Metropolitan Tribunal

The annulment process

Frequently asked questions

(En Español)   (Related: What is the annulment process? | Getting started)

Question: Does an annulment “erase” or “wipe away” a marriage?

Answer: No. When an annulment is granted, it is not a conclusion that no marriage of any kind existed.  Naturally, there was some type of wedding ceremony and at least a valid civil marriage that did, in fact, take place. If the wedding in question took place in a Catholic church, it remains recorded in the parish’s official marriage register even after an annulment is granted, followed by a notation of the annulment entered alongside of it.  Furthermore, no one can deny that two people did experience some kind of life together for the duration of their union. Nothing is “erased.”

An annulment is, more accurately, a “declaration of invalidity.” In other words, it is the recognition, by the Catholic Church, that some essential element was missing at the time the parties said “I do”, which prevented the wedding from resulting in a permanent, binding union that can be dissolved only by the death of one of the parties. It is no longer considered a sacred bond, or a sacrament for Christians.

Question:  Is an annulment really just a Catholic divorce?

Answer: No. As noted above, an annulment does not dissolve something that existed, but instead recognizes what was missing all along. Divorce also focuses on the events that eventually broke down the parties’ relationship, while the annulment process concentrates on the formation of the relationship and the decision to get married in the first place.

Question: What is the status of a divorced Catholic?

Answer: This is a commonly misunderstood issue. Because the Church does not recognize civil divorce as terminating a bond of marriage (but only as terminating the civil effects of marriage), the Church regards divorced people as only separated from their former spouses. In the eyes of the church, these people are not free to remarry. However, a divorced Catholic who has not remarried is free to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church (including Eucharist and Penance/Reconciliation). It is only when a divorced person remarries without some resolution, in the Catholic Church, of a prior bond of marriage that participation in the sacraments is not permitted.

Question: What about remarriage after divorce?

Answer: Divorced Catholics can be remarried in the Church only if it has been proved through Church process that they are free to marry. This also applies to non-Catholics who wish to marry a Catholic or become Catholic. All parties (Catholic or non-Catholic) who approach the Catholic Church for marriage must be determined free from any prior bond of marriage.

Question: If a divorced Catholic remarried out of the Church or if a Catholic remarried a divorced person out of the Church, is the Catholic excommunicated?

Answer: No. That person is still Catholic and is not excommunicated. However, the Church views the marriage outside of the Church as invalid and does not recognize it as a marriage. The Church views such a marriage as not in accord with the teachings of Jesus. Because of this, the Catholic party who has remarried outside the Church may not receive sacraments (including Eucharist). In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Pope John Paul II explained:

“They [divorced and remarried] are unable to be admitted [to the Eucharist] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. … If these people were admitted to Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

However, anyone who has married in these circumstances is encouraged to continue to take part in the life of the Church – to attend Mass and other religious services and to participate in parish activities. Encouragement must also be shown to this person to approach the nullity process if at all possible in order to restore full sacramental life in the Church community.

Question: What about when a divorced Catholic was previously married in a civil ceremony or in a Protestant church?

Answer: In certain circumstances, this could actually serve as grounds for nullity. Such a case would involve the “form” of the marriage. “Form” refers to the essentials of the marriage ceremony – the heart and soul of the public consent of the parties who are marrying one another.  Just as a state has requirements for civil marriages for its residents (license, blood test, etc.), the Church has requirements for its members. In a Catholic wedding, the parties must give consent before a properly delegated priest or deacon and two witnesses. The public ceremony must take place in a Catholic Church unless special permission is obtained otherwise.

The nullity of the marriage of a Catholic who does not observe the Catholic “form” and fails to obtain permission to do otherwise is very clear. It is, again, similar to a civil situation in which two people failed to obtain a marriage license or have anyone  present when they proclaimed themselves “married.”  If divorce later occurs, the Catholic can approach his or her parish priest to remarry in the Catholic Church and may not need to go through a tribunal process.

Question: Does the annulment process make it too difficult for people to remarry?

Answer: Some people say that the annulment process makes it too hard for people to “move on” with their lives. While the Catholic Church does believe in upholding people’s natural freedom to marry, this freedom is not absolute and is not acknowledged to exist when there is already a prior marriage that has taken place. To hold otherwise would be to contradict the Church’s own position on the indissolubility of marriage and the teachings of Jesus.

Generally, by publicly exchanging wedding vows, people create a presumption that a valid and indissoluble marriage bond has been formed. It is their burden to prove otherwise. Because this exchanging of vows is not only a public event, but a sacred and solemn one as well, it is only reasonable that an equally serious judicial process investigate any contention that this exchange did not result in a valid or sacramental bond.

