ASK FATHER: Griping about canon lawyers and marriage “annulments”

From a reader…


My experience is that any marriage can be annulled on the grounds of gross immaturity or mental defect. (Didn’t know “porneia” was Greek for these terms….) And when canonists are asked about church laws regarding the responsibility of  priest and bishops to help reconcile marriages they says things like that’s old and we don’t do that anymore.

How can a church law be ignored because people stopped doing what they are supposed to be doing?

BTW it seems like many cannon lawyers are divorce lawyers.


The two most common complaints about marriage tribunals are that 1) they grant too many annulments and 2) they don’t grant enough annulments.

Often, both complaints come from the same person. During my time as a lay canonist (two n’s, not three, thank you), I once met a priest. When I told him that I worked at the marriage tribunal, he said, “Oh, so you’re one of the folks who are destroying our marriages,” and turned and walked away. Three years later, when a case involving a member of his family received a negative decision, this same priest called me up and read me the riot act on the phone.

The complaints about tribunals granting too many or too few annulments come from looking at the situation in the wrong way. Judges don’t “grant” or “withhold” annulments as if they were some sort of favor. They are a judgment, based on the law and the facts presented before the Court. The facts presented might be flawed (people lie, people misremember), but they are what we have to go on.

A more helpful analogy is, perhaps, a medical diagnosis. A good doctor examines the patient, asks pertinent questions, perhaps does a few tests, then draws on his knowledge of medical conditions to come up with a diagnosis. His diagnosis might be wrong, despite his best efforts. The patient could be concealing some important factors, or there may be medical developments or conditions about which the doctor does not know. That’s why it’s generally good to get a second opinion before making important medical decisions.

If the local doctor examines 50 people and finds that 48 of the fifty patients have cancer, we don’t generally jump to the conclusion, “Dr. Gilligan is handing out cancer diagnoses like candy!” Instead, we start asking ourselves, why do so many people in this town have cancer?

A good tribunal (and most of them are good) examines the parties – interviews are conducted, evidence is examined, witnesses are called, often a psychological review is conducted. Unlike in the medical field, it is very rarely the case that only one canonist examines the case. Ideally, a degreed Defender of the Bond and three degreed Judges are involved in the case. If a majority of the judges find sufficient evidence for nullity, an affirmative decision is given. In the recent past, an automatic appeal to a second court was made. Now that appeal is optional, but a reasonable option for a party who disagrees with the decision.

The seemingly large number of affirmative cases in the United States and much of the Western world doesn’t say as much about the quality of canon lawyers and tribunal staff as it does about the travesty of marriage in our society. A society that treats marriage as disposable (and yes, the Church failed utterly when States first started introducing no-fault divorce), impermanent, and merely some sort of social contract allowing for guilt-free sex between two persons of whatever gender, it is entirely understandable that few young people have a clear understanding of the covenant they are entering into, and so many of them come from backgrounds that are so dysfunctional that their ability to sustain, let alone understand a mature adult relationship is severely damaged.

It is true that the Church urges pastors and those involved in nullity cases to try to assist couples with reconciliation whenever possible. Experience has shown that, by the time someone is considering filing for a declaration of nullity, reconciliation is difficult if not impossible. Pastors – and laity – have a lot of work to do in forming young people to understand what marriage is, how to find a suitable partner, and what the commitment of marriage is truly about. Throwing stones at canonists is much easier.

Anecdotal “evidence” to completely demolish what I’ve said above coming in three…, two…, one…

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. There is a subtle but significant difference in referring to “annulments” versus “decrees of nullity.” Instead of rushing onto the next sentence or paragraph, pause now and contemplate what each of those terms suggests.

    “Annullment” implies, I think, that something is “annulled” or undone, unmade. A “decree of nullity,” on the other hand, suggests a statement about something being “null,” which is more neutral. If I look into a jar and declare that it is empty, that’s rather different from my actively emptying it, is it not? Similarly, I suspect many people think the tribunal, or more broadly, the Church, is “emptying” an otherwise valid marriage of it’s reality — nullifying it — and they rightly take offense. But in fact, all the tribunal can do is take a really close look to see if what was presumed valid turns out to be lacking in something essential: null. So the language of “decree of nullity” is better, I think.

    With every couple I assist in approaching the altar, I wonder if they really are ready, and the truth is, I cannot be sure. Occasionally I get really flagrant red flags, and I call the couple’s attention to them. But the priest is not the one who decides. The most I might do is refuse to officiate — which I’ve never done, because I’ve never had a couple who didn’t respond, seemingly appropriately, to my cautions. I remember one couple in particular who could have clothed themselves very modestly in all the red flags; but in the end, their answers were (minimally) satisfactory, so the wedding went forward. After all, I am not infallible. Sure enough, the marriage ended up foundering as I feared and warned. I don’t know if they sought a decree of nullity, but I’d be extremly surprised if it weren’t granted. If you knew the facts, I think you’d expect so, as well. And you might say it’s my fault for not refusing to receive their vows, and perhaps you are right, but they were both mature adults and I am not gifted with omniscience. The decision, finally, must be theirs. Only they can really say whether they have the right dispositions.

    Every time I prepare a couple, I keep notes and if I see anything concerning, I note it. I’ve even added notes after the wedding if anything seemed amiss. You would hope that people wouldn’t go through with it if they had doubts or fears, but is it really so surprising that people surpress their doubts in such circumstances, and act with something less than sufficient freedom? And I’m not even going into all the things that can poison our ability to make a true gift of self, or render us essentially immature, despite our earthly years.

  2. The Astronomer says:

    I will not identify my archdiocese for privacy reasons. When my wife went to petition for a decree of nullity from her previous Protestant marriage, she was on very sound ground. In addition to her husband’s profligate use of illegal narcotics, physical violence, and blatant infidelity, her ‘husband’ insisted on their wedding night that she take birth control because he “didn’t want any inconvenient mistakes showing up in nine months.” She spent the evening sick on the floor of the hotel bathroom. Years later, (after he was remarried with children) he testified in writing to the tribunal about his immaturity and the accuracy of her allegations.

    What has bitterly driven my wife out of the Church (and enthusiastically into the New Age practices of some wingnut named Neville Goddard) was the way she was interrogated by the Monsignor in charge of her petition. He made her verbally recount, several times, over and over, in graphic detail the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in her (less-than-five-months-duration) marriage. The Monsignor effectively re-traumatized her twelve years after the fact. The nullity petition was granted after eighteen months, but by then, I was going to Mass alone. She has not stepped foot inside a Church in over eight years.

    Prayers, please…

  3. ChiaraDiAssisi says:

    Astronomer, I am so very sorry. Will pray for you and your wife.

