex and is not so much beholden to bishop politics. PS, since marriage is a public good, it is “our business to pry” when spouses separate, so as to avoid scandal and people’s reputation. This is done by info from decree (Can. 1152-53).

  17. Imrahil says:

    Dear David,

    in situations I was aware of myself […], if a divorced and remarried person seriously and consistently showed evidence of wanting to live a complete life within the Church, grounds for annulment managed to be found. […] even thirty years ago there was a “people are weak” attitude that was silently accepted in these situations. Which is one of the great ironies of the “Amoris Laetitia” controversy, in that the Pope made into a public doctrinal crisis of major proportions something that was being handled privately without general alarm in the Church.

    Your experience may be singular or exceptional, as other the other comments and the guest responses show.

    All the same, if it had been as you say it was, then even Pope Francis’s “bringing the problem out into the open” is preferable. I’m not saying what the Pope does is okay; especially his not addressing the issue in an open and straightforward manner, neither saying he hasn’t changed anything nor he has. But even that is better than to trust in the problem being solved quietly by annulments stemming from a “if we look close enough we’ll find something” attitude. Let the null marriages be annulled (or sanitized, of course), but that is that.

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