Question: Does the annulment process make it too easy for people to remarry?

Answer: Nothing in what you have read so far should lead you to believe that the annulment process is “easy” or that the Catholic Church treats a marriage investigation or declaration of invalidity lightly.

Question: Does an annulment make children illegitimate?

Answer: No! This is one of the most common misunderstandings among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  “Illegitimacy” is, in the modern world, a civil legal term. If the parties entered marriage by observing all the legal requirements of the state, then any offspring born of the marriage are “legitimate.” Neither the civil divorce nor an annulment change the status of the children born to parents who met all legal requirements at the time of marriage.

In fact, if a marriage that produced children is declared invalid, both parties will be reminded of their continuing obligations and responsibilities toward the care and upbringing of all children born in the prior marriage.

Question: Why does the annulment process apply even to someone who is not Catholic?

Answer: All parties who approach the Catholic Church for marriage must be free from any prior bond of marriage – both Catholics and non-Catholics. The Catholic Church has profound respect for all marriages. We view all marriages between validly baptized people (not just marriages that took place in a Catholic church) as a sacrament – a sacred bond sealed by God and a visible sign of His grace. Therefore, given the Church’s deep respect for the sanctity of marriage, which includes the indissolubility of marriage, a serious investigation of any prior marriage, of any person wishing to remarry in the Catholic Church, must be undertaken.

Understandably, this may be a very difficult task for a non-Catholic. Most often the non-Catholic party approaches the nullity process with the understanding that it is necessary in order for his or her Catholic intended to be able to marry in the Catholic Church.  For the non-Catholic, participation in the nullity process is often an act of self-giving and respect for the Catholic intended’s faith practices. This being said, it can also be a powerful experience of healing and closure for a non-Catholic, just as it can for a Catholic who is going through this process.

Question: Is it possible to have a civil marriage blessed in the Church while waiting for an annulment to be completed?

Answer: No. Remember, the Church presumes that the prior marriage is valid in the eyes of God until one of the parties dies, unless one of those parties proves otherwise. Also, it is important to keep in mind that there is no assurance or guarantee that any annulment proceeding will be successful.

Therefore, an on-going annulment proceeding must be completely and successfully finalized before a party is deemed free to remarry.  Until absolute certainty regarding the invalidity of a prior bond of marriage is established, any re-marriage or “blessing” of a marriage, in the Church, could lead to confusion and error regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Question: How long does a marriage case take?

Answer: The length of a Roman Catholic marriage case can vary from diocese to diocese. Furthermore, it is a difficult question to answer, even regarding this Archdiocese solely, with any exact time-frame. Generally speaking, however, a marriage case takes approximately twelve months from the date the case is officially accepted by the Tribunal Judge – not from the date the case is submitted to the Metropolitan Tribunal. There are, however, many variables present in a marriage case that will determine its length.

Question: Can a person buy his or her annulment?

Answer: There are no fees charged by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Question: Can I pursue an annulment without involving my former spouse?

Answer: Tribunals are bound by law, just as civil courts are, to make every reasonable effort to find and notify the other party, and allow that person to participate in the process if he or she wishes.  However, the parties are never called into the Tribunal together so there will be no face-to-face meetings between former spouses and vindictive or capricious behavior on the part of a former spouse, with regards to this process, will not prevent a case from moving forward, nor will it prevent a meritorious case that is supported by evidence from being successful.

Question: Can an annulment be granted to one party, and not the other?

Answer: No. A declaration of invalidity is a declaration about the marriage. It does not say that one spouse or the other is invalid; it says that the marriage was invalid. If the marriage was invalid, then both parties will be free from it. Just as a civil divorce dissolves a marriage for both spouses, a Catholic annulment declares a marriage invalid for both spouses.

Question: What are the benefits of pursing an annulment?

Answer: An important benefit is a spiritual benefit. The Catholic party or parties can now celebrate a new marriage in the Catholic Church.  The Catholic party or parties, if the case is successful, will be in full communion with the Church, including participation in the sacramental life of the Church.

Another important benefit is that the parties can be assured that an objective and thorough examination of a prior marriage has been undertaken, with the primary goal of all Tribunal members having been, simply, to discover and decree the truth.

Regardless of the outcome, the annulment process can be a cleansing and restoring experience for both parties. It can close hurtful chapters in a person’s life, once and for all, and can lead to the healing of wounds and releasing of anger. A party can go forward with a sense of peace and confidence once the annulment proceedings have ended.

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