  4. The original Mr. X says:

    I don’t know if the author would count this as “anecdotal ‘evidence'”, but here’s an interview with a psychological consultant for an annulment tribunal who takes a less sanguine view of the whole situation: It’s quite long, so here are a few quotes to get the feel of it:

    “As I went through the process of training to become a psychological assessor for the tribunal and learned more about the requirements for annulment, I began to think that a loophole could be found for every marriage. Based on the requirements, I could conceivably make a case for any marriage being null


    What seems to have occurred in the annulment process over the years is that the threshold for psychological maturity has been lowered. Additionally, it seems that the tribunal searches for instances of immaturity during the courtship in order to justify the annulment rather than presuming the innate orientation of persons to marriage. Benedict XVI has much to say on this innate orientation, and on the distinction between psychological maturity and canonical maturity, and he cites John Paul II on how a person’s psychology does and does not affect one’s ability to confect a marriage […]

    As I sat for some of my first observations of the petitioners’ in-person recorded interviews with the judge and the Defender of the Bond, I noticed something immediately that made me question the validity of the process. The judge, in his questioning of a petitioner, used leading questions—questions that set up the petitioner to answer in a particular way. For example, “You didn’t really understand what you were getting into, did you?” “You seem like you didn’t really know each other that well. Isn’t that true?” etc. As a psychologist who conducts interviews with clients often and who has also been involved in research studies on questioning protocols, I know well that this type of questioning is a huge problem. I have no way of knowing whether or not it was the judge’s intention to asking leading questions, but, regardless, this skews the results of the interview data.

    Another red flag for me was the sense I got that the goal of the process was to grant the annulment. While a more objective process would be to get to the truth of the matter, there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that we were not to rock the boat, and that our comments on the psychological report should support the view that the marriage was invalid. While no one ever explicitly spoke those words, it was quite clear to me from the way our training was handled. It was also clear that certain judges had more of an agenda than others. For example, we were told, “Judge X tends to like to push them through more.” Along with this came the unspoken expectation that we were to write our reports a certain way. I sensed that the most important thing was to please the judge rather than to seek the truth: “How can I find a way to fit this person’s story to Canon 1095 so that the annulment will go through easily and I won’t ruffle any feathers…?””

  5. TonyO says:

    I agree with both Fr. Ferguson and Fr. Fox, above. Nevertheless, I have a point of caution and a question. Commonly the grounds of a determination that no marriage was in fact achieved are spoken of as “lacking essential maturity” and such like. What I wonder is whether in some tribunals (whether few or many, I don’t know) the sense of what kind of maturity is needed is set too high – in such wise that most marriages throughout all of history would have been null.

    I seems to me that the first level of difficulty is actually understanding the terms of the vows: that the vows ACTUALLY DO mean permanence, faithfulness, and openness to life. If both members of the couple are capable of understanding that “yes, the Church really does mean for life, not the earlier of life or we don’t have fun together anymore. Etc. While there are undoubtedly a few people who cannot be convinced (regardless of what Fr. says) out of believing that the Church says these things with a wink and a nod, presumably fewer even of these can ESTABLISH they thought that in the face of Fr. saying it over and over.

    The harder one, I suppose, is whether a person who is making a vow of fidelity is capable of intending fidelity. And here I think we run into problems: in our hedonistic culture, the temptations toward (at a minimum) impure thoughts of an unfaithful sort are everywhere, and perhaps one of the engaged couple has had trouble keeping his thoughts from such unfaithful impure thoughts…but he tries. And he hopes that over time he will get better at it. And he thinks it plausible that he will. And, after all, he really is in love with Jane, and he doesn’t really want to hurt her… So, even on his wedding day, he cannot be said to be “faithful” in any SIMPLE sense, because he has fallen in the days before and reasonably thinks he probably will in the days after. Just how far down that path must he be, before we can judge that “he didn’t intend fidelity”?

    Given the anecdotal evidence we hear about the sins of the flesh from of old, it seems likely that we have only surpassed them in the range of physical and visual aids and supports for impure thoughts, we have not (much) outpaced them in the underlying proclivity toward such sins. That is to say, wouldn’t the very same scenario as I outlined above have been something like a common condition of men from all ages? What, then: are we to say that most marriages are null? Or that what we have now is merely a reporting change – that the same rate of nullity is occurring now as was present before, but we are now AWARE if it more now? If this is true, then of what value would be the Church’s presumption in favor of the marriage bond? Could that presumption be reversed in the future?

    Therefore: is it not sufficient, for the required maturity, for the guy to (a) understand the meaning of the vows; and (b) to intend to keep them at least in this sense: to strive against temptations against chastity, and (if he sometimes falls) repents and tries again? If that is not enough, then are most marriages null, we just haven’t evaluated them?

  6. cath4ever says:

    Nobody seems to understand what an annulment is really supposed to be saying.

    In any situation where an annulment is objectively warranted, the annulment is a declaration that, due to some diriment impediment present on the wedding day, there was no marriage FROM THE VERY BEGINNING. If you think you were married on your honeymoon, then you can’t get an annulment, because if you were married on your honeymoon, you are married now.

    Even the original post doesn’t seem to understand this when it makes the following statement:
    “It is true that the Church urges pastors and those involved in nullity cases to try to assist couples with reconciliation whenever possible.”
    A true annulment isn’t about reconciliation between two warring spouses, it’s about whether there was an impediment that made it so you weren’t married ON YOUR VERY WEDDING DAY.

    Even in a happy marriage, if there was some diriment impediment that prevented the (in this case) currently happy couple from being actually married, then the currently happy couple isn’t actually married now, and an annulment should be and could be granted, and of course in that case then a radical sanation or convalidation would presumably be asked for by the happy couple. But the current happiness of this theoretical couple or the current misery of some other warring couple has NOTHING whatsoever to do with whether they were truly married on their wedding day, which is the sole reason an annulment can ever be granted.

    One other thing I never hear anyone consider: I presume the majority of annulments are initiated because the marriage has broken down in some way and one of the spouses wishes to marry another person. The annulment process is started, and grounds are given for the annulment. How many times in all of these cases would the grounds for the annulment of the first marriage be obviously present from the beginning in the next marriage? I’ll bet it’s a lot.

    Example 1: Suppose a marriage has broken down, one of the spouses wishes to marry another person, and an annulment is granted based on psychological immaturity. So is the spouse who wishes to marry another person, psychologically mature now, to the extent that they can contract a valid marriage now? Please prove it.

    Example 2: Suppose an annulment has been granted because one of the spouses says they never intended for the marriage bond to last until death, and they just happen to want to marry someone else now too. So, does this spouse now intend for this new marriage bond to last until death? Forgive me for being skeptical.

    My point is, that all these annulments are being handed out with reasons supposedly underlying the declaration of nullity, yet when an annulment is being granted at a time when one of the spouses already wishes to marry another person, the reason for the annulment very likely is present in this second proposed marriage too, rendering it invalid FROM THE DAY OF the wedding, just like the first one was, if (and ONLY if) that reason actually prevented the parties from marrying in the first marriage in the first place.

    This is all so screwed up.

  7. Discipula says:

    I suspect the annulment process has more than a few problems with it. One I have noticed is that everyone assumes that the people receiving the annulments are all Catholics annulling Catholic marriages, yet my brother’s first marriage was before a justice of the peace, and his second wife had to have her first marriage annulled even though neither party was Catholic and she had no intention of becoming Catholic herself.

