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When Pope Francis made a few changes to the process of marriage annulments, it became clear from the discussions among Catholics and none Catholics alike  that not everyone knows what marriage annulment really means. Most people think marriage annulment is another term to describe divorce. Some were even saying Pope Francis was changing the Catholic Church laws and that he was going against the teaching of Christ. Some even went to attack the Pope by stating that he was becoming too liberal in so far as it comes to the matters of the Catholic Church.

What is really marriage annulment? First and foremost, annulment is not divorce. According to the teaching of the Church, the Church cannot allow divorce of a validly contracted marriage. The Church holds that no ‘a marriage which is ratified and consummated cannot by dissolved by any human power or by any cause other than death’ (cf. Canon law 1141). This is also in fidelity to the teaching of Jesus Christ who said that marriage is indissoluble (Mark 10:11-12;  I Cor 7: 10-11).

 A declaration of nullity is not dissolution of marriage. It is not a Church divorce as others put it. Annulment simply means that the ‘marriage’, after examining information available now, on what was considered to be legally taken place at the time of the wedding, was from the beginning not validly contracted. In other words, the marriage was never there because it lacked what constitutes a valid marriage according to the laws and teaching of the Church.   Annulment is the Church’s judicial finding that a marriage had not been brought into effect on the wedding day, as the faith community had presumed.

People can enter into what is purportedly to mean ‘marriage’ only to discover that some information was withheld which, if known at that time to either one of the contracting parties or even the Church, the marriage ceremony would not have taken place. This invalidates the marriage.  

The Church law declares that marriage is brought about through: (1) the consent of the bride and the groom, (2) legitimately manifested, (3) by those qualified according to the law (the bride and the groom).  So if the consent was defective – marriage was not brought about.  If the consent was not legitimately manifested – marriage was not brought about either and if one or both of the people were unqualified according to law – the marriage was not brought about.

A person ready for marriage should be one who freely, knowingly enters into marriage knowing that it entails permanent partnership ordered toward the procreation of children. Union (one man, one woman) and indissolubility (marriage is for life) are essential properties of marriage. If either or both parties exclude, one such essential properties, that ‘marriage’ is invalid from the word go. 

Consent is paramount for those entering marriage. If a person was forced into marriage, e.g., fearing to be bewitched if one does not marry in in a particular family, may defect the consent and thus invalidate marriage. One must also have knowledge of whom he or she is marrying.  If one is in error of the one he or she is marrying, then the marriage is invalid. 

The other aspect that validates marriage is the legitimate manifestation of marriage itself. The celebration of the marriage should be done before the witnesses - priest and other church witnesses and that it should be consummated or else the marriage could be considered invalid.

The Church law outlines those who do not qualify to validly contract marriage, e.g., impotents (not infertility), age, close relations, those who have made vow of celibacy, or those already validly married and so on. If at the time of the wedding one person or both contracting marriage had any of these impediments, then the wedding was invalid.

It is often common to discover later that some information were not available at the time the wedding ceremony took place. As a person who has worked as a parish priest before, I know what I am talking about. People are able to withhold information at the time the wedding ceremony is about to take place. There are many reasons why persons intending to contract church marriage may withhold information from either their partner or the witnesses, in this case the Church. Some of these reasons would include simulation, fear, and traditional beliefs, or even deception. For instance, a man who at the time of the wedding was already in other relationships with other women would not want his bride or the priest to know about this for fear that the wedding will not take place.  This person has already excluded one essential properties of marriage – union. It is doubtful whether he believes or consents to be in a one man- one woman exclusive relationship. That invalidates marriage.   So once the church carries out its own investigations and discovers any defect such as this, it invalidates that marriage. This is what we call annulment.

The Church carries its own process to judge whether the marriage was invalid from the moment it was contracted or not. The Church does this through its own courts called the Marriage Tribunal. Anyone faithful claiming that or suspecting that their marriage is invalid can bring the case before the tribunal which sits usually at the Diocesan Offices. The tribunal then examines all the facts in view of the Church’s teaching and laws on marriage before it passes judgement on a particular case.  The tribunal will declare whether the nullity of marriage is proven or not proven. If it is proven, it simply means there was no marriage even if the ceremony was conducted in the Church.  In this case, either party is now free to contract marriage in Church if they so wish.

If the tribunal judges that the nullity of marriage is not proven, then the marriage from the first instance was valid. Here the Church will not do anything on the marriage because it has no authority to grant divorce. In situation where couples are no longer living together, and most probably have been granted divorce by civil authority – local courts or other courts- the Church considers that as separation. 

One may ask, what happens to the relationship that existed between the man and the woman during those marriage years? What of the children, if any, born out of that union?  The declaration of the nullity does not deny that love existed in that relationship and that cannot be wiped away.  Even the wedding ceremony that took place will not be wiped away either. That relationship remains part of individual and collective history.  The children born out of that union are considered legitimate in church law, similar to those born out of wedlock.  However what we have is a declaration that marriage did not come about on the wedding day. The declaration of nullity or annulment does not dissolve or erase the ceremony or whatever has happened after the ceremony. But still in the eyes of the Church there was no marriage.

The process of nullification is a tedious long and at times frustrating process especially on the part of the person who want the church nullify their marriage. At times it can even take longer than ten years. This process is also very expensive.  In the meantime one cannot participate fully in the life of the Church especially if they have already starting leaving in another relationship. This is the process which Pope Francis has changed. He wants to shorten the process. This does not imply that any case or cases sent to the marriage tribunal will be nullified. The procedure of declaring annulments still remains the same. What has changed is the time it will be taking for the tribunal to pass judgement on the case – to declare it annulled or not annulled.  

It is import to note that annulments have existed in the Church for centuries. This is not something new. It would be sad to think that it is Pope Francis who is introducing a new teaching in the church. The Church has been dealing with marriage cases through the same process as far back as the middle ages. We hope that those affected with marital cases may find easer through this process so that their cases may be disposed off more so that Pope Francis has proposed that it be done freely without any cost to it.  It is also paramount to note that any person intending to enter marriage- church marriage should be mature enough, fully aware of the teaching of the Church and that they do not exclude any law or teaching of the church as they enter marriage.

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Fr. Winfield Kunda
ZEC Communications Director 

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