Annulment is one of those Catholic realities shrouded in myths and misunderstandings, exaggerated fallacies and genuine confusion. To top it off, this critical process, which allows divorced Catholics to seek healing and the possibility of remarrying in the Church one day, still carries a bit of a stigma. How many people do you know with annulments? Probably more than you realize. 

We went through the annulment process years ago, both through the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York. Although the experience varied for each of us, the end result was the same: Receiving the declaration of nullity was a moment of healing, closure, grace.  

Unfortunately, it’s something that many divorced Catholics miss out on because they are intimidated by the process or have received bad information — and there’s plenty of it floating around out there — about what an annulment is and how the process works. 

So, we thought we’d take you through that process step by step and take some of the mystery out of it. (You can get the truth about the most common myths regarding annulment in the accompanying article.) 

Understanding marriage 

First of all, what exactly is an annulment? It’s best to answer that question not by looking at annulment but at marriage itself. To understand the former, you must understand the Church’s view — not society’s view — of the latter. Marriage, in the Church’s eyes, requires that several conditions be met. One archdiocesan website spells it out plainly: The marriage must be celebrated in a ceremony that is legally acceptable in the eyes of the Church; both parties must be free to marry each other; each partner must intend from the beginning of the marriage to accept God’s plan for married life as taught by the Church; and each partner must have the physical and the psychological ability to live out the consent initially given to the marriage. 

“If any one of these requirements is lacking from the beginning of the marriage, then the Church tribunal, acting as the bishop’s representative, can declare that marriage invalid from its very celebration,” says the Archdiocese of New York

So, annulment is not a taking away of something that already existed, but a recognition that a valid marriage never actually occurred because something — an “impediment” — prevented it. 

“Once people understand what marriage is — according to Church teaching — then they are more able to understand what marriage isn’t. Thus the annulment process,” said Jacqui Rapp, canon lawyer and co-author, with Peter Vere, of “Annulment: 100 Questions and Answers for Catholics” (Servant, $11.99). “As with most things, there is often a large chasm between what people think the Church teaches and what the Church actually teaches, so it is important that honest and truthful information of Church teaching is brought forth to all of the Christian faithful.” 

Necessary steps 

If you decide to pursue an annulment, some things must be in order first, and your pastor can be an invaluable aid in navigating the waters, as ours was for us. A civil, legal divorce must be finalized before any annulment proceeding may begin. Once that is in order, you may contact your diocese and request the necessary paperwork. You’re likely to get a packet that will include explanations and instructions, as well as forms, surveys and other background information. 

You will need to produce basic documents, such as a baptismal certificate, marriage certificate, divorce decree, and you will be asked to complete a history of your marriage. 

You may also be asked to write an autobiography, a story of your courtship and marriage, and you will need two witnesses who will be asked to submit written and/or oral statements to the tribunal in support of your petition. 

Your former spouse will be contacted and given the opportunity to present his or her version of your marriage history and introduce witnesses as well. Your ex-spouse may choose not to participate, in which case the annulment will proceed without his or her input. 

If you have met with a therapist at any point, he or she may be asked to submit a report. If you have not been to a therapist or counselor, you may be asked to do so for at least one visit.

“A meeting with a therapist/court-appointed expert in psychology may be necessary in order to check to see if there are any psychological issues that may have been present at the time of the wedding,” Rapp said. “After the case is over, meetings with a therapist may be required in order to ensure that any issues that existed prior to the first attempted marriage will not exist prior to another attempted marriage.” 

Freeing experience 

People may be tempted to look at that long list of requirements and back away. It sounds too legalistic to some, too personal to others, downright scary for more than a few. 

That was our initial reaction, too, when we pursued ours, but as we thought about it, we were actually comforted by it. For us, it was a reminder that annulment is not something the Church takes lightly. We realized early on in the process that our lives, our concerns and our former marriages would be treated with dignity, respect and confidentiality. And that was precisely our experience throughout the entire process. 

Rapp told OSV that a lot of people are anxious when they enter into the annulment process. They know they are going to have to discuss parts of their lives that may be painful or difficult, whether from their failed marriages or their families of origin, so there’s often fear attached. But, once into the process, that attitude often softens and transforms into something much more positive. 

“Many of those who go through the process find that they are free from their past. They have spent years trying to stuff down pain and lack of understanding about what happened to them and with them,” she said. “Stuffing down the pain only makes it leak out in other areas of life. However, this process encourages people to examine their issues and acknowledge those things that affected them in the past and might affect them in the future, leaving them more free to pursue happier lives.” 

Change in attitudes 

Unfortunately, many divorced Catholics today don’t even consider applying for an annulment, and it’s not just because the process scares them. In many cases, it’s because there’s been a change of attitude when it comes to divorce, remarriage and life as a Catholic.  

“Based on anecdotal evidence, it is hard not to conclude that Catholics today are bypassing the annulment process. My impression is that the divorce rate remains pretty much what is has been for the last 25 years or so, while it is certainly true that the number of people seeking the annulment of a failed marriage has decreased dramatically,” said Msgr. William Benwell, a canon lawyer and vicar general for the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J. 

Msgr. Benwell told OSV that when he first began working in tribunal ministry in 1987, his diocese began 241 formal cases. In 2010 that number was down to only 47. 

“Based on conversations with personnel from other tribunals, our experience is not an isolated case,” he said. “I’m afraid that not entering into marriage without being free to do so or abstaining from receiving Communion when one is divorced and remarried have been added to that cafeteria menu many Catholics feel they can choose to accept or reject.” 

A recent survey in which 88 percent of the dioceses in the United States participated, confirms Msgr. Benwell’s experiences, reporting 19,039 annulments were granted in this country in 2009. That’s a drop from 21,850 in 2006. 

Even those Catholics who do choose to apply for an annulment and receive a declaration of nullity can feel like tainted goods, in part because many people don’t fully understand or accept the annulment process as valid and valuable. And yet Pope Benedict XVI, just this year, addressed the issue of annulment and told the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest tribunal, that Catholics awaiting a possible declaration of nullity deserve “speed and simplicity” from local tribunals. 

“This is a coordinated and patient task which aims above all to provide for the faithful the correct, rapid and efficient administration of justice, as I requested with regard to causes of nullity of marriage in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis,” he said. 

The pope went on to say it is a “grave obligation to bring the Church’s institutional activity in her tribunals ever closer to the faithful” in order to address such cases “in the most rapid and reliable way.” 

Canon lawyer Rapp urged all Catholics to at least talk about annulment and remarriage after a civil divorce in order to clarify their status within the Church. 

“It is about clarifying whether you are married or single. It is about knowing what you truly are in the Church,” she said. “No one should assume that they know whether or not they have a case. Unless you are a canon lawyer and have been trained in the law, it is impossible to know what you have until you have had it examined.” 

Dennis Poust and Mary DeTurris Poust write from New York. 

This is the latest installment of a monthly series. The next, on how to discuss the Faith with inactive Catholics, will appear May 8.

Related Reading (sidebar)

Books/pamphlets 

“100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments,” by Edward N. Peters (Basilica Press) 

“Annulment: The Wedding That Was: How the Church Can Declare a Marriage Null,” by Michael Smith Foster (Paulist Press, $14.95) 

“What the Church Teaches: Annulments,” a pamphlet by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker (OSV) 

Websites 

USCCB’s For Your Marriage website: foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulments/ 

Archdiocese of New York: http://osv.cm/fW2irP

Read additional In Focus articles:

Misunderstanding of process yields to release, closure, elation

Top 10 annulment myths