Theology of Marriage

What is the Catholic Church’s understanding of marriage?

The Catholic Church understands marriage to be a covenant by which a man and woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life. By its very nature, marriage is a radically faithful and indissoluble union, ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children.

When is a marriage a sacrament?

Through the grace of baptismal status, Christ himself raises a marriage to sacramental dignity. A validly contracted marriage is “automatically” raised to the level of a sacrament simply by the fact that both spouses are baptized.

This is true even between two baptized non-Catholics. Marriages between one baptized person and an unbaptized person (or between two unbaptized persons) are considered naturally valid and binding, although not sacramental.

What is the difference between divorce and an ecclesiastical decree of nullity?

A “divorce” is a term used in the civil legal world to describe a marriage that is dissolved by the courts. Although a civil divorce gives someone the right to marry in the civil realm, it does not establish a right to marry in the eyes of the Catholic Church. A “decree of nullity” is a term used by the Tribunal to describe a judgement under canon law regarding a defect in the consent of the parties, typically due to the existence of inadequate intentions or capabilities, at the beginning of their marriage. A decree of nullity does establish a right to marry in the eyes of the Church.

Can a divorced person enter a new marriage in the Catholic Church?

A divorced person is considered free to marry in the Catholic Church only if their former spouse has since died, or if their previous marriage to that spouse has been proven null, through a Tribunal process.

Common Questions

What is a declaration of nullity?

A declaration of nullity, more commonly called an “annulment,” is a judgment made by a tribunal of the Catholic Church that a given relationship was not a valid marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church. We presume that people mean what they say and say what they mean when they get married. However, sometimes people misrepresent their intentions, or they are not psychologically capable of consenting to marriage. If it can be proven that an essential intention or the capacity to give consent was lacking at the time the parties wed, it may be judged invalid.

Who can initiate an investigation into my marriage? How does one begin?

Anyone who would like an official inquiry and decision regarding the status of his/her marriage can approach the Tribunal, whether Catholic or not. Before the Church can consider a case, however, it must be clear that there is no possibility for reconciliation between the parties; a civil divorce is considered proof that the marriage has reached the point of irretrievable breakdown.

Contact your parish to set up an appointment with a parish representative who can assist you with gathering information about how to prepare a marriage case and the Church process involved. You may also contact the Metropolitan Tribunal for assistance.

Are there different types of petitions for a declaration of nullity?

Yes. The three most common processes are: a Formal process; an Absence of Canonical Form process; and a Prior Bond (“Ligamen”) process. There are different requirements for the different types of processes. A parish or Tribunal representative can help you identify what type of initial paperwork you must complete.

If the tribunal issues a declaration of nullity, are the parties free to marry?

Yes. If an affirmative decision is issued and no one formally opposes the decision during the time open for appeals, the parties will be considered free to marry. If serious psychological or relational difficulties were evident in the former marriage, however, restrictions might be placed on one (or both) of the parties before they can marry in the Catholic Church.

Questions About Procedure

Does my former civil spouse need to be contacted?

The rights of both spouses must be equally protected according to canon law. Every legitimate effort must be made by the Tribunal to contact the other spouse and allow for their participation. If a former civil spouse cannot be located, or chooses not to participate, the process may continue.

Why must my former civil spouse be contacted in this process?

As a matter of justice, your former civil spouse has a right to know that this process is occurring, just as both of you had the right to know when the civil divorce process began. The Tribunal’s failure to contact your former civil spouse can result in forfeiting this entire process under canon law.

What if the address of my former civil spouse is unknown?

You must make every effort to provide the Tribunal with an accurate, current address for your former civil spouse. If this is not possible, all efforts to locate them must be thoroughly documented for the Tribunal in order to demonstrate that they truly cannot be located.

Are witnesses necessary during a formal investigation?

Yes. The necessity of witnesses is an ancient and biblical tradition. Witnesses can speak to the credibility of either/both parties, corroborate the testimony presented in a case, and provide valuable insights or observations about your family backgrounds and your relationship with each other. The best witnesses typically are those people who knew both parties prior to and at the time of the wedding. If necessary, the Tribunal staff can help you identify appropriate witnesses.

Does applying for an annulment assure me of a favorable result?

No. Every marriage is presumed valid and binding until proven otherwise. Therefore, judgment in favor of nullity can only be made when it is based on sufficient evidentiary proof.

How confidential is this process?

All information gathered during this process, including civil and/or church documents, is the exclusive and permanent property of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. All information obtained during the process remains highly confidential. Both spouses have a right to review and respond to the evidence contained in their case file before a decision is made, however copies of case file evidence are never given to the parties, and information is not made available to witnesses.

How much does the Tribunal process cost?

At no time will anyone be denied access to this process due to financial hardship. However, inasmuch as you are able to do so, we ask that you help offset payment for the cost of the process, which is otherwise subsidized by the Archdiocese.

Complicated Questions

Am I still a member of the Church if I have remarried without a declaration of nullity?

A common misconception is that Catholics are excommunicated if they have divorced or remarried. While they are not officially excommunicated, a person cannot receive Holy Communion when their public lifestyle is not in conformity with the teachings of the Catholic faith. For that reason, choosing to remarry civilly without a prior declaration of nullity impedes that person from full sacramental participation.

Can a divorced but not remarried Catholic receive the Sacraments?

The Sacraments are always available to Catholics who are willing to repent of their sins and strive to live in accord with the Gospel. If a divorced person has not remarried or entered a sexual relationship with another partner, there is nothing necessarily preventing their from sacramental participation.

If the Church teaches that marriage is forever, how can annulments be granted?

The Catholic Church is faithful to the words of Jesus Christ about marriage and divorce, and thus teaches that a valid and consummated marital bond between baptized persons can never be dissolved by any authority, civil or religious. The Church has no authority to allow remarriage after divorce, while the previous spouse is still living. However, sometimes what appears to be a valid marriage is in fact not valid in the eyes of the Church. Thus, an investigation to answer this question is the purpose of the annulment process.

Is the Church saying that I must stay married to an abusive spouse and risk my safety?

No. The Church recognizes that at times it may be necessary for a husband and wife to separate, and in some cases even civilly divorce, for the sake of personal health and/or safety. However, a civil divorce does not dissolve the marital bond. For this reason, unless it can be proven that the marriage was invalid, neither spouse is free to marry someone else.

Does a decree of nullity make children illegitimate?

No. A degree of nullity has no effect on civil law. And even if it is determined that a marriage was never canonically valid, canon law specifies that children are not retroactively considered illegitimate since they were born into a marriage that was presumed valid at the time.