    Like cath4ever points out above, there is something wrong with the concept of handing out annulments before a remarriage. If nothing is being done (or can be reasonably done) to prevent the same problems that invalidated the first marriage from invalidating the second, then why require the process? What exactly does it accomplish? If I had asked my brother and his second wife why they were pursuing annulments they would have told me that it was because it was required in order to get married in the church. Did they want those annulments? Not really. In their minds their divorces closed that chapter in their life. This was just one more requirement, like renting the hall or buying a ring. If it’s supposed to be a learning moment, or a healing moment, setting it up like an annoying (“stupid” her words) requirement really limits any benefit that could come from it. It becomes self defeating. No surprise, that marriage didn’t last either.

  8. Philliesgirl says:

    A story from my parish. A woman who had been married for about 20 years and had four children was abandoned by her husband who subsequently obtained a divorce and remarried. The abandoned wife applied for an annulment (I suspect mainly due to the pressure of her family as her mother said to me ‘it’s so sad that she can’t be happy with someone else’ ) but was not granted one. Her mother was very angry about that and had plenty to say about how easy it seemed to be for everyone else to get an annulment but not her daughter! A year or two after this the husband returned to his abandoned wife full of remorse assuring her that her had never really stopped loving her but had fallen into an infatuation which was now over and begging her to take him back. She did and she told her mother that she was so pleased that the annulment had not been granted because she never really wanted it and now she could simply take him back with no hoops to jump through.

  9. Not says:

    My grandparents on both sides were “arranged” marriages in Sicily. My maternal grandfather had 3 arranged marriages due to deaths of spouses. I know times are different now. These marriages worked because they had to. Anyone who has been married for decades will tell you that marriage is not easy but with the faith and each spouse denying self it works. If truth be told most “Catholic” marriages that ended with annulments could have worked. Selfishness is the biggest obstacle, along with no thought of as Father Z said,”Your first 30 seconds in hell.”

  10. Simon_GNR says:

    A very interesting and enlightening post by Fr. Ferguson and comments thereafter. I particularly liked cath4ever’s comments and it hits the mail on the head: the conditions that warranted the annulment of the first (supposed) marriage are very likely still to apply when one of the parties is trying again to marry, so the later attempt at marriage is very likely to be null and void just like the first attempt.

  11. Catholic School Kid says:

    With 90% to 100% annulment grant rates (not an anecdote, a statistic) in most diocese, it hard to believe there are that many people not getting one. So the intro seems a bit cavalier.

    Why not tell people committing adultery to stop?

    The divorce, annul and remarry types have turned annulments into an anti sacrament to sanctify adultery and act as if it is a loophole to get around the not having a firm purpose of amendment in confession. Because otherwise, one would have to stop committing adultery and repair their relationship with their spouse and children. But since they are often unrepentant and have no intention of stopping what they are doing, the church offers annulments.

    Everyone can pretend you weren’t married and so no adultery actually happened. Instead it was just temporary fornication that is quickly resolved when you get to have your third Catholic wedding….

    At least the godless civil courts don’t pretend adultery didn’t occur. Can you believe that the civil courts are actually better on adultery than the church!

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  13. TonyO says:

    One other thing I never hear anyone consider: I presume the majority of annulments are initiated because the marriage has broken down in some way and one of the spouses wishes to marry another person. The annulment process is started, and grounds are given for the annulment. How many times in all of these cases would the grounds for the annulment of the first marriage be obviously present from the beginning in the next marriage?

    @cath4ever: I think the point is that because the process of annulment is very difficult and time consuming (and in some cases expensive), it doesn’t make sense to undertake it on the mere suspicion something might be off in the marriage. Somebody has to have a darn strong reason to insist on undertaking the effort.

    So is the spouse who wishes to marry another person, psychologically mature now, to the extent that they can contract a valid marriage now? Please prove it.

    A agree, and I think that this is an area in which the Church needs considerable development of juridical and sacramental thought. The underlying problem is this: all other things being equal, a person has a RIGHT to get married, unless there is a KNOWN impediment. The psychological impediment, in order to suffice for the annulment, had to have become known to have existed in the past, at the time of the wedding. It is (usually) not nearly as clear whether the same impediment continues into the present and thus constitutes a current block against the consent of marriage. And, in the case of uncertainty…priests tend to rule in favor of “a person has a right to get married.” As Fr. Fox indicated above:

    But the priest is not the one who decides. The most I might do is refuse to officiate — which I’ve never done, because I’ve never had a couple who didn’t respond, seemingly appropriately, to my cautions.

    I am not positive he has stated it correctly when he says “the priest is not the one who decides”. If he were to refuse to officiate, and the next priest also, and the next, etc, then it would be “the priests” who decide. Setting that aside: if the Church were to address this situation with new rules, it would be a lot easier for a priest to say no: once a person has established at the tribunal that at one time – as an adult – he had an impediment of psychological immaturity, he should have to positively establish he now does not have it. Hence, getting an annulment would not, by itself, establish that he is free to marry again. Which would cut down (at least to some degree) the impetus for getting annulments. (And, by the way, once he were to go through the process of “establishing he no longer has the impediment of psychological immaturity”, that should have the net effect of forever making it impossible for him to get a FUTURE annulment on the basis of psychological immaturity: on procedural grounds alone, he should be precluded from ever ATTEMPTING to argue before the tribunal that the determination that (at the second marriage) he DID have the necessary psychological maturity was in error. So…no third marriages, ever (until the second wife dies).)

  14. TonyO says:

    I also have a question, which I suspect the priests around here know the answer to off the top of their heads, but I sure don’t: Suppose a young couple gets married wherein one of the couple really does not have the required maturity to properly consent to marriage. Then (according to or usual Latin Church sacramental theology) no marriage bond takes effect at that time, appearances notwithstanding.

    Now, suppose the immature person “grows up”, i.e. his psychological immaturity is corrected by time, life experience, study, personal reflection, and actual graces. So, he now has the needed maturity. And then, in the normal course of marital life, he and his (only presumed) spouse have relations.

    The sacrament of marriage is confected by the consent of the two parties, and is completed in the act of consummating consensual conjugal intercourse. This conferral of the “consideration” of the marriage contract is what makes the marriage indissoluble. A marriage not consummated can, in fact, be dissolved. But would this not imply that later, AFTER the guy now has the required maturity, a consensual act of conjugal intercourse, wherein they both will to give themselves to the other fully, finally confects the marriage bond that had not yet been made? What is it about their consent that is not now complete?

    My point is that in the normal course of marriage, the couple – at least implicitly – renews their consent to the marriage bond, whenever they renew their consent to conjugal relations. If by accident they cannot simply “renew” their consent to marriage because one of them was unable to consent earlier, then a later act of conjugal relations wherein they are both able to consent would, itself, BE consent to the marital bond (since a person can only properly consent to give the consideration that is constituted of the conjugal act WITHIN the consent to marriage bond itself.)

  15. TonyO:

    Thanks for your interesting comment. To make clear what I meant: the priest is not the one who decides if this couple can or will marry. All I can decide to do is participate. But it is the couple themselves who marry, if you will, themselves. The priest is a “witness” of those vows, which effect the marriage.

    So, if a couple answers my questions the right way, and are otherwise free to marry, the most I might do is withdraw because my doubts are overwhelming. I cannot stop them from marrying. In theory, I might meet a couple that is such a train-wreck, that my withdrawal is the necessary move, but thus far, I haven’t had that happen. (I can think of one couple, but they broke up, so I and they dodged a bullet there.)

