Annulments Are Not Ecclesiastical Divorces

Q: Why can Catholics now get a “Church legal” divorce if they pay a fee to the church? Seems like it is a scheme to get more money.

A: The Church does not now nor has it ever offered a “Church legal divorce.” Any divorces two Catholics experience are purely civil — that is, divorces under civil law (the law of the state), but not under divine law (the law of God).

Unless there is some impediment, marriages between Christians are sacramental and cannot be dissolved by anything but death. However, if there is an impediment to the marriage of two Christians, this can block the marriage from ever coming into existence. In such a case the two people were never married in God’s eyes, but only in the eyes of the state. If a couple was never married in God’s eyes then it is possible for them to obtain an annulment — that is, an official decree from the Church attesting to the fact that they were not married in God’s eyes, meaning that they are not bound to a spouse and are thus free to marry.

In order to be sure that the two parties were never married in God’s eyes, the Church must make very, very sure that this is the case and must conduct a thorough investigation. If it treated the issue cavalierly then people who were married in God’s eyes could be granted an annulment, meaning that if they married again then they objectively would be living in an adulterous marriage, which Jesus explicitly warns us against in the gospels (Mark 10:11-12).

Thus in examining marriage cases the Church assumes that any marriage was valid and (if between Christians) sacramental unless compelling evidence to the contrary is produced. The Church must conduct a thorough investigation to show that any purported evidence stands up under cross-examination, and if a preliminary finding of nullity is made then the case is automatically appealed within the Church’s internal marriage tribunal system. Only if the finding of nullity is held up on appeal is a decree of nullity — an annulment — issued, declaring that the parties were not married in God’s eyes and thus are free to marry.

The Church thus takes great pains to ensure that all facts are checked and cross-checked in order to ensure that people are not given permission to marry who are already married in God’s eyes, which, as was noted, would lead to adulterous marriages.

It is because of the extensive investigations that must be conducted that a fee is asked. The salaries of the canon lawyers who investigate the case, the tribunal judges who evaluate the case, and the clerical workers who gather and record the facts and keep the records must be paid somehow, and most dioceses have these salaries paid primarily on a user-access basis (i.e., those who are seeking annulments are those who pay for most of the costs of the annulments). Even so, every diocese ends up losing money in their marriage tribunals (the fee asked in dealing with marriage tribunal cases is not equal to the cost of the salaries of the investigators and recorders), and the difference is made up out of the diocese’s general funds.

Even so, no diocese insists that the poor and the indigent pay marriage tribunal costs, and if a person cannot pay the regular asking cost then they are either asked for a lower cost or the cost is waved entirely.

Thus the Church does not make money off of the marriage tribunal/annullment evaluation situation. Rather, it loses money from its general funds which could be spent on other things. In fact, a friend of mine who is a canon lawyer tells me that he, like all other canon lawyers, hates dealing with marriage cases because they are the most frustrating, tedious, unrewarding, and miserable cases to work on. Any other kind of canon law is far more interesting and rewarding than the continual stream of human suffering that marriage cases expose the canon lawyer to. Yet, because of the sad state of marriage in our society, marriage cases take up a large percentage of his time.

In any event, getting an annulment costs money because the possibility of an adulterous second marriage must be avoided (as per of Jesus’ warning), but the Church must make the annulment process available because people who are not genuinely married have a real pastoral need to know this.

What the Church does is a lot better than what most Protestant denominations do, which is either simply ignore Jesus’ warning about adulterous marriages and let anybody get remarried or to capriciously and arbitrarily, at the pastor’s whim and with no significant investigation of the facts, tell certain people they can’t get remarried while letting others do so.

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