We are surrounded by two phenomena which make it very difficult for people to accept wholeheartedly the Church’s teaching (i.e., the interpretation of the will of God as expressed in today’s Scripture). First is the almost “casual” approach to divorce by our culture. Secondly, a large number of annulments are becoming quite commonplace, resulting is some confusion between the two terms.
An “annulment” – or more correctly a “Decree of Nullity” – is a declaration by Church authorities that a marriage is null and void because it does not conform to Church law in the first place. Although it was unknown to (or hidden from) the Church at the time of the marriage, there must have been an existing condition that really made a Sacramental marriage impossible from the beginning. The annulment does not say that a relationship never existed; it only says that a pre-existing obstacle made sacramental marriage impossible. An example might be when one party never intended to have children, or lacked a mature capacity to make a perpetual commitment; or a “shotgun marriage” was involved. An annulment is not a divorce; the latter is a civil matter.
For Catholics and Orthodox Church members, marriage is a Sacrament – a sign of the permanent, unconditional love of Christ for his Church. It is a state of life for growing together in holiness. Therefore, it is not to be entered into casually or lightly, because it is always meant to be a lifetime commitment of husband and wife to each other.
This special covenant relationship is what Jesus was teaching about, and urging his listeners to preserve, when he commanded “no divorce.” Jesus teaches that God’s intention has been clear from the beginning. So the challenge is to keep the goal in mind: sharing covenant love permanently, while growing in holiness.
The well-being of the individual and even of society is closely bound up with the healthy state of married and family life. In the event that the pre-existing situation contains one or more elements which would make a marriage “invalid,” the Church is empowered to issue a Decree of Nullity. It is a sad reality that marriages do breakdown, and for this reason the nullity process is available if appropriate to the facts of the situation.