Annulments - questions and answers
Marriage breakdown is usually a traumatic experience for
all concerned. Many separated and divorced people wonder about their status
within the Catholic Church.
The Church reaches out in support of those whose marriage has broken down,
while upholding the permanence of a true Christian marriage. These two
aspects of the Church's position are especially evident in the sensitive
work of the Tribunal of the Catholic Church.
Where to begin?
There are many views as to the nature of marriage, including the popular
notion that marriage is simply an agreement, terminable at the will of
either party. The Bible-based view of the Catholic Church is that marriage
is the intimate union of life and love between a man and a woman, which is
permanent, faithful and open to new life.
The Catholic Church also maintains that the marriage of two baptized
people, free according to law, is presumed to be valid and binding and no
human power can dissolve their union. For this reason, the Catholic Church
cannot accept that a civil divorce alone frees the parties to enter a
marriage according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Such freedom is
only established if there is also a Church annulment of the previous union.
How does an annulment differ from a divorce?
A divorce dissolves the bond recognized in civil law. An annulment
declares that even though the correct wedding formalities were observed,
and even though children may have resulted from the union, the bond of
marriage, as understood by the Catholic Church, did not come into being.
Thus the parties are free to marry according to the rites of the Catholic
Church once all other requirements of law have been fulfilled.
An annulment does not claim that there was no love between the parties, or
that they were lacking in sincerity, effort nor commitment.
In Australia an annulment has no effect in civil law.
Who can approach the tribunal?
Anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic, who wants to clarify their marital
status in terms of the law of the Catholic Church may do so.
What is the basis for an annulment?
To answer this question it must be remembered that Catholic Church law
presumes that on their wedding day a couple had the capacity to marry.
Therefore, the basis for an annulment is the finding by the Tribunal that
one or both parties lacked the capacity to make marriage, as understood by
the Catholic Church.
To see whether there was an incapacity, the Tribunal investigates many
matters. These include the intentions of the parties, their maturity, their
freedom to act responsibly, their freedom from undue influence and
pressures and their capacity to undertake the essential obligations of
How does the Tribunal establish the facts of the matter?
The facts of the matter are established through the
documents presented and the evidence gathered. The Tribunal needs to be
informed about the background and upbringing of each of the parties, their
courtship, the story of their marriage and the story since the marriage.
The party seeking the annulment (the Plaintiff) gives evidence in private
and under oath. Every effort is made to contact the other party (the
Respondent) who will be asked to give evidence in private and under oath.
The Plaintiff is required to nominate witnesses who are willing and able to
speak to the facts of the case.
The Respondent is given the opportunity to nominate witnesses. Witnesses
are interviewed in private and under oath.
Everyone giving evidence does so on the understanding that they will not
discuss their evidence with anyone else.
Must the Respondent be contacted by the Tribunal?
Yes. Clearly, justice demands that the Respondent know of the proceedings
and be offered the opportunity to give evidence.
I have heard it is now a lot easier to get an annulment. Is this
The basis for nullity has not changed. However, the insights of the human
sciences over the past fifty years have broadened the basis on which a
judgement in Church law can be made that a marriage is null.
How is the decision reached?
When there is sufficient evidence for a decision to be reached, the formal
(and private) judgement of the Tribunal Court is made. The Plaintiff and
the Respondent are not required to attend. The Defender of the Bond submits
his observations on the case in the light of the teachings of the Church on
The decision is made by Judges of the Tribunal, who are sometimes assisted
by skilled Assessors. The First Instance Judgement will declare either that
the marriage is certainly null (an affirmative decision) or that the
evidence does not allow such a decision to be made (a negative decision).
What happens after the First Instance decision?
The case must be forwarded to the Appeal Tribunal for Australia and New
Zealand. If the affirmative decision is then ratified, a decree of nullity
is issued. If a negative decision is ratified, the presumption remains that
the marriage is binding.
Is everyone who seeks an annulment successful?
No. The fact that evidence is taken must not be construed as an indication
of a favourable result. The decision rests entirely with the Judges after
they have reviewed all of the evidence.
How long does it take?
It is quite incorrect to believe that every case takes many years.
Sometimes less than a year is required, usually no more than two.
No arrangements should be made for the celebration of a marriage in the
Catholic Church until the final decision has been given.
Isn't an annulment praising one party and blaming another?
No. The Tribunal is concerned with establishing whether or
not there is a basis in fact for nullity, not with apportioning praise or
Are children of the marriage declared null or considered
No. Church law states that such children are legitimate.
What if a person has been married more than once?
Each of the unions would have to be considered separately.
Are there costs?
Yes. The Tribunal charges a standard fee. Financial difficulties do not
hinder the processing of a petition.
Is it all worthwhile?
In seeking an annulment there are sometimes painful and anxious moments.
Nonetheless, most find the process and the sensitive approach of the
Tribunal staff an experience of healing and wholeness.
A decree of nullity clears the way to enter a marriage with the full
blessing of the Catholic Church, if the proposed spouse is also free to
marry according to Catholic Church law.
For those who have already entered another union, a decree of nullity
offers the possibility of having that union recognized by the Catholic
Church, if the other party is also free to marry according to Catholic
Before marrying or having a union recognized by the Catholic Church,
counselling is often required.
It is impossible simply and briefly to cover all aspects of this topic.
For further information, please refer to:
- Marriage, Divorce and Nullity - A Guide to the Annulment Process in
the Catholic Church, Geoffrey Robinson, Collins Dove, Melbourne, 1984.
His book is extremely readable and would answer most queries.
Both of these books are readily available at Catholic bookshops and
Where can I contact the Marriage Tribunal?
Rev Kim Holland
205 Tarcutta Street
PO Box 473
Wagga Wagga NSW 2650
Ph (02) 6937 0017
Fax (02) 6921 5157
The questions and answers above only address the concerns of baptised
persons whose marriage, presumed valid according to the laws of the
Catholic Church, has definitively broken down. Broken marriages of other
than baptized persons or of persons who married contrary to the laws of the
Catholic Church are handled differently to the annulment process addressed
here. Tribunal staff will advise which process of investigation will be
necessary to consider. (Pamphlet Published by the Tribunal of the
Catholic Church (NSW & ACT)