Where does the Catholic Church derive its authority to examine and, if appropriate, annul a previous marriage?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5:27-32, Jesus is confronted by the Jewish pharisees regarding the ability of a man to write his wife a writ or bill of divorce and be theoretically divorced from her.  Jesus reminds his inquirers and listeners that it was Moses, who gave them this summary practice.  However, from the beginning, Jesus instructed them, this was not intended by God.  Chapter 5, verse 32 states:

   "But I say to you, who divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery,

and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery [also]."

The Catholic Church's Annulment Process determines through careful and thorough examination, whether or not the marriage was contracted between the two parties validly and lawfully.  If it was a valid and lawful marriage, then NO Annulment can be issued.  If it was not, then a further determination is made by the Tribunal Court  whether a Declaration of Nullity should be issued. 

What is often referred to as a “marriage annulment” in the Church is actually an official, written declaration by a Church tribunal (a diocesan-level Catholic Church court) that a previous marriage (that has civilly been dissolved by a secular court-ordered Dissolution of Marriage) thought to be valid Sacrament of Matrimony according to Church law, actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union in the Sacrament of Matrimony.  

The tribunal annulment process carefully and thoroughly examines the events leading up to (i.e., dating, engagement, etc.), and at the time of, the wedding ceremony, in an effort to determine whether what was required by the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law for a valid Sacrament of Matrimony was ever brought about.

If the tribunal finds in affirmative favor of the annulment request, a Declaration of Nullity is issued, which simply means that a marriage that was once thought to be valid civilly and canonically (within the Roman Catholic Church) was in fact not a validly conferred sacrament according to Church law.

A Declaration of Nullity does not deny that a relationship existed nor that any children born as fruit of the civil marriage are suddently "illegitimate".  The word and pejorative meaning of "illegitimate" is not recognized or used in the Church's laws; because it is a secular term.  A Declaration of Nullity simply states that the relationship was missing something that the Church requires for a valid Sacrament of Matrimony.  It remains a previous civil act of marriage and a subsequent civil court order of divorce.


If a Declaration of Nullity is granted, are the children born during the previous marriage considered illegitimate?

Absolutely not!   A Declaration of Nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children who were born of the couple's loving union.  


Why does the Catholic Church require an intended spouse, who is divorced, however not Catholic, to obtain a Declaration of Nullity before marrying in the Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church respects the marriages of non-Catholics (baptized and unbaptized) and presumes that they are valid.  Thus, for example, it considers the marriages of two Protestant, Jewish, or even nonbelieving persons to be binding for life in the eyes of God.  Marriages between baptized persons, moreover, are considered to be sacramental. The Church requires an examination and, if appropriate, a Declaration of Nullity in order to establish that an essential element was absent or missing in that previous civil union that prevented it from being a valid Sacrament of Matrimony, and thus the intended spouse is free to marry.

This is often a difficult and emotional issue. If the intended spouse comes from a faith tradition that readily accepts divorce and remarriage as just a matter of human life or existence, it may be hard to understand why he/she must go through the Annulment process. Couples in this situation may find it helpful to talk with a priest or deacon. To go through the process can be a sign of great mutual love of the non-Catholic for the intended spouse.


My fiancé/e and I want to marry in the Catholic Church.  He/she has been married before and has applied for a Declaration of Nullity. When can we set a date for our wedding?

You should not set a date until the tribunal's decision has been finalized and published. First, the petition may not be granted (e.g., Annulments are not 100% guaranteed to be granted).  Second, even if the petition is eventually granted, there may be unexpected delays in the process (e.g., if your fiancé/e's spouse wishes to appeal the tribunal's decision or if an Annulment affirmative decision has an attached "monitum" (i.e., soimething that must be completed before his/her next marrage--such as personal counselling in how to better facilitate relational conflict resolution skills).


When and how do I start the process?

A formal court order of divorce and/or a dissolution of marriage must have been granted by a civil court/judge before the Church's annulment process can be started.

Your parish's pastor can provide you with the information and forms that you need to get started.  Simply call and make an appointment to come in and sit to discuss the situation -- because every previous marriage, that resoluted in a divorce, are uniquely different.  There is no such thing, when it comes to an Annulment of a "one-size fits all" approach.



Sources / References Regarding Annulments in the Catholic Church:

Vatican Issued:

      Dignitas Connubii (Handling cases of nullity of Marriage)

      Motu Proprio MITIS ET MISERICORS IESUS (Eastern Church)

      Motu Proprio MITIS IUDEX DOMINUS IESUS (Western Church)  (including our Roman Catholic Rite)

      Article, Church Teachings on Annulments


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Issued:


Diocese of Colorado Springs' issued:

      Annulment Process (Overview Chart) 

      Irregular Marriage (Catholic Herald newspaper article, Bishop Sheridan)

      Fundamental Rights of the Annulment Petitioner and Annulment Respondent


A helpful guide to what type of Annulment you may need:             


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):