The psychology of annulments


The objective nullity of some putative marriages is a reality. You can’t marry your sister. You can’t kidnap a woman and force her to wed. You can’t marry under a false pretext – e.g., pretending to be single when you’re married to someone else. You need to be sober when saying your vows. Etc.

Nevertheless, annulments should be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to obtain.

A healthy culture of marriage demands that Church and State assume the validity of all publicly celebrated marriages. That is the wisdom behind the “presumption of validity” that the Church has always maintained toward every civil marriage, even marriages that are purely natural and non-sacramental. A culture of marriage, protected by marital indissolubility and the presumption of validity, is necessary for the protection of children, the most innocent and helpless among us. The procreation and education of children is the primary purpose of marriage. That is to say: it is greater than the secondary purpose of marriage, which is the union and mutual help of the spouses. Therefore, it makes sense that the Church and human society arrange things in such a way that protects children from parental abandonment and the burden of illegitimacy.

All marriages are subject to difficulties, conflicts, trials, and crises of various kinds. That’s why the vows say “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part”. Everything is covered, even the very worst. A valid sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved for any reason whatsoever, no matter what the future may hold. It is absolutely essential, psychologically, that divorce and/or annulment never be considered an option in the minds of married people. When you say the vows, you accept every possible danger the future may bring – period.

Why is this so important? Because for most people, the married state is their means of salvation. The salvation of souls depends upon spouses enduring and persevering through the trials and tribulations of marriage. The Christian experience proves that marriages can survive their difficulties if spouses will only persevere in charity. But if one or both spouses has one eye on the annulment door, there is little incentive to persevere. It is just too easy to throw in the towel, and many do. The new “presumption of invalidity” for troubled marriages – reigning now for 40+ years and brought to a climax by the devastating motu proprio of Pope Francis – has become a classic “self-fulfilling prophecy”, achieving that which it assumes.

If the Church has failed to catechize marriage properly, the response should be a restoration of orthodox catechesis, not the normalization of of fast, cheap, drive-through annulments. In the eyes of the faithful, let the presumption of marital validity stand. Unfortunately there can be no presumption of validity for contemporary annulments.

9 thoughts on “The psychology of annulments

  1. Jeff:

    Unfortunately there can be no presumption of validity for contemporary annulments.

    Yes, that is a point I made many years ago and which needs to be understood. By cheapening the annulment process and making them easy to get – annulments after all are just the outcome of an ordinary, perfectly fallible judicial proceeding which supposedly attempts to determine the objective fact of the matter – the Church has in effect made annulments meaningless. If the criteria for annulment are like the criteria for a murder guilty verdict, decrees of nullity can be reasonably trusted. If the criteria for annulment are like asking for a self-report on what was in someone’s head twenty years ago, they are only as meaningful as asking for a self-report of what was in someone’s head twenty years ago — in a context where the person really really wants a certain answer right now.

    Sure, a declaration of nullity means that a priest has permission from the hierarchy to preside at a wedding; but the moral confidence of a strict annulment process are gone. People with decrees of nullity in hand these days have no reason to trust the veracity of the ‘never married’ ruling, and every reason not to trust it.

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  2. Jeff- “Nevertheless, annulments should be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to obtain.” So only the rich should be able to get an annulment, regardless of the merits? Don’t make artificial barriers-be rigorous in judgment. Obviously, otherwise I agree, we have a problem ….


  3. “Because for most people, the married state is their means of salvation.”

    Paul to Timothy:

    “….but the woman being seduced, was in the transgression. Yet she shall be saved through childbearing; if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety..”

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  4. Robert Vasoli, in his book What God Has Joined Together: The Annulment Crisis in American Catholicism states that a total of 638,705 decrees of nullity were issued between 1984-1994 in the USA. During the same period, American First and Second tribunals granted over 433,000 annulments based on defective consent. As of the printing of Vasoli’s book, the ROTA had been deciding about 200 cases a year and had overturned at least 92% of them. He also stated that if you apply the 92% reversal rate to the same time period, over 398,000 of the 433,000 defective consent annulments should never have occurred. “Is it any wonder”, Vasoli wrote, “that the sacrament and institution of marriage are thought by some to be in mortal danger?” In my opinion it is, at the very least, indicative of a revolving door mentality in granting annulments, but more so an indicator of marriages in trouble that were not given the proper pastoral care.

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  5. During our marriage classes when I attended an All-girl Catholic high school, the priest-instructor advised us that we might, in fact, be an important means of encouraging our spouse towards salvation in a difficult marriage. My thoughts drift sympathetically towards the Faithful Catholic husband or wife in a long term marriage who has walked the walk in spite of a difficult relationship and now is beginning to wonder if he/she actually has had a sacramental relationship based on synod conjecture. There is a Pink Elephant in the living room cruelty here that is not being discussed. Where is the spiritual synod mercy for the faithful Catholic who has not thrown in the proverbial marriage towel?

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