    Maybe the couple is lying. Delusional. How can I be sure? It is certainly possible, but it hasn’t been my experience. Do you think I am wrong to err on the side of their sincerity and freedom? I certainly tell them, over and over, that it is THEIR decision.

  16. Catholic School Kid says:

    So if the priest at the beginning, who actually weds the man and woman believes they want to be validly married after an investigation, how is it that some other group of priests (years or decades later) “finds the truth” after an investigation that the first priest didn’t know what he was talking about and they were actually invalidly married.

    The pope said that most marriages are probably invalid. My experience is that most clergy think so too. So when the faithful ask what are our shepherds going to do about it, it is extremely disappointing and frustrating to hear one of three things:

    -society is broken;
    -don’t shoot the messenger I am just a canon lawyer and I can only annul people’s broken marriages;
    -I am parish priest and I have no choice but to marry people who come to me.

    Jesus said divorce and remarriage is adultery. Why don’t we start there?

  17. If a canon lawyer and tribunal judge could add a few notes: 

    Regarding the 90 – 100% rate of declarations of nullity mentioned by Catholic School Kid (when mentioning a statistic, citing the source is useful):  the tribunals of the Catholic Church are obligated to operate on the principle of “fumus boni iuris” — literally the “smoke of good law/right” — which simply means that if we receive petition for nullity and it is apparent that there is very little in the case, little foundation or merit, other than that the parties perhaps grew apart after a number of years with no indications of serious problems, the petition usually is rejected.  That means that tribunals typically only accept petitions for the examination of a matrimonial bond if we see from the preliminary information that there were significant issues present, and where there is some foundation for a petitioner’s allegation that his or her marriage is or might be null. 


    Tribunals will not accept a petition to examine a marriage as to its possible nullity only to say at the end, “Yep, you were right, you and your spouse just grew apart — your marriage is still valid.”  In fact, if a nullity case looks like it is heading toward a negative decision — that is, a decision which will reflect that there is insufficient evidence to declare the marriage null — the tribunal will often advise the petitioner to renounce the instance and/or withdraw his or her petition.  This is a way to protect the petitioner’s rights in canon law.  Once in a rare while, a petitioner will insist on having an answer, even if it will be a negative one.


    I, for one, do not believe that most marriages are null or invalid.


    Regarding Mr. X., no mental health professional can make a case for any marriage being null.  They are not in any position to do so, and we do not ask them to make any such case.  What we ask of them is their diagnosis/diagnostic impression and/or professional opinion regarding the psyche and volitional/elective capacity of one (or sometimes both) of the parties.  They are to stick to their own professional field. If they venture to offer an opinion about the validity or invalidity of the marriage, I ignore them (I also then sometimes ask for a different mental health professional’s opinion).


    If a party proves that he or she was incapable of marriage, or that he or she simulated matrimonial consent, and as a result the marriage is declared null, a “monitum” or “vetitum” is sometimes/often added for the party — a warning or prohibition regarding a future attempt at marriage in the Catholic Church.  Typically the person would have go for counseling or embark upon therapy or achieve a certain number of years of sobriety, etc., before a marriage might be possible in the Catholic Church.


    Please also know that canon law contains the principle of the presumption of validity all marriages.  The Catholic Church requires Catholics to get married according to canonical form (or obtain a dispensation from canonical form if a Catholic wishes to marry in a non-Catholic ceremony a non-Catholic person — ONE Catholic can be dispensed from canonical form, but TWO Catholics cannot be dispensed from form except in danger of death or by recourse to the Apostolic See).  The canonical form of marriage is the exchange of matrimonial consent by a man and woman who are free to marry, in front of the Catholic Church’s official witness (a Catholic bishop, priest, or deacon), plus two other witnesses (who do not need to be Catholics).  The canonical form of marriage can be celebrated as part of a Mass, or it can be just the Rite of Marriage, without a Mass. Catholics who belong to any of the Eastern Catholic Churches must marry before a bishop or priest, not a deacon.  Catholics who marry in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation from canonical form, contract marriage invalidly — but even then they are to approach their local tribunal and request that their “marriage” be declared null due to absence of canonical form.  The Catholic Church does not tell non-Catholics how to get married.  Non-Catholics are free to marry however they choose, even if they do not follow their own religious traditions, even if they just run off to city hall, and the Catholic Church honors those marriages as valid (provided, of course, that it is the parties’ first marriage or one contracted after being widowed, etc.). 


    Fr Martin Fox is right that no tribunal in the Catholic Church can annul a marriage.  After thorough investigation, based upon facts and evidence, we can only declare it null — declare it to have been null even at the moment of the wedding.  The word “annulment” does not even exist in the Code of Canon Law.


    However, Fr Fox and other clergy have to keep in mind canon 1066, which requires that for those involved in preparing a couple for matrimony in the Catholic Church, it must be EVIDENT that NOTHING stands in the way of a valid and licit celebration of matrimony.


    No one should ever accept any canon law opinion or advice from someone who is not a canon lawyer (unless it’s Fr. Z.!).  There are several sites online which claim to assist people in the nullity process or give canonical advice, but these sites contain a great deal of erroneous information.  They cause a lot of confusion and should be avoided.  Canon law is not rocket science or brain surgery, but it is one of the classic “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” disciplines.


    (As for TonyO’s comments, with all due respect I regret that I must harken back to a phrase of Fr. Z.’s:  I think you are too far out over your skis, on very many fronts on this general topic.)

  18. Catholic School Kid says:

    What percentage of Catholic marriages have you declared null versus upheld the validity of?

  19. Catholic School Kid says:

    What percentage of Catholic marriages have you declared null versus upheld the validity of?

  20. To the original question: ‘porneia’ (immorality) is not among the grounds for matrimonial nullity. And as for priests or bishops getting involved in reconciling couples, my experience of how common life in a marriage ends is this: First of all, the interpersonal relationship of the parties falters and has unraveled — and whether they tried to work things out or gave up too soon, it’s over; second, the respective families of origin of the man and woman have not been able to intervene in any effective way; third, other relatives and friends may have tried to help, or have quietly taken sides, but it’s rare that anyone takes a stand; fourth, there might have been a marriage counselor or two, but counseling did not work and the end of common life ensued; fifth, the parish community — sometimes least of all the pastor — knows little if anything about what is going on with the couple, and the split can be a surprise to everyone; sixth, divorce lawyers are consulted and retained, the wheels are set in motion, and the man or woman, or sometimes the couple together, announce they are divorcing, and that’s that; seventh, the secular courts and judges take it from there to its bitter end (child custody, property settlement, etc.). If anyone thinks that at that point a priest or bishop can then step in to remedy or rectify things, I would say that person is being unrealistic at best. I know of many couples who have benefited early on, when problems first arose in the marriage, from the wise advice and support of a good priest (and even one bishop I know of), but once one of the parties petitions the local tribunal for the examination of the marriage, it is too late. We always pray for our petitioners and respondents, hoping against hope that common life can be resumed (except in cases of violence), but according to canon law no tribunal is to undertake the examination of a marriage as to its possible nullity unless it is certain that there is no hope of reconciliation between the parties (and, sadly, in the United States at least, the proof of that is a divorce judgment). It would be interesting to see the prevailing “church laws” mentioned by the person in the original question.

