Q: My son and my daughter-in-law are divorced and remarried. They are considering seeking declarations of nullity for their first marriages. A priest they consulted said that annulments do not make children from that marriage illegitimate. Is that what the Catholic Church teaches?
I know that this is a big issue for many people who might request a declaration of nullity.
A: The priest whom your son and daughter-in-law consulted was absolutely correct. God willing, the November 2012 “Ask” column will begin my fourteenth year of writing it. The question you have asked is easily the most frequently asked question that I have received during those years. I have addressed this issue several times already, but I am happy to do so again.
A declaration of nullity does not create illegitimacy! That concept is of much more concern in civil law because it can affect a person’s right to an inheritance. Even though a child born of unmarried parents may lack inheritance rights or other rights in civil law, no person can be illegitimate in God’s eyes.
It is most unfortunate that society continues to tolerate this misuse of language, blaming the person born for circumstances clearly beyond his or her control.
A declaration of nullity says that a valid, sacramental marriage never existed between that husband and wife although the marriage was valid in civil law.
Catholic tribunals do not annul a marriage, as the government may do if it can be shown, for example, that one of the spouses was below that state’s legal age of marriage. Catholic tribunals always presume that marriages are valid unless the contrary can be proven.
The Catholic Church’s presumption is that both parties entered a marriage in good faith. The Church tries to ensure that it witnesses only marriages that are valid in the state where they are celebrated. Catholic tribunals in the United States accept only cases where a civil divorce has already been granted. Civil divorces, of course, do not create illegitimacy.