ASK FATHER: annulment of a same-sex “marriage”?

From a reader, wondering about the veracity of the following…


“Current Catholic canon law requires that if someone remarried in a heterosexual marriage seeks confirmation/baptism having previously been in a legally recognized same-sex marriage, they need an annulment of the same-sex marriage.


To even imagine treating consent exchanged between two men or two women as being anything like marriage is outside the scope of canon law, not to mention right reason.

A civil “same sex marriage” is, of course, no marriage at all.  It has no canonical effect whatsoever for the fact that marriage between two members of the same sex is, by definition, impossible.

What is this?  Yentl?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Sawyer says:

    I sure hope a priest didn’t write the statement about a prior SSM requiring annulment. Maybe it’s from a woefully ignorant lay DRE or pastoral assistant?

    I was trying to think of something even more obviously false and dumb than that statement. How about: if someone baptized as one gender changes identities to a different gender and name, he/she/ze must be baptized under his/her/zir new identity and name.

    Wanna bet there will be some people who would agree about rebaptism?

  2. Ages says:

    Same-sex “marriage” is simply a contractural agreement of two people to live in a state of repugnant sin, and to register the same in some godforsaken government filing cabinet.

    Such a thing can be annulled, but it occurs in the confessional and not in the bishop’s office.

  3. Justalurkingfool says:



  4. Joy65 says:

    See this is what happens when people go beyond the boundaries of what’s normal. NO SS “marriage” will ever happen in the Catholic Church so of no annulment of something that never happened can happen. I think people sit and think up ways to “stump” the Catholic Church/Faith to see how far they can get. They think if they pester the Church enough it will just get tired of fighting and say ok have it your way. well going strong for over 2000 years and not tired yet.

  5. richiedel says:

    I think one of the Greek philosophers said something along the lines of before going down the rabbit trail of addressing a false conclusion, show that the conclusion itself has no merit by pointing out any false premise(s). I would love to see that canon. I think the person with the QUAERITUR may be embellishing what the canon REALLY says.

  6. TonyO says:

    I wonder.

    To say that the first event was a “same sex wedding” is of course to say that there was no marriage involved. That’s obvious, and it doesn’t take a Church pronouncement to make that any clearer.

    But here’s the concern I have. Imagine 20 years down the road, and imagine that we have stopped putting sex on birth certificates due to gender madness and the outcry against “assignment”. Imagine that people don’t go around asking what sex a person is any more, and imagine that when you know someone only as a passing acquaintance socially, for some such persons you have a very hard time trying to figure out whether the person is a male or a female. Now imagine that you have heard that Person A married Person B, and you simply don’t know whether A and B are of the same sex or of different sexes. Three years pass, and they get a divorce, and a year later Person C sends you a wedding invitation at Catholic Church of the Wedding Bells, because C – your distant cousin – is getting married to Person A. And you hear through the grapevine that Fr. Pastor of the church is one of those loose types that do very little in terms of making sure the couple are properly prepared for marriage, such as making sure both are canonically available for marriage. And you wonder whether … A ever got an annulment … or needed an annulment … or what.

    The epistemic problem isn’t trying to know whether a same-sex wedding might result in a real marriage – of course it can’t. The epistemic problem is knowing whether it WAS a same sex wedding.

    The Church requires an annulment to be done even in the case where a Catholic gets “married outside the Church, without the blessing of a priest” (or deacon), even though under current canon law it is obvious that the so-called marriage was nothing of the sort because they did not have canonical form. As soon as you say “they got married outside the Church”, of course you know that it was not a valid marriage. The difficulty, though, is knowing whether they did or did not have canonical form, whether they did or did not have the Church’s blessing, because maybe you weren’t there. The provision of an annulment puts paid to that doubt: the Church declares that it was no marriage.

    Is it possible that we might in some cases need the same solution to the epistemic doubt about whether a wedding was a same-sex event?

  7. TonyO says:

    Not to mention the worry about whether a real marriage takes place if person D, who was born with male equipment but “declared herself female”, gets “married” to Person E who is also a female! And they go on to have a kid … and you don’t know if it was produced naturally, or … through IVF … or … BLAM my head just exploded.

  8. MrsMacD says:

    I guess, blech, he would need a legal divorce in order for his marriage in the Church to be legal.

  9. Malta says:

    That is hilarious! How can a “marriage” which never existed be annulled? We live in wacky times!

