What is an Annulment?

This week I was talking to a couple and they said they had read that an annulment is a “Catholic divorce.”  This is not true.

A divorce is a civil (government) process that ends a legal relationship.  It views marriage as a contract formed when the couple make their vows to each other.  The divorce says that the contract has been broken by one or both spouses.  A divorce may determine that one spouse or both is responsible for the break-up of the marriage.  Some states allow “no-fault” divorces where the couple may just agree to end the marriage without providing a reason.  So much for “to death do you part!”

As Catholics, we believe that marriage is not just a contract.  It is a covenant that is based on love and is an image for us of the covenant that God has formed with his people.  God established the covenant never to be broken.  The couple make their vows to each other for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health until death.

As a covenant, marriage is not to be broken.  It doesn’t always go the way we wish but we are called to rely on God and to do our best to make the marriage work.  However, the Church recognizes that there are reasons for a couple to separate.  For instance if there is physical abuse in the marriage, the church says the victim of the abuse should leave for their own safety.

This does not “end the marriage covenant.”  In such cases, the “victim” may obtain a legal divorce to protect themself.  Then, the question of an annulment arises.  It may seem strange but abuse does not guarantee an annulment.  This is because an annulment does not end a marriage.  Remember, what God has joined, man must not divide.

What does an annulment do then? 

An annulment reviews the history of the couple to establish that the marriage was not “valid” in the fullest sense.  By valid, we do not mean that there was not a marriage.  The couple was married (and all children are legitimate).  This is where it becomes difficult to find the right words to explain this.   By valid, we mean that for some reason the marriage did not have the “fullness” it was meant to.  The most common issue is “consent.”  Was the couple mature enough to understand what marriage is?  Was there alcohol or drug problems that kept one of the spouses from understanding what they were committing to?  Were there psychological problems?  Was one of the spouses forced into the marriage?  All of these may have affected the couple’s ability to consent to the marriage.

It is difficult to explain what an annulment is but I hope this helps.  For more on the Catholic understanding of marriage check out http://foryourmarriage.org/ from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Fr. Jeff


  1. I am very appreciative of your words of explanation on this subject. I was married for the first and only time in an Episcopal church as my husband had been married before by a Lutheran minister and then divorced. We were told that we could not marry in the Catholic church without an annulment. Back then an annulment was very expensive and in my heart of hearts, I knew that my husband would never agree to the terms. They would also call his two children illegitimate which, I too, did not agree with. This broke my heart as I am a devout Catholic and had fallen in love with a man who had a terrible first marriage; but we knew we were meant to be together in our’s. It’s been 15 years and we still feel that same way today. In fact, I call him the best practicing non-Catholic that I know! Although he does not attend mass with me every weekend; he does come and we are raising our child catholic. It is sad, but true, that up until a few years ago, annulments are what may or may not have turned some people away from the church.

  2. So many people face difficult situations with annulments. Your case is no exception.

    1. Some people ask why, if they were not married in the Catholic Church, they need an annulment from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church recognizes that marriage is always meant to be a sacred institution, whether it happens in a Catholic Church or not.

    2. For many the cost of an annulment is a problem. Each diocese sets its own policy regarding annulment fees. I cannot speak for the situations in other diocese but in my diocese (Rochester) the fee charged for an annulment only covers about half of the typical cost of an annulment. No one is turned away for financial reasons. If anyone seeking a annulment cannot afford it, they need to talk to the person handling their annulment.

    3. You mentioned that if he got the annulment that his two children from his first marriage would be called illegitimate. That is not the case. When an annulment is granted it does not say that the marriage never happened. This is where the wording becomes difficult again. The marriage existed as a relationship but it was “incomplete” in some way that prevented it from having the “fullness” of marraige.


    Fr. Jeff

  3. Dear Fr. I have a question about my sister who was married in the Episcopal church to a divorced man. Her marriage lasted for about 15 years, and resulted in two children. Her marriage was not a good one though. Her husband was an alcoholic, and illegal drug user. She finally left him after finding out that he had an extramarital affair. My sister has always gone to mass and raised her children in the Catholic faith, but has never received communion because she was told she could not while living with a divorced man. Since she left her husband over 9 years ago, she has not dated, married, or been intimate with any man. My question is this: how does she become able to again receive communion? I know this must be possible for her. My aunt was divorced decades ago from a bad marriage, then remarried to a wonderful man, had several children with him and always went to church and raised all of her children in the faith. At some point years and years ago, a priest did something that allowed her to begin receiving communion again, even though, she had been divorced. (I only know of the situation from my mother, and don’t know the details, as I wasn’t an adult at the time). I have another friend in the same situation who is a faithful catholic but does not receive communion. Can you explain what they may do to be able to receive?
    Thank you, Father.
    I love reading your essays. So glad to have been a part of St. Mary’s parish for the past year. Hope your new assignment is fruitful. We’ll miss you very much, but so glad to be able to read your thoughts here!!

  4. Thank you for your question. It is a question that may apply to others but may be misunderstood by many. First, let me begin by stating one assumption that I need to make. You stated your sister was married in the Episcopal Church. It is possible to have a marriage in the Epsicopal Church recognized by the Catholic Church (if there are no previous valid marriages). However, since you said he was a divorced man, I assume this is not the case.

    You also indicated that her marriage has since ended. She was not receiving Communion because she was living in a marriage not recognized by the Catholic Church. Since that marriage has ended she should go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), discussing the situation with the priest and confessing all her sins since her last confession. For this I recommend that she make an appointment with a priest of her choice. Since she is no longer living in the marriage, this may free her to receive Communion.

    Then, she could discuss with the priest applying for what is called a “Lack of Canonical Form.” In simple terms (an in-person explanation by the priest woud provide the details), it would require a application with basic information about the marriage, her own baptism certficate as a Catholic, marriage certificate showing that the marriage was not done by a Catholic minister, and an original divorce decree. After a short period of time, the marriage may be declared invalid. She would then be free to marry in the Catholic Church and receive Communion. Realize that I am basing this on the information you provided. There may be circumstances that may require an annulment.


    Fr. Jeff

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