Questions About Divorce and Annulment

Author: Mary Beth Bonacci

Questions About Divorce and Annulment

By Mary Beth Bonacci

Why doesn't the Catholic Church allow divorce? Isn't annulment just Catholic divorce?

It is true, the Catholic Church doesn't recognize divorce because she says marriage is permanent. But that statement is not a "rule" -- it is just a description.

Christ said, "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mk 10:9). What He is saying here is that, in marriage, God joins people together for life. He actually makes the two into one. He binds their souls together. And no one, not even the Catholic Church, is powerful enough to break that bond. It can't be done.

The Church doesn't make up power. She only has the power that God gives to her. So the Church isn't saying "We won't give divorces." She is saying, "We can't. God didn't give us the power to take apart what He puts together." He didn't give that kind of power to anyone, not even His Church.

What, then, is an annulment? Annulment isn't just "Catholic divorce." An annulment doesn't say that two people were married and now they are not married. Annulment says that, for some reason, a marriage never took place to begin with.

In marriage, two people are agreeing to something very specific. They are agreeing to remain married forever. They are agreeing to be completely faithful to each other. And they are agreeing to be open to having children. If someone is standing on the altar thinking, "If it doesn't work out, I'll leave and marry someone else," or "I can still keep my other boyfriend," or "There is no way I ever want children," they are not agreeing to marriage, and no marriage is taking place. God is not uniting them sacramentally. He is not binding their souls together.

When a couple applies for an annulment, they go to a marriage tribunal. That tribunal looks back at was going on at the time of the couple's wedding to see if the actual marriage took place. They interview each partner and other people who knew them then to find out what their attitudes were toward the marriage. If either was not committing to a real marriage or was for some reason not able to freely make a commitment (severe immaturity, emotional or mental illness, coercion, etc.), the tribunal declares that no marriage existed and the people are free to marry others. Their marriage hasn't been dissolved. On the spiritual level, it never existed in the first place.

What, then, about children? If they are born and the marriage is later annulled, are they illegitimate?

No, no, no. Illegitimacy is strictly a legal term. It refers to a child who was born when its parents were not legally married. Legitimacy is important only in determining inheritance and in helping royal families decide who gets to be called a "prince" and who doesn't.

Annulment, on the other hand, is a moral term. It does not say that a legal marriage did not take place in the eyes of the state. As far as the law is concerned, the two people were married. Annulment just says that, in God's eyes, the couple was never sacramentally joined together. Even in the eyes of the Church, a marriage is presumed to be valid until a tribunal definitely determines that is not. This means that the child involved was born into a legal marriage that was presumed spiritually valid at the time of your birth.

I think the whole concept of "legitimacy," even from a legal standpoint, is too easily misunderstood. It gives people value based not on who they are, but on the circumstances of their birth. And that is wrong.

In God's eyes there is no such things as an "illegitimate" person. We are all "legitimate" because we were created in His image and likeness, and He is madly in love with each and every one of us.

Don't worry. Both legally and spiritually we are all as "legitimate" as they come.

Bonacci is a frequent lecturer on chastity.

This article appeared in the November 16, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.