  21. Catholic School Kid says:

    Where is all of that in the Bible?

  22. Mr. Kid, I would not blame you at all for not noticing, but I am member of the laity — I am not a cleric. That should tell you exactly how many marriages I have personally declared null as well as how many marriages’ validity I have upheld.

  23. TonyO says:

    Magdalen, your comments have added a great deal of clarity. Thank you.

    (As for TonyO’s comments, with all due respect I regret that I must harken back to a phrase of Fr. Z.’s: I think you are too far out over your skis, on very many fronts on this general topic.)

    That’s funny – I thought what I was mostly doing was asking questions, not staking definite claims. I would greatly appreciate your indicating a couple of the “very many” things I am out of my depth on.

  24. GregB says:

    cath4ever wrote:
    So is the spouse who wishes to marry another person, psychologically mature now, to the extent that they can contract a valid marriage now? Please prove it.
    TonyO wrote:
    This conferral of the “consideration” of the marriage contract is what makes the marriage indissoluble.
    The sacrament of Holy Matrimony is a covenant. Covenants are permanent and are the way kinship bonds are created. That is why vows are exchanged to swear to the covenant. Covenants involve the exchange of persons. The conjugal act is the final consummation of the covenant. The nature of this exchange is talked about in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5:
    7 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.
    The modern Church has really lost touch with covenants in general. God’s relationship with ancient Israel in the Old Testament of the Old Covenant is stated in nuptial terms, where God is called Israel’s Husband. In the same way in the New Testament of the New and Eternal Covenant Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride. That is why I think that the First and the Sixth Commandments are joined at the hip. They both involve fidelity to a covenant. It is difficult to counteract a lifetime of bad formation in the faith and the understanding of sacramental marriage.

  25. Pingback: MONDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  26. bigtex says:

    Last year, according to church figures, there were 77 declarations of nullity granted in the United States for every one in 1968. Americans now receive 70 percent of all annulments granted by the Roman Catholic Church.

    You can spin that statistic all you want, but the annulment process in America has become scandalous, and for some time now.

  27. gretta says:

    Magdalen Ross has covered most of the points raised above with great clarity, but I would like to add a further point. In our local tribunal, the vast majority of the cases processed are between two non-Catholics or a Catholic and a non-Catholic. It is rarely two Catholics. The non-Catholics are only getting the marriage examined because they now want to marry a Catholic, and this is required of them. The non-Catholics do not have a sacramental understanding of marriage, and many outrightly reject the actual existence of marriage as a sacrament. They very often do not see marriage as permanent, and are clear in saying that there are good reasons for people to leave a marriage. There are a number of Protestant churches that explicitly teach that a party can leave a marriage in cases of adultery, and the couple goes into the marriage having discussed “if you cheat on me, I’m leaving.” That is the basis for an intention against permanency, and you often see that in Catholics as well. You see people marrying on a whim with no preparation whatsoever. Marrying right out of high school. Marrying solely due to pregnancy. Marrying after coming out of horrendous family situations of multiple divorces where they’ve never seen much less experienced a permanent, faithful marriage. Increasingly we see people raised in households with no religion taught whatsoever who have no idea of what a covenant is. Even with Catholics, you can’t presume that they had proper catechesis on marriage. That is the current state of marriage in the US. And…that’s the people that have actually bothered to get married. These days so many simply live together for years and years because they see no value in “the piece of paper.” Yes, canonists have the presumption that a marriage is valid until proven otherwise with moral certitude. But when you see the state of marriages, the attitudes surrounding marriage, and the culturally pervasive lack of a belief that marriage is permanent (much less faithful), is it any wonder that so many declarations of nullity are granted?

  28. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    I attended the 2nd marriage of a lady who had her first marriage annulled. She was the director of the marriage office for a major archdiocese. When there are hundreds — thousands — of examples of mere paperwork and formalities that reek of Catholic divorce, perhaps that is what the system has become.
    What was supposed to be a grave matter — an annulment for when someone unknowingly married a close relative, or was pregnant and forced by her parents to marry the guy — has turned into a laughable Catholic divorce assembly line when the marriage falls apart. Let’s not try to sugar coat this reality. It is a joke.

  29. MB says:

    Thank you Fr. Z and Fr. Ferguson for your willingness to talk about this. Brave; very brave.

    “Judgmental discretion” is about the only grounds for annulment with any room for discussion. The other grounds are very clear cut – did you unknowingly marry your brother/sister, were you coerced into marriage, was one of the parties unable to consummate the marriage. If your answer to all these is no, I think the “judgmental discretion” is the only other option.

    Dissolution of marriage wounds the entire body of Christ – I get it. However, until you’ve been required under pain of sin to be intimate with someone who’s made it very clear that he can’t stand the sight of you … well, let’s just say it’s a matter of perspective. I certainly don’t envy the work of tribunal staffers.

    True that abuse is not grounds for annulment; I know that. I guess I would just want to plead for charity – truth … and lots and lots of charity.

    It does appear that there are too many annulments being granted, but if marriages are not annulled – you’re asking people who’ve possibly faced horrific abuse to live a life of perfect continence, exactly the same as religious do – with no preparation or support from the diocese or a community. None. Is that the right thing to do? In many cases, yes – you’re right dear writer it is. But, if that reality doesn’t pierce your heart, I think there’s something wrong with you.

  30. TonyO says:

    Kenneth, while it is possible that many of these annulments are decided wrongfully, the evidence given by Magdalen Ross and Greta above suggest otherwise – that each one is judge on its own merits, and that the judges are doing the best that can reasonably be done to judge the merits.

    The alternative – which Greta also suggests – is that the scandal is not so much that annulments are given where they are not appropriate, but that weddings are taking place when they should not. That we should (perhaps) be stopping these bad cases from ever getting into (apparent) marriages to begin with. Alongside of that would be the scandal that so many people approaching a priest for a wedding are unable to consent properly – so another piece: to successfully teach engaged couples what it takes to form the consent of marriage, and to (a) scare the bejabbers out of the foolish and superficial ones who are just in it for the fun, and (b) run the psychologically damaged through a triage system to at least ASSESS whether they plausibly are mature enough to consent, and tell the immature ones “you will be free to get married when you have solved the psychological deficits – it’s up to you whether to undertake that task.”

    From above anecdotal evidence, the current priestly methods are nearly useless for figuring out which ones probably should not be getting married and need developmental work before they are capable of consent. So, we apparently need to change those methods. Maybe a first step would be to assume that if a young adult was raised in a C&E home, and are themselves C&E Catholics, then they do not have the wherewithall to consent.

  31. bigtex says:

    Greta: “But when you see the state of marriages, the attitudes surrounding marriage, and the culturally pervasive lack of a belief that marriage is permanent (much less faithful), is it any wonder that so many declarations of nullity are granted?”

    If that is the case, then why does the USA heavily dominate in the declarations of nullity department? Why are Americans so poorly formed, compared to the rest of the world? I don’t think it’s because Americans care more about the process, and that would counteract your argument anyway.

