A declaration of nullity (sometimes referred to as an 'annulment') is a decision rendered by a Marriage Tribunal in the Catholic Church, acknowledging that the sacred bond of marriage was never established between a couple. After receiving the request of one of the parties in a former marriage and only after a detailed study of the marriage has been carried out, might a “declaration of nullity” be issued. The process examines the intentions and understanding of both parties at the time of their wedding to see if the necessary elements for the sacred bond were present (e.g., permanence, fidelity, the ability for true companionship and love of the spouses, and an openness to the generation and education of children).
A formal declaration of nullity states that a relationship fell short of at least one of the elements seen as essential for a valid marriage according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The declaration of nullity process seeks to determine whether or not there was anything that prevented these elements from being present in the relationship, even though both individuals may have entered the marriage with the best of intentions. Marriages rarely fail because of ill will or malice present from the beginning, but rather, because one or both of the spouses were unable to create the relationship necessary for a valid marital union due to physical, psychological, or circumstantial causes.
There are things that a declaration of nullity does not do:
It does not deny that a relationship existed which was recognized as a marriage in civil law.
It does not necessarily imply that the relationship was entered into with ill will or malice on the part of either party.
It does not say that children of such a union are illegitimate.
It is very important that a declaration of nullity not be viewed as a reward or a punishment of either party for conduct during their union. Instead, it is intended to be an objective assessment of the time of consent, i.e., the wedding itself, when the bond either forms or fails to form, based upon the evidence regarding the couple’s intentions and capacities at that time.
If the Church Tribunal declares that a prior bond of marriage was not properly established, it is stating that the original presumption of validity, from the very beginning of that union, has been proven to be incorrect. In such a case, no true marital bond existed between the spouses. Similarly, if the Tribunal upholds the validity of the marriage, both spouses remain bound in their previous marriage.
Even when a declaration of nullity is granted, there is no automatic permission for either party to enter another marriage in the Catholic Church. Since the Church is entrusted with upholding and protecting the dignity of marriage, the Tribunal must be reasonably certain that each party is currently capable of entering a valid union or has the proper attitudes toward the essential obligations of marriage prior to any future marriage in the Church. In some cases the decision of the Tribunal will recommend that one or both of the parties engage in a program of counseling before attempting a new marriage.
Any person, regardless of their baptismal status, who seeks to marry in the Catholic Church, but has been previously married, must have a declaration of nullity from a Church Tribunal for every prior union where the spouse of that union is still living.
In addition, if a person wishes to be baptized or received into the Catholic Church and is in an invalid marriage (e.g., a second marriage contracted during the life of the first spouse), a declaration of nullity is necessary before baptism or reception.
Finally, some people who petition for a declaration of nullity are motivated only by a desire to seek peace. Those who seek to heal the wound of a failed marriage often find comfort by submitting themselves to the intensive type of personal reflection that the process demands.