  10. Bthompson says:

    Although, the facts of one party’s previous attempt at “marriage” might be prudent to document in the canonical investigation prior to the couple’s (the formerly “gay” party and his girlfriend, or vice versa) upcoming wedding (Not to mention it would need to be addressed pastorally in the marriage preparation).

    The fact that one party had such a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of marriage and sex at one point in his life could constitute a doubt (or would in my mind) that would need to be overcome that he is capable if giving valid consent now. That is not to mention that if this issue in his past is not disclosed to the girlfriend, there could be trouble down the line.

    Not canonically required, but I would definitely take this precaution were they my parishoners.

  11. msmsem says:

    “How can a “marriage” which never existed be annulled?” – That’s precisely what a decree of nullity is though – a declaration that the presumed “marriage” never existed. Being technical, I know, but I think one can never be too technical with canon law…

  12. Simon_GNR says:

    Ages wrote:
    “Same-sex “marriage” is simply a contractural agreement of two people to live in a state of repugnant sin, and to register the same in some godforsaken government filing cabinet.”

    Just because two people of the same sex are “married” one cannot presume that there is any immoral sexual activity going on between them. They might be perfectly chaste but have decided to enter into a so-called “marriage” for reasons that do not involve sodomy or other sexual sins.

  13. Bthompson says:

    We investigate putative marriages (even when a documentary process is all that is needed, as in lack of form) because they at least potentially could be marriages in some scenarios. A “gay marriage” is not even analogous to marriage, no need to investigate anything.

  14. Chaswjd says:

    It seems to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot. Given the legal status of civil same sex marriage, there should be a divorce before a priest or deacon marries the person in a Catholic ceremony. One would not want to be party to the crime of civil bigamy.
    And given the Church’s position on same sex marriage, the subsequent annulment, if one is required, should get through the tribunal at something like warp 10. Something like a baptized Catholic coming to the tribunal to obtain an annulment when the prior marriage was celebrated in the woods with a Druid presiding and witnessed by the woodland creatures.

  15. Andrew says:


    It would be superfluous to seek declarations of nullity in cases lacking any potential of validity.

  16. Mike says:

    Back in the 1970s, one of the popular newspaper advice columnists (either “Dear Abby” or “Ann Landers”, I forget which) started getting oddball letters about personal problems that were peculiarly embarrassing by the standards of the day (not now!). After one or two had been answered in the paper, the prankster authors uncloaked themselves as Yale University undergraduates.

    I think you might have got pranked by a Yalie, Father.

  17. Sawyer says:

    To push the canonical questions further, what about someone who was previously in a male & female domestic partnership or civil union? Those exist and they’re not just for same-sex couples. A domestic partnership or civil union isn’t considered by the government to be a marriage even though it is legally identical to marriage in everything except for the name. Since it’s not a marriage, would a decree of nullity not be required? Would it be viewed in Canon Law as akin to a business relationship instead of a marriage? Or would Canon Law consider a domestic partnership or civil union to be de facto marriage in its form even if not in title or government recognition, and thus would require a decree of nullity? What about common law marriage?

  18. Ages says:

    Simon_GNR wrote:
    “Just because two people of the same sex are “married” one cannot presume that there is any immoral sexual activity going on between them.”

    I suppose anything is possible. But marriages of convenience—whatever sexes are involved—have always struck me as immoral, or at least extremely grey.

  19. Elizium23 says:


    It may be that we outsiders may assume good faith, and not accuse these couples of any impropriety. However, there are some operative Catholic principles involved here. First is the sin of scandal. If a couple of non-complementary sex contracts civil “marriage” to flout Church teaching, they have committed scandal and material heresy. Then, if they choose to cohabitate for any length of time, they commit more scandal. Furthermore, the canonical test for consummation of a marriage is whether the couple have lived together. If so, the couple is presumed to have consummated their marriage. It is beyond me why we should expect anything less from a pair of presumed homosexuals.

    So canonically, for the sake of Canon 915, I would say that a Minister of Holy Communion would have every right to deny the Sacrament to someone who has done these things, because yes, it is repugnant sin, whether or not it is in fact occurring, it is presumed and publicized and unrefuted.

  20. Elizium23 says:


    Are you trying to say that we should campaign to outlaw grey marriage?