  32. Imrahil says:

    But the basic observation we have here is that when a Catholic man and a Catholic woman are in love with each other, adult and not held by vow or marrage bond, they have the right to marry and, pardon the bluntness, have sex. The thing also is that the argument for “do not fornicate” is: “with that you’d be lying to yourselves and each other, bodily, if you don’t go the whole hog and marry”. That presumes, though, that marriage is an actual option.

    And consequently, nothing to be distributed by the clergy to those who in their judgment deserve it.

    Needless to say, this right includes the right to be rash and decide unwisely. Others, including the clerical witness, might counsel against that, but no more than that.

    It doesn’t include the right to turn the matrimony ceremony into a sham, of course.

    My problem with an approach such as that of the rev’d Fr Fox, with whom I otherwise quite agree, is the following:

    And I’m not even going into all the things that can poison our ability to make a true gift of self, or render us essentially immature, despite our earthly years.

    For the first, it may be not the most ideal thing, but it has been accepted through all times that marriage is also for the satisfaction, in an orderly manner, of, pardon the bluntness, selfish desires. In fact, part of its genius is to make use of these selfish desires to draw them to actual love, first natural love, and then the great sacrament of Matrimony symbolizing Christ’s love for the Church.

    For the second, what is “essentially” immature? The out-and-about immature cannot marry, of course; as neither can those who cannot consummate the marriage, and as the lame cannot take part in a running race. There are some who are abnormal enough that they cannot marry. But the point is “abnormal”; the normal people can. The whole idea becomes awry, and anyway dangerous, and anyway in my view wrong, if we’d start to think about “degrees of maturity”, “is he really mature enough” etc; if it – in the analogy of a college exam – becomes a question not of failing or not failing, but of receiving at least a C+, or possibly B+.

    If we do want to “do something about it” at any cost, and there might be arguments why doing nothing might be better:

    The thing to do is not to infringe their right to marry, but their right to solemnize the marriage. This is a right the Church could withhold; and for a pastor to say “if you do want to go through with it, it’s no decorated Church for you, but the parish office, two witnesses, and an exchange of vows and that’s it” would in all probably be at least as effective as “I won’t have you married”, in addition to the benefit of not violating their rights.

  33. gretta says:

    Imrahil is correct, that people have a natural right to marry. And while priests and deacons can have a couple delay a wedding, it is very hard to refuse people, even if the relationship looks like a train wreck, because marriage is a natural right.

    Canonical judges do their best to help people not make the same mistakes in marriage by adding a monitum or vetititum (canonical warnings or prohibitions that Magdalen explains above) to have the parties do something more before they are allowed to marry (like requiring more extensive counseling). But we can only attempt to help people who have already had a marriage declared null. We can do very little (other than go talking to young people about marriage) for folks who are getting married for the first time in the Catholic Church, and can do nothing at all for broader society.

    Consider this: the Catholic Church has far more extensive marriage preparation than just about any other church or Christian denomination. The Episcopalians usually have some form of marital counseling, but most other denominations do not have anything formal. Maybe they meet with their minister once, but that’s about it. And it is mostly wedding planning, not marriage preparation. Many Catholics complain bitterly about having to do marriage prep classes or Engaged Encounter weekends. Overall, Catholic requirements for marriage prep are fairly minimal, and yet are still well above what others do. Then…compare that with the six years of study required for a seminarian to become a priest. Both ordination and marriage are sacraments that are life-long commitments, yet for one we prepare the man with six years of study, while for the other, a sacrament that requires two people to figure out how to enter into “a permanent partnership of the whole of life,” it is three meetings with the priest, a compatibility test, and an Engaged Encounter. That’s it. And that process doesn’t change, even if one of the parties is Protestant, non-Christian, or completely unchurched. It doesn’t change even in cases where one of the parties comes from an families of multiple divorces, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, or abuse. And it doesn’t change when the Catholic is marrying a person who is clear that she believes what her church teaches that divorce is utterly acceptable if one party has been unfaithful.

    Declarations of nullity aren’t the problem, they are a reflection of the problem. The general understanding of marriage is the problem. Try this experiment – go ask for a show of hands in your parish’s high school youth group or college group, how many of them believe this statement is correct: “If he/she ever cheats on me, I’ll leave.” Or “Divorce is acceptable if I’m unhappy.” See what you get. And those are the Catholics. You can guess what the general public’s answer to those questions will almost universally be.

    Kenneth Wolfe, you have said that the annulment process is a Catholic divorce assembly line, and cite the granting of a declaration of nullity to someone who is in charge of a diocesan marriage office. Unless you have intimate knowledge of what was going on in that marriage, please don’t be so quick to judge. People have an amazing ability to hide their marital problems and their own personal struggles. Canonical judges know that they make decisions about sacraments for which they are answerable to God. It is never an “assembly line” because the stakes are too high.

    There are no easy answers. But my personal response when people tell me that there are too many annulments is to tell them, if you believe that to be true, go get involved in marriage preparation. Then, after we have properly catachized the Catholics, figure out how we convey the eternal, sacramental truth about what marriage is supposed to be to everyone else.

  34. TonyO says:

    they have the right to marry

    Yes, Imrahil, that’s the sticking point. People have a right to get married, but only if they are capable of consent. The question is where the presumption should lie on WHETHER they are capable, and WHEN that presumption is overturned by evidence. In the past, the presumption was that all people who are adults and not mentally disabled have the capacity for consent, and it was (still is) very difficult to prove someone is not capable of consent. In the current culture we have an awful lot of people who push a view that most people are NOT capable of such consent, and this cannot but force us to ask whether (a) the old presumption should still be followed, or (b) whether it should be easy to overturn the presumption – i.e. with a modest amount of evidence showing inability.

    The thing to do is not to infringe their right to marry, but their right to solemnize the marriage…would in all probably be at least as effective as “I won’t have you married”,

    I am reminded of Canonist Ed Peters points in caution about the mandate that a Catholic marriage, in order to be even VALID, must be according to canonical form: this mandate has some undesired effects.

    While your idea would undoubtedly cut down on those whose driving motivation is primarily “the big fairy tale wedding EVENT”, unfortunately that motivation is (a) often more on the part of the parents than the couple themselves, and (b) itself giving way to the secular perspective “it’s just a piece of paper”, and the prospect of a wedding with 2 witnesses in the parish office would contribute to that “just a piece of paper” mentality.

    I agree with your point about “degrees” of maturity: that’s a very slippery slope and almost certainly not the right approach. I think that at least part of the solution involves a much better understanding of what it means to consent, and what kind (not “level”) of maturity is necessary for that, and how to discern that maturity. I have seen nothing here to make me confident that we (as a society or a Church) yet have a solid grasp on how the necessary maturity is clearly manifested (or not) in an adult: are the priests (involved in marriage prep), the psychologists, and tribunals more or less just fumbling around with the idea and hoping to land on the right measures / indicators, or do they actually KNOW what they are doing? Something tells me that the former is closer to the truth than the latter. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t doing the best they can – just that “our best” right now is pitiful because we need better understanding of the basic psychological issue.

  35. Imrahil says:

    Dear TonyO,

    that is not even a question. If I have a natural right to do something, and I say I’m capable of it, then the burden of proof is on the one who says I’m not; and he’d need to give proof. If the officials declaring on my capability have any right beyond hindering obvious and undoubted cases of incapability, I wouldn’t be exercising a natural right, but at the most humbly submitting a request to the responsible officials, which they have to deal with according to their best knowledge, and the most we could say is that the law told them to look on those requests favorably. That is obvious.

