An Introduction to the Annulment Process



To our brides discerning the vocation of marriage for not the first, but second time, we see you and are here for you. Divorce and separation are wrenching for all involved, and the road to annulment might seem like an unlit path through the dark. We hope this resource, written from a lovingly pastoral viewpoint, helps illuminate the first steps in this process and plants the seeds of self-examination and healing. Jesus, Divine Physician, be with us.

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Are you planning a Catholic wedding for a second marriage?

You want to get married, but you have been married previously. You know that the Catholic Church will consider you bound to your first marriage until an annulment is granted. Beside the doctrinal foundations of the Catholic faith that are relevant to any possible second marriages, there are also a million “what if?”s that have a practical impact on each person’s situation after being civilly divorced from a previous marriage.

This guide will only answer a small handful of these “what ifs." I hope it will also provide some primary considerations, offered in a spirit of charity and understanding in difficult circumstances, as a great starting point to answer questions for your own situation as you move forward.

First consideration: your parish priest

A parish priest is likely to be a key source of information and answers about all the elements involved in this process. Your local parish priest is going to be your first contact for the official annulment process, and likely the one who submits your official petition for annulment to the tribunal office of your Diocese. Perhaps you have a good personal connection with a priest in another parish; you might do well to speak with him about an annulment. Perhaps your own parish priest will direct you to work with another priest in your Diocese. Regardless, a parish office, working with a local parish priest, is likely the only place to get the official application for an annulment. You typically cannot send an application for annulment to your Diocese without the signature of the priest who arranged your application.

Second consideration: your history with your former spouse

The annulment process will ask about the whole history of your marriage. The Church needs to know this history, and not just the immediate circumstances of the divorce. While you will need to provide all the documented information about your prior marriage, and also the civil decree of divorce, much more information will be needed. The Church requires the whole story of the previous marriage in various written formats. It is rather standard that an autobiographical narrative is written out, from the time of your first meeting with your former spouse, through engagement and marriage, and into the subsequent married life, up until your civil divorce.

It can be like writing out a five-page confession. It can take a while to re-visit and re-process it all. It can be difficult. But this is essential according to the Church’s doctrine on what an annulment is. It is not “Catholic Divorce,” but the Church’s judgment as to whether a key element of the sacrament of matrimony was missing at the time of the marriage, and therefore whether the wedding, presumed-to-be-sacramental, should only be held as binding in its mere civil effects. The civil effects of marriage can, and do, end in divorce decrees. But the sacrament cannot end, except by the death of one of the spouses.

Third consideration: children

The third consideration is an extension of the civil effects. Here let us first clear up a misconception: the Church does not designate  children from previous marriages “illegitimate” if the previous marriage gets annulled.

Say an annulment is granted. Some combination of factors and choices, along with the lack of the sacramental grace, led parents to divorce civilly. The Church has no need--or desire--to bring any retribution upon any of the children. The previous marriage was judged to be binding civilly, but not sacramentally. Therefore, the laws of the Church affirm that the societal status of children is still entirely legitimate, and that the children of the family should not lose any of their proper status and dignity in society.

This would be true even if the Church still used the designation of “illegitimate” in any circumstances. But, again, the term has been removed from church law. For the practical consideration, it is obviously of great concern to the Church that children still be given a healthy upbringing in faith and morals, and we hope that after the tragedy of divorce, both parents would remain supportive of nurturing the Christian faith in their children. Such unity of religious practice does not always happen when former spouses arrange their relations with children from the previous marriage. We pray for these difficulties encountered by co-parenting Catholics, but we also affirm that there should be no concern about this when applying for an annulment.

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Fourth consideration: witnesses

It is very important for the Church to be objective about the intentions and dispositions of the former spouses at the time of their wedding. Such detailed insistence is not for the purpose of dwelling on personal fault or blame. We assume that whatever personal faults or insufficiencies were a factor in undermining the first marriage “from the get-go” are already the source of sufficient guilt and sorrow for the divorcees. While the Church would like to facilitate healing and growth in a renewed life of virtue after divorce, it also needs to have testimony, objectively, that there was something wrong or something lacking in the first marriage.

To do this the Church insists that witnesses to the relationship, those who knew you and/or your former spouse before and after your wedding, provide statements. These can be compared to, and added to, the testimonies of the former spouses. Be prepared to provide the contact information for family members or friends who knew you and your spouse, especially during your courtship and engagement. Here it often comes up that one former spouse is no longer in  contact with the other. Know that an attempt truly must be made to inform him or her that the marriage is under consideration for annulment. However, know also that if there are serious reasons to avoid any direct contact, your Diocese could proceed with the annulment without providing to your former spouse your current address and phone number.

Fifth consideration: finances

It used to be widely believed  that a significant amount of money was needed to be paid in fees in order for a Diocese to process an annulment petition: hundreds, if not over a thousand, dollars. While a full annulment process can require extensive time, most Diocesan fees were probably never that exorbitant. You may inquire of your parish priest if there is a fee.

The annulment process is more and more considered an essential area of pastoral service, meriting funding by other means. It so happens that my own Diocese is one of many (though not all) that have eliminated any and all fees for the annulment process. If any fees are  financially unreasonable to handle, speak with a Catholic Charities office in your state and see if they have any grant programs or assistance in cases where a fee for annulment applications is a true financial hardship. If your Diocese has already removed all fees for annulment applications, then in gratitude consider donating a bit, within your means, to their Catholic Charities programs, to the diocesan annual fund, or to your local parish. It might help someone in a similar situation.

Sixth consideration: the peace of Christ

The last consideration is the big picture. Applying for an annulment is not an absolute guarantee that your future hopes for a second marriage will work out. Here we move forward in faith, knowing that the Catholic Church is a “big picture” kind of Church. Because by “big picture” we mean eternal life, the forgiveness of eternal debts, and the remitting of eternal punishments in the grace of Christ our Lord and personal Savior.

All our considerations of marriage should keep their connection with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is a very good sign, that despite all the discomfort of divorce and annulments, a person desires to keep their contact with the Church. Jesus Christ is the only lasting source of peace. In light of eternity, even life-defining events such as marriages and careers are still short term considerations.

We take great consolation in the fact that Christ wants to be with us in all our short-term considerations. If we are meant to “get through them,” he wants to guide us through them. If we are meant to “live” in marriage and family, or in any other vocation in life, he wants to be the life in the middle of it.

Images by Horn Photography & Design

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About the Author: Fr. Naples is a cradle Catholic from upstate New York. He worked for the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, in the summer of 2003 and was accepted to seminary for the diocese that fall. He completed six years of study at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was ordained a priest in 2009. He began giving scripture centered marriage instructions for the Diocese of Burlington in his first year as a priest, and remains involved in marriage preparation as a pastor.