  21. frjim4321 says:

    Before dismissing this question out-of-hand, let me suggest it is not quite as simple as it looks. For example, cannon law does not necessarily require that Defect of Form cases be referred to the Tribunal, and there are some dioceses in which the officiant is considered capable of making the determination of freedom to marry on the basis of the documents. With my province, such cases need to be submitted at the request of the local bishops, but this is not strictly required. So, it’s altogether possible that a local bishop may, indeed, for whatever possible reason, require that some kind of extra steps be required if a candidate for marriage was previous married to a partner of the same sex. For example, in a particular diocese the Information for Marriage form MAY ask if a partner to the marriage was previously married, including to a person of the same sex, and the bishop my request that his permission be sought if not for any other reason than to assure that appropriate premarital counseling has been successfully be undertaken.

    [They are NOT married in any sense that the Church understands.]

  22. frjim4321 says:

    yes, i am aware of the typos …

  23. Malta says:

    @ frjim: “Before dismissing this question out-of-hand, let me suggest it is not quite as simple as it looks.”

    Are you frigging kidding! The issue is as simple as it gets! A man cannot canonically marry a man. How simple is that?

    Come on dude, if you are a priest you should know canon law 101!

  24. Malta says:

    frjim, did they teach you in seminary: reductio ad absurdum or reduction to absurdity. It is not possible to nullify something which never existed.

  25. Nan says:

    That gave me a headache.

  26. Nan says:

    It’s a sin to purport to be married to another of the same sex.

  27. frjim4321 says:

    So, I guess you are not hearing what I’m saying, which is that a bishop has a duty to provide pastoral care, and may exercise his prerogative to assure that appropriate preparation for marriage is provided. This is done frequently in the case of a declaration of nullity being issued with a special provision for such. Let’s not get stuck on semantics, and focus our attention on the care of souls. [Words have meanings.] No matter what you call it, if a person was in a legal, civil marriage to a person of the same sex, and then they attempt marriage to a person of the opposite sex, special pastoral and/or professional counseling should be provided.

  28. APX says:

    As to the other issues proposed by people, the Church may have to eventually require DNA tests to prove what sex each party is. Such may also be required for ordination too. Supposedly there’s a transgendered sister in a convent somewhere too.

  29. William says:

    Asking for an annulment of a same-sex mar. is like asking about the validity of a baptism from the Salvation Army.

  30. gretta says:

    “Current Catholic canon law requires that if someone remarried in a heterosexual marriage seeks confirmation/baptism having previously been in a legally recognized same-sex marriage, they need an annulment of the same-sex marriage.“

    The wording in this is both wrong and misleading.

    The tribunal is not in this case making a determination whether the union is valid as they do in nullity petitions requiring a formal case. Here it is clear that there is not and never was a canonical marriage, like there is also not and never was a canonical marriage when a Catholic marries with an invalidating impediment. There is not even the possibility of sacramental marriage here. In these “documentary” cases, tribunals issue a lack of form decree due to the particular impediment. It simply declares that which already is known – there was never a marriage. It declares the reality. Since there is a civil divorce decree thus some sort of civil, legal “something” out there, it is wise for the Church to formally deal with it (and make sure that this “marriage” was in fact non-existent and for what reason).

    I can think of a number of reasons for a diocese to require that such a non-existent union formally declared to be null (declared, not determined). The most obvious is that when a person in such a union then desires to enter a heterosexual union, their civil documentation is going to indicate there was a prior marriage (with no indication what kind of civil marriage it was). In the tribunal, each prior civil union must be dealt with separately. Simply issuing a decree that that prior civil “marriage” is null ensures that the union has been examined and dealt with “officially” by the tribunal. It isn’t to give the null marriage the “color” of validity. And if there is a marriage certificate that Bill and Stevie have married and divorced, the tribunal is going to want to be sure who Bill and Stevie are, and make sure that the parties aren’t actually a male and female needing a of formal case.

    So while it seems patently obvious that there is not even the color of a sacramental marriage there the civil documentation is going to confuse the issue, which pushes the tribunal to need to examine each and every “marriage” to determine what the actual situation is and how it is handled.

    Also, since there are now often children being raised in same-sex unions, the tribunal is also going to want to make sure that their needs (current child support, etc.) are being met before giving the person permission to marry in the Church.

    Finally, since it can be really difficult (not impossible, just difficult) for a person with same-sex attraction to validly enter into a heterosexual union, having the documentation of a same sex civil marriage already in the tribunal files can be useful if in a few years the new heterosexual union falls apart and one of the parties files for a declaration of nullity.