    The thing just is that we do have a right to marry. We don’t have a right to become priests, or even, technically (which is why I said it) have a big celebration in Church; but we do have one to marry.

    And the sacrament of Matrimony is given by the spouses to each other, with a cleric witnessing for judicial clarity’s sake, you know.


    Dear gretta,

    Both ordination and marriage are sacraments that are life-long commitments, yet for one we prepare the man with six years of study, while for the other, a sacrament that requires two people to figure out how to enter into “a permanent partnership of the whole of life,” it is three meetings with the priest, a compatibility test, and an Engaged Encounter.

    Er… the basic difference is that the two do have a right to marry each other, as I said in my response to TonyO. But apart from that: this is comparing apples with pears.

    Matrimony is the non-clerical sacrament; hence it is even logical that from its preparation, which is huge, only a tiny part is done “in Church”.

    We’re Catholics, so our whole life is supposed a Sacrifice to God, right? Which precisely means that it doesn’t all happen to be in Church, right?

    Once we’ve seen this, we’ll see there actually is Matrimony-preparation in the same order of magnitude as Holy-Orders-preparation (I won’t argue which of the two beats the other by inches). The whole complex of dating, including the hard decision of not pursuing a relationship is obviously Matrimony-preparation. The dance-course that prepares for dating is Matrimony-preparation. The apprenticeship that prepares for a job that might possibly feed a family in the future is Matrimony-preparation, and so, perhaps more so, is the difficult (do I not know it only too well) process of learning to somehow manage a household. The erudition we receive in order to have something to talk about during evening dinner and to fascinate our children is, in a manner, Matrimony-preparation. And when, in modes not always perfectly moral (it has to be admitted), but not necessarily immoral, people get to learn some facts about the, er, biological content of the married state, that also is Matrimony-preparation.

    Hence, only a tiny bit of Matrimony preservation is done by the pastor. It is practical that he makes sure that people know the Catholic teaching about marriage, of course (even in an ideal world, he wouldn’t have told them everything in Confirmation course, because there are topics not suitable for younger children); but that is that.

  36. A few more points that may be of interest:

    – My understanding is that in the U.S., an individual will bring a petition for a decree of nullity, the tribunal will review it, and if they think it has poor chances of success, they will communicate back to the petitioner to recommend the petition not go forward at that time. This will significantly change the statistics regarding how many are granted versus denied.

    – Also, there are a fair number of people who get divorced and never seek a decree of nullity. The reasons why can be all over the board, but it is just possible that at least some of them may not think their petition would be granted; and they may intuitively be right. After all, they actually were in that marriage, and they may well have an intuition — if not a careful knowledge of sacramental theology or canon law — that guides them to that conclusion.

    – This always brings up a discussion of whether preparation for marriage is adequate. The bishops do pay attention to this, so do parish priests, and we try different things. A recent approach is to pair up an engaged couple with a mentor couple, and this seems to bear some fruit, but we’ll see. Of course, it all comes down to how good that pairing is, and how dedicated everyone involved is. And then, of course, if the pastor is supposed to pick the mentor couple, then what? I see lots of couples who appear to be faithful and fruitful, but every priest learns, soon enough, that things are often not as they seem.

    But, you know, the remote preparation for marriage necessarily takes place long before that couple comes to see the priest. It happens in whatever religious formation is provided through the parish and above all, the home. There are lots of things that might be done to remedy deficiencies in how individuals were brought up, but a good upbringing does wonders. Not a guarantee.

    – Here’s why I mentioned selfishness and maturity above. I mention these because of observations I’ve drawn from the many conversations I have with married people about what contributes to marital happiness, or what contributes to marital misery. Obviously I am not married; just as obviously, marriage takes both to make it work, with a lot of giving and a lot of forgiving.

    – One of the baleful influences in our society right now is pornography, which is all about selfishness, unreality, and also feeds on and fosters a certain immaturity. I don’t really have any hard conclusions, but something in my gut tells me that a man or woman is too much into porn, that may impinge on the ability of one or more spouses to give genuine consent. But how much is “too much” in this situation? I’m not now talking about what makes for a mortal sin; I’m talking about what it takes to distort the freedom to say “I do” and mean it. This is a new frontier.

    – I get that many think the solution is for priests to “do more” to prevent people from getting married in the first place. All I can say is, I wonder if you’ve really thought through precisely how that’s supposed to work? Shall I hook up couples to a lie-detector machine? Shall I conduct an FBI-style background check, talking to friends and family? I have no special gift for seeing into people’s lives and souls, and I can be very wrong. Sometimes people who seem to have no issues crash and burn, while others who look pretty shakey do well. The responsibility for seeing problems belongs with the couple; I do what I can to hold up a mirror and tell them what I see. Sometimes they listen; other times they don’t.

  37. gretta says:

    Imrahil, I don’t at all disagree that our Church can only do so much in preparing people for marriage. And I’m not suggesting we should have six years of marriage prep. But…I must say that you have a very rosy view of what that preparation these days looks like, particularly when it comes to preparing for a sacrament.

    Today’s popular culture cannot even define marriage as being between one man and one woman. People are learning within those dinnertime conversations, and from watching their families in their various relationships, and from the greater society, that living together is normative, formal marriage is optional, divorce is normative, children are optional, contraception is normative, hookup culture is acceptable, and marriage is about personal happiness and fulfillment and it expected to end if one is no longer happy or fulfilled. Even Catholics are not immune to these cultural influences, because they are unavoidable and pervasive. And unlike ordination, you must have both parties on the same page going into the marriage. Just because one of the parties was formed correctly does not mean that they are necessarily marrying someone who has a similar formation or outlook. And again, that doesn’t even begin to address non-Catholics’ understanding of marriage (or “marriage” as the case may be). Pushback against those societal norms is very hard for the priest/deacon to do in three meetings and an Engaged Encounter.

    I don’t think most Catholics who are critical of the nullity process realize just how many Non-Catholic/Catholic or non-Catholic/non-Catholic marriages our tribunals process. And trust me when I tell you that it is rare for non-Catholics to have any marriage preparation at all.

    BigTex – the US has a predomanince of cases because 1) we as a society are rule-followers, 2) we still have a Catholic population that believes it matters, 3) we have a literate, educated population that is willing and able navigate the process, 4) we have enough educated priests/deacons/laity to send to school to be canonically trained, 5) our dioceses can afford to send canonists to school to staff a tribunal, 6) we have accessible domestic canon law programs, 7) we have diocesan resources to be able to efficiently process cases, e.g., adequate computers, case-tracking software, support staff, etc., 8) we have the civic infrastructure that supports access to and communication with diocesan tribunals, both physically and digitally.

    Training a canon lawyer takes three years. Classes are moving to digital platforms, but for most countries training a clerical canonists means sending a priest abroad for three years, which is very expensive. Staffing a tribunal generally requires three judges and a defender of the bond. That is expensive and ties up scarce clerical resources. Though the process has gotten somewhat less burdensome, it is a labor-intensive, legal process, that without computers is really difficult to do efficiently. You also have to have non-canonists in parishes be willing and able to tell people the process is available and then help people navigate it, because it is really difficult to do it alone. If you do not have a literate society, you have to have someone who is literate and willing to take testimony and transcribe it, and then figure out how to get it to the tribunal. And every party is supposed to be represented by an advocate, who acts like the person’s lawyer through the process. That also takes training that not all dioceses are able to do.

