Ask a Franciscan

Is Giving Annulments Justified?

Q: Where does the church get authority to give annulments to remarry? I do not think that humans have the right to change God’s law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce’ [Dt 24:1]. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” [Mt 5:31-32].

When some Pharisees asked Jesus if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason whatever, he replied: “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ [Gn 1:27] and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and 
mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ [Gn 2:24]? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” [Mt 19:4-6].

Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery” (19:9). Considering that similar sayings occur in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, it seems to me that the church has caused many people to sin.

A: I have added the bracketed references above, based on notes in The New American Bible. The two references from Matthew include the phrase “unless the marriage is unlawful.” Many Scripture scholars point out that not all gentiles shared the Jewish understanding of which relationships by blood or by a prior marriage were too close to permit marriage to certain persons.

In 1 Corinthians 5:1, St. Paul criticizes the Christians there for allowing a Christian to marry his stepmother. Whether that man’s father was still living or not is irrelevant; a stepson can never marry his stepmother. Similarly, an uncle could never marry his niece, and a nephew could never marry his aunt.

Later in that letter (7:10-16), St. Paul urges married couples to remain married. If, however, a Christian has a pagan spouse who is unwilling to remain married because the spouse has become a Christian, then the Christian is free to enter a new marriage. In time, this teaching became known as the “Pauline privilege.”

The Catholic Church does not annul marriages. Its declarations of nullity, however, say that a sacramental marriage never existed between these spouses. Every declaration of nullity is automatically reviewed by another tribunal to ensure that the required procedures have been followed.

Relevant civil laws must still be respected. In fact, in the United States, Catholic tribunals will not consider an appeal unless a civil divorce has already been granted.

The Catholic Church takes marriage very seriously, but its understanding of valid consent (exclusive, lifelong and open to children) is more strict than what civil society sometimes requires. A prenuptial agreement (see first Q&A above) could be legal in civil law but could render a sacramental marriage invalid if it compromised the consent given during the marriage ceremony.

Declarations of nullity do not lead people into sin.

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