Annulments are commonly misunderstood

Father Paul Beach, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Church and a judge in the archdiocese’s Metropolitan Tribunal, discussed the nature of annulments and marriage at his office July 26. His copy of the Code of Canon Law sat next to him atop a stack of other books. (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

Record Assistant Editor

Father Paul Beach, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Church and a judge for the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Metropolitan Tribunal, said recently that when it comes to annulments, there’s a lot of misinformation, even among Catholics.

The Tribunal, which handles annulments, recently revised the process for those seeking a declaration of nullity — the proper name for an annulment.

Deacon Stephan Phelps, who spearheaded the revision, said in a story in the July 12 edition of The Record that the Tribunal wanted to make it an easier and more pastoral process for the 120 or so couples who seek the declaration each year.

Father Beach said that notion may come as a surprise to many Catholics because the nature of marriage is often misunderstood.

“A lot of people see an annulment as a favor the church is granting,” he noted. “They think it’s a Catholic divorce.”

In reality, he said, an annulment is the church’s way of declaring that at the time of the wedding, a marriage — the way the church defines marriage — never took place.

To understand that idea, Father Beach said, one must understand the sacrament of marriage.

“Catholics are accustomed to thinking a sacrament is something ‘father’ does,” he said. “And in a sense, that’s true. Marriage is the one exception.

“Marriage doesn’t come about because a priest does something. Marriage is something the couple does,” said Father Beach. “I’m the witness.”

The marriage covenant, he said, is formed during the exchange of vows when the couple give their consent “to live as husband and wife as the church understands that relationship.”

That relationship, as the church sees it, has four fundamental principles. The marriage is understood to be permanent, a partnership of equals, open to children and