    Bottom line, the US has educated people and clergy, as well as diocesan and parish resources and capability, an ability to handle cases efficiently, plus more of a willingness to submit to the process, that many other countries lack.

  38. Catholic School Kid says:


    2384 Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:

    If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery, and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another’s husband to herself.

  39. Catholic School Kid says:

    National Divorce Rates:

    1st marriage 50%

    2nd marriages 67%

    3rd marriages 73%

  40. Every once in a while, the question comes up in one online venue or another as to why is there no simple canon law resource — why is there no place for the laity to get basic answers from canon lawyers or to access canon law information that might help. I think the answer is apparent in this thread of comments for this post.


    I can assure everyone reading this that there is a considerable number of canon lawyers who read this blog, and when a canonical topic comes up they and I stay on the sidelines. We sometimes speak about it among ourselves later, but we do not comment — because if or when we do, this is sometimes the result: well-meaning people (though often deeply wounded) fielding rather unusual opinions — to say the least — about what the Church does or does not teach (especially regarding the sacraments), personal attacks, an unwillingness to accept that there might be more to a situation than meets the eye, and an inability to see that without formal training in canon law one must accept that one is going to be getting certain things wrong (this last, is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things to overcome). Even canonists try to tread cautiously, knowing that even if we offer exact and precise information, people might perceive it differently or take away from it a wrong conclusion.


    Every time I have been asked to write an article on a canonical topic — something for popular access — I have declined. I know by now that some people will read into it something that is not intended. There are enough urban legends out there about canon law — we don’t need more. My “favorite” (?) urban legend is that a declaration of nullity costs a fortune: many who insist on this clearly have not taken the time to go to the website of their own diocese (at least in the US) to see what has been posted online and in public for as long as dioceses have had websites, viz., the page for their local tribunal which almost always lists the fee for matrimonial cases, insofar as they still have any fees. The cost in the past in the US was on average several hundred dollars for a formal nullity case, an amount that represented a fraction of the real cost which was heavily subsidized by the faithful of the diocese. But now fees have largely been abolished and the process is wholly subsidized. (In the Archdiocese of NY there was a flat fee of 1200 dollars per formal nullity case — not too surprising for NY, but this was until six years ago the most “expensive” formal nullity case fee in the US — but it was dropped, though recently a fee of about half of that was reinstated, which still represents only about ten percent of the real cost; and the Diocese of Brooklyn kept its fee of 1100 dollars per formal nullity case — now the maximum fee in the US, but again, not surprising given that it is NY — and Chicago has a fee of 900 dollars for a formal nullity case. This is all posted online, and no one is ever turned away or denied a decision for inability to pay. Outside the US, in the rest of the world, petitioners often still are charged the real cost or asked/expected to contribute as much as they can to the real cost of the case, despite what Pope Francis expressed about wishing the process was free. The minimal or non-existent expense is yet another reason why the US has a higher number of matrimonial nullity cases.)


    I wish to say again, that if the parties themselves did not find a way to work things out and honor their commitment or at least stay together for their children, and if everyone else has been unable to intervene to get the couple to reconcile — the parents of the parties did not say, “go back to your spouse…you have to work this out or we are disinheriting you,” and the extended family and friends did not say, “go back to your spouse…or we will not support you as friends in this,” and if the marriage counselors did not say, “go back to your spouse…or there might be serious consequences, in particular for your children,” and if the parish community and their pastor did not say, “go back to your spouse…or you risk causing scandal to your fellow parishioners,” and if the divorce lawyers did not say (and yes, I’ve actually heard this one before), “go back to your spouse… there’s no way I can take your case if you don’t at least make an honest attempt to reconcile” — it is unrealistic to think that a bunch of canon lawyers (or even the bishop, who most likely also does not know the parties) will succeed where the spouses themselves and everyone else did not. This is not about a rubber stamp: this is about the reality of the path that has led to the unraveling of the spouses’ interpersonal relationship. It is usually incredibly sad. After reading some cases, I need to sit in the chapel down the hall from my office for a while. (As an aside, beyond matrimonial cases, I also often get private requests for canonical advice or assistance *after* things have gone wrong — parishioners who are facing a tough situation at their parish, priests in trouble, religious in difficulty in their community, etc. — often by which time it is exceptionally difficult to be of any meaningful help.)


    (Dear TonyO, psst……..the skis………..please remember the thing about the skis………..)


    (Dear Fr Fox, the Church’s procedural law is universal and does not only apply to the US.)

  41. Catholic School Kid says:

    Why on earth would a dioceses put so many resources into annulling marriages and making them cost as little as possible while they are closing catholic schools?

    It says a lot about the church’s priorities.

    [I suggest reading the comment above.]

  42. Catholic School Kid says:

    Pope John Paul II said today [?] that civil lawyers who are Roman Catholic must refuse to take divorce cases, and should instead try to help separated couples reconcile. ”We cannot surrender to the divorce mentality,” the pope said in a speech to the Roman Rota, the church tribunal that hears marriage annulment cases.

    Jan 29, 2002


  43. MB says:

    I don’t disagree with you Catholic School Kid. But, keep in mind that any sin can be completely wiped away with one trip to the confessional. Any sin, even murder. Any sin that is except divorce. If you commit the sin of divorce, [Obtaining a divorce is not always a sin. (Now watch the partially informed react without thinking.)] and your marriage cannot be annulled, you can be forgiven, but you’re consigned to a life of solitude as long as you live. No other sin incurs a penalty so grave. That is why the Church wastes its time and resources on it.

  44. bigtex says:

    You just contradicted yourself. On one hand you’re claiming:
    “…. the state of marriages, the attitudes surrounding marriage, and the culturally pervasive lack of a belief that marriage is permanent (much less faithful), is it any wonder that so many declarations of nullity are granted?”

    On the other hand you argue:
    “….Bottom line, the US has educated people and clergy, as well as diocesan and parish resources and capability, an ability to handle cases efficiently, plus more of a willingness to submit to the process, that many other countries lack.”

    Which is it? If the US has so many educated Catholics and clergy, why are there so many invalid marriages? Can’t have it both ways.

  45. Catholic School Kid says:

    From Sr. Lucia of Fatima, we learn what the Blessed Mother said about the sanctity of marriage.

    “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. And then she concluded: however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.”

    Letter to Cardinal Carlo Caffara, who establish the Pontifical Institute for the Studies on Marriage and the Family for JPII. Reported by Rorate-Caeli

    Predictable denigrating comments about how misinformed and ignorant those who believe in lifelong marriage 3, 2 , 1…

  46. Catholic School Kid says:

    From Sr. Lucia of Fatima, we learn what the Blessed Mother said about the sanctity of marriage.

    “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. And then she concluded: however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.”

    Letter to Cardinal Carlo Caffara, who establish the Pontifical Institute for the Studies on Marriage and the Family for JPII. Reported by Rorate-Caeli

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