The term "annulment" is actually a misnomer because the Church does not undo or erase a marriage bond. Rather, the Church issues declarations of nullity when it investigates and discovers that the parties were not truly joined by God and, hence, a full spiritual sacramental marriage as understood by the Church was not present.  In other words, an annulment is a determination that a Sacramental marriage never existed in the first place.

People who have received a declaration of nullity have expressed feelings of relief, wholeness, and healing as a result of the process. For those who have remarried outside the Church, a Declaration of Nullity provides the opportunity to exercise all the privileges, receive the graces that the Sacraments offer, and reestablish a closer bond with the community. This is a process of understanding, healing, and of making the justice and compassion of God more available to the divorced person.


In the Roman Catholic Church, an annulment is the procedure, governed by the Church's Canon Law and the Catechism, whereby an ecclesial tribunal determines whether the sacrament of marriage was invalidly entered into. An annulment determines the Catholic marriage to be void at its inception. A "Declaration of Nullity" is not a legal dissolution of an existing civil marriage, but rather a determination that the sacrament of marriage was not entered into validly.

The Catholic Church affirms that in a true marriage a man and a woman become "one flesh" before the eyes of God. The Church views marriage as a Sacrament validly contracted and entered into by the two individuals. Various impediments can render an individual unable to contract into sacramental marriage.

For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the sacramental marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged. - Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1629)[1]

Lack of Canonical Form: Members of the Catholic Church are required to marry in front of a priest (or deacon) of the Church (CCC 1630). If one of the parties is Catholic, but there is a serious reason why the marriage should be celebrated in front of a civil servant or a non-Catholic minister, a dispensation can be granted. If no dispensation was granted and the couple did not observe this law, the marriage is invalid. Because the nullity of this marriage is clear from the circumstances, there is no need for a canonical process to issue a Declaration of Nullity. The correction of this invalidity requires the couple to exchange their consent according to canonical form (commonly called "having the marriage blessed").

If one of the parties was prohibited from marrying by a diriment impediment, the marriage is invalid. Because these impediments may not be known at all, the marriage is called a putative marriage if at least one of the parties married in good faith.

Diriment impediments include:

  • Being too young (the absolute minimum age is 16 for men, 14 for women, but episcopal conferences can set a higher limit)[2]

  • Antecedent and perpetual impotence (not to be confused with sterility)[3]

  • Ligamen, being already married[4]

  • The situation in which one party is a Catholic and the other has not been baptized (unless a dispensation is granted)[5]

  • The man was ordained to holy orders[6]

  • Either party made a public perpetual vow of chastity in a religious institute[7]

  • Abduction with the intent of marriage (known as raptus), is an impediment as long as the person remains in the kidnapper's power[8]

  • Impediment of Crime, bringing about the death of one's own spouse or the spouse of another, with the intention of marriage[9]

  • Close relationship by blood, called Consanguinity, even if the relationship is only by law[10]

  • Close relationship by marriage, called Affinity[11]

Some of these laws can be relaxed by a dispensation before the ceremony. For example, Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII received a dispensation from the impediment of affinity. The correction of this invalidity after the marriage requires first that the impediment has ceased or has been dispensed, and then a "convalidation" can take place or a sanatio in radice can be granted to make the marriage valid.

Grounds for Nullity: A marriage may be declared invalid because at least one of the two parties was not free to consent to the marriage, or did not fully commit to the marriage. Grounds for nullity include:

  • Force or grave fear imposed on a person to obtain their consent (canon 1103)

  • The consent was based on a condition or reservation (canon 1102)

  • No intention, when marrying, to contract a lifelong relationship (simulation of consent) (canon 1101§2)

  • The intention, when marrying, never to have children (canon 1101§2)

  • A serious lack of the discretion at consent concerning the essential matrimonial rights and obligations to be given (canon 1095 n.2)

  • Psychological incapacity at consent to fulfill the essential obligations of marriage (canon 1095 n.3)

According to canon 1095, a marriage can be declared null only when consent was given in the presence of some grave lack of discretionary judgment regarding the essential rights and obligations of marriage, or of some real incapacity to assume these essential obligations. Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the Roman Rota in 2009 [12], echoing words of his predecessor Popoe John Paul II, has criticized "the exaggerated and almost automatic multiplication of declarations of nullity of marriage in cases of the failure of marriage on the pretext of some immaturity or psychic weakness on the part of the contracting parties". Calling for "the reaffirmation of the innate human capacity for matrimony," Pope Benedict insisted on the point made in 1987 by John Paul II that "only incapacity and not difficulty in giving consent invalidates a marriage" [13].

