Navigating the Faith: Seeking a Decree of Nullity

by Dr. Kelly O’Donnell, Director of the Diocesan Tribunal

Everyone knows that marriage is “until death do us part”, right?  Some of us who have once spoken those very words with the best of intentions are no longer with our spouse.  We find ourselves, perhaps at some point in our lives, needing to petition the diocesan tribunal for what used to be commonly called “an annulment.”  Just to be clear, this does not mean that your marriage to your former spouse never existed. The Catholic Church recognizes “all” marriages (i.e. between baptized or non-baptized persons) and believes that you intended to give valid consent to each other unless one of you decides to challenge its validity.

Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines and asks us to follow regarding matrimony or marriage:

1660 The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. By its very nature it is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children. Christ the Lord raised marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament (cf. CIC, can. 1055 # 1; cf. GS (48 # 1).

1661 The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1799).

1662 Marriage is based on the consent of the contracting parties, that is, on their will to give themselves, each to the other, mutually and definitively, in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love.

1664 Unity, indissolubility, and openness to fertility are essential to marriage. Polygamy is incompatible with the unity of marriage; divorce separates what God has joined together; the refusal of fertility turns married life away from its “supreme gift,” the child (GS 50 # 1).

What if you wake up one morning and realize after you have been divorced, or are in a current marriage where children were never a part of the picture, or unfaithfulness in the marriage is acceptable by one of the spouses? This may sound like a very typical scenario in today’s marriages. Christ did not intend for those who wanted to follow his precepts to remain in a marriage where they are impeded to live their lives fully in his name.

This is where the tribunal can be of great assistance. If one or both spouses were not able to live in accordance within the teachings of marriage:  children and faithfulness (there are many more fruits of matrimony as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states), you may decide to challenge the validity of the marriage.

Why would you petition for a decree of nullity?  There are many reasons to do so.  You may want to enter into religious life, become ordained, remarry or even lead a single life and serve in an ecclesiastical ministry where it may be required of you.  If we say we lead a life destined to be united with Christ, we need to be open to his word and live whatever vocation he is calling us to live out in our daily lives. Your vocation of marriage could change at the blink of eye, but we need to be trusting and look at what the Catholic Church offers us and invites us to become by always being prepared to respond to his call.  If you were married before, it may be in your best interest to challenge the validity of the marriage before the tribunal so that you don’t miss out living your true vocation!

Historically in the Catholic Church, “annulments,” or decrees of nullity, emanate from Sacred Scripture:

The idea that two people can go through a wedding ceremony and still not be married is not a new one. In the Christian tradition, we can find the roots of the declaration of nullity in the New Testament. Christ says to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well: “You are right to say you have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband” (John 4:17-18). Saint Paul condemns the Corinthians for allowing a man to enter into a union with his father’s wife (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-8). The practice of declaring certain unions invalid has continued ever since. (cf. Preserving the Sanctity of Marriage, Rev. W. Soule, O.P., p. 6)

In closing, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also states:

1665 The remarriage of persons divorced from a living, lawful spouse contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic communion. They will lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith.
Contact your parish priest or the tribunal in Shreveport so that we may assist you.  The process to apply for a decree of nullity requires prayerful reflection and seeking God’s grace and mercy.

Kelly was recently a guest speaker for the Marquette Reading Circle in light of their 100th Anniversary Year, Shreveport, Non-matrimonial Canonical Issues, received acknowledgement for contributions/ideas, Thirteenth Edition, Business Law Text and Cases, Clarkson, Miller & Cross, and invited to co-present, Tribunal Management, Canon Law Society of America’s Convention, Pittsburgh.

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