  31. michaelthoma says:

    I’m sorry but this is as obvious as it gets. As Cardinal Arinze says, a child can figure this out, it does not take a Cardinal with 2 PhDs in theology.

    For those arguing that an annulment is needed, let me offer an analogy:

    Would someone who’s a member of “Church’s” Chicken meal club need to confess to apostasy since the Chicken joint is not a Catholic Church? Technically, they’ve joined a group that’s outside the Catholic Church and uses the word Church in it’s title.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that using a word outside it’s intended ecclesial usage and then forcing the Church to accept the errant usage as the “norm”, even when popular to contemporary society, is not correct way to go about it. A representative of the Church should know better. Otherwise, we can go willy-nilly on clerical terms like “Father”, using it for the fry cook at the chicken joint.

  32. TonyO says:

    Then, if they choose to cohabitate for any length of time, they commit more scandal. Furthermore, the canonical test for consummation of a marriage is whether the couple have lived together. If so, the couple is presumed to have consummated their marriage. It is beyond me why we should expect anything less from a pair of presumed homosexuals.

    Perhaps because the “canonical test” for consummation of a marriage between heterosexuals is whether they have lived together, because the REALITY of consummation is the completed conjugal act. There is an implicit assumption there: two people of different sexes, not related by family, old enough to have sex, are (or may be presumed to be) living together in order to have sex. And two people of the same sex cannot under any circumstances complete the conjugal act. So it would be idiotic to apply the same presumption to them. Since they cannot possibly complete the conjugal act, there is no reason to make an assumption that if they are living together they are engaging in the conjugal act.

    It also makes an interesting case for a same-sex spouse who wants out of a “marriage”, they might very well be able to apply to the STATE for an annulment (yes, some states also have annulment procedures) on the grounds of non-consummatum.

    It is very sad that so many of the commenters cannot understand the nature of a decree of nullity, which is not to nullify an existing marriage, but to state for the public record the official determination that no marriage ever existed to begin with. This is important because the public rightly grants the presumption in favor of an apparent marriage that followed due form, that is, we presume that it really is a marriage. It takes the determination by the Church (via the tribunal) and the declaration of its finding, to overcome that presumption.

    There is no need for a formal determination where there is already satisfactory evidence that there is no basis for the presumption in favor of a marriage having been contracted. But in addition to such determinations, there can exist other situations (both in hetero and same-sex situations) where there is a social and public advantage in having a formal statement (without the burden of a formal determination) by the Church that no marriage existed, even if (were one to know the facts) it would always be obvious that no marriage existed: sometimes “the facts” are not always obvious or readily available to the public involved. The diocese or the tribunal or the Church provides a service for us in merely making known clearly what MIGHT have been knowable through other sources.

    There is also in the comments above a presumption that the gay couple will have gotten a civil “marriage” but of course it won’t be a Church wedding. Fortunately, at least so far, Catholic churches and pastors have been very good about declining to do pretend-weddings for gays. But it is a virtual certainty that there will be some flaky, heretical, disobedient priest who pretends to do a wedding for gays, and there will be SOME Catholics who will get confused by this and need help in sorting out the truth. A definite statement from the diocese (upon later need for real marriage prep) that the former event did not really contract a marriage could help be part of that help such confused Catholics need.

    It is not impossible for the Church to adopt a “belt and suspenders” approach in situations like this: OF COURSE it is true that a gay “wedding” cannot contract a real marriage, but ALSO, a statement “we hereby state definitively that no marriage was contracted between X and Y” can settle the issue if a person (for example) doesn’t separately know that X and Y are the same sex.

  33. Depries says:

    As a Judicial Vicar, if such a situation came before me, I would first contact the Church of Baptism of the Catholic party to see whether he/she was married before to a member of the opposite sex. If not, I would simply supply a letter of freedom to marry without any mention of nullity since it is impossible for a SS couple to contract marriage and thus there is nothing to declare null. I would caution (and have done so in all such cases that have come before me) the officiating priest of the proposed marriage that he should do his best to ensure that a probable SS attraction does not prevent the relevant party from intending the bonum conjugum of the upcoming marriage, or that Canon 1095 is not in some way compromised. If so, then I would advise against his assisting at such a marriage as the party may be, in the words of the Canon, incapable of contracting the Sacrament of Matrimony.

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