Process: Marriages annulled under the Catholic Church are considered as ab initio, meaning that the marriage was invalid from the beginning. Some worry that their children will be considered illegitimate if they get an annulment. However, Canon 1137 of the Code of Canon Law specifically affirms the legitimacy of children born in both valid and putative marriages (objectively invalid, though at least one party celebrated in good faith). Critics point to this as additional evidence that a Catholic annulment is similar to divorce; although civil laws regard the offspring of all marriages as legitimate.

However, there are some significant differences between divorce and annulment. Divorce is concerned merely with the legal effects of marriage. Annulment, however, is also concerned with the reality of whether or not a true marriage was ever formed. This leads to the second difference. At least in most countries, divorce is always possible. However, not all applications for marriage nullity are granted.

An annulment from the Catholic Church is independent from obtaining a civil annulment (or, in some cases, a divorce). Although, before beginning a process before an Ecclesiastical Tribunal, it has to be clear that the marriage cannot be rebuilt. Some countries, such as Italy, allow the annulment process to substitute for the civil act of divorce. In many jurisdictions, some of the grounds the Catholic Church recognizes as sufficient for annulment are not considered grounds for a civil annulment. In such cases, the couple will often need to be divorced by the civil authorities to be able to re-marry in the jurisdiction. Once the Church annuls a marriage, it would generally prefer that the marriage be subsequently annulled by the civil courts. However, should this not prove feasible, a civil divorce is acceptable.

If someone has been married previously and the first spouse is still alive, he or she must get a Declaration of Nullity before entering into a marriage in the Catholic Church, even if neither party in the marriage was Catholic (privilege of faith being separate cases). The Catholic Church treats as indissoluble and valid every marriage when it is the first marriage for both parties. However, the Church does not recognize as valid a marriage when one of the parties is Catholic but the marriage was not celebrated before a Catholic minister (unless a dispensation was first obtained).

Canon law presumes all marriages are valid until proven otherwise (canon 1060). Annulment Respondents who want to use Canon Law to defend their marriage against declarations of invalidity have the right to have a competent Advocate assisting them. An Advocate is like a lawyer. Respondents have the right to read the Petition (called Libellus, meaning little book) of the Petitioner. The Petition must describe, in a general way, the facts and proofs that the Petitioner is using as the basis for alleging that parties' marriage is invalid. It is necessary that tribunal judges study the jurisprudence of the Roman Rota, since the Rota is responsible to promote the unity of jurisprudence and, through its own sentences, to be of assistance to lower tribunals (Dignitas Connubii Art. 35, citing Pastor bonus, art.126). Annulment Respondents can use case law from the Roman Rota to support their defense of marriage.

In order to obtain a declaration of nullity, the parties must approach a Catholic diocesan tribunal. Most applications for nullity that are heard by the tribunal are granted because one or both of the parties are judged to have given invalid consent. In order to give valid consent, the parties must give it freely. They must have a basic understanding of what they are doing and have given some thought and evaluation to their decision to enter marriage (canon 1095, Code of canon law 1983). They must be capable of fulfilling the promises they make on the wedding day; that is, not suffer from any psychological infirmity (canon 1095) that will prevent them from giving themselves in a partnership of the whole of life that has as its ends the well-being of the parties and the procreation and education of children (canon 1055). They must intend the words that they speak on the wedding day; that is, intend to form a permanent and faithful partnership, open to sexual acts that are procreative (canon 1101). Serious failures in these areas can allow a possible successful application for marriage nullity. There are other reasons that might justify an allegation of invalid consent, such as a serious error concerning the person to whom marriage promises are made (canon 1097), one party being seriously deceived by the other at the time of the wedding (canon 1098), or one of the parties being subjected to force or grave fear without which the marriage would not be occurring (canon 1103).

Church tribunals are courts. As with any court, the person bringing the matter before the judges must prove his or her case. Tribunals will advise applicants as to how they can present the evidence necessary to prove a case. Of course, not every application is successful. The tribunal judges always have the difficult task of distinguishing those unions that were flawed from the outset from those valid marriages that have broken down.


1.  ^ Second Edition, Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. pp. 904. 

2. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1083

3. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1084

4. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1085

5. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1086

6. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1087

7. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1088

8. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1089

9. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1090

10. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1091

11. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1092

12.  ^ [1]

13.  ^ [2]

14. ^ Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2000 "13. Canon 779 - Juridical Status of An Annulment Granted by a Coptic Orthodox Church", F Steven Pedone and James I Donlon (eds), Canon Law Society of America, 2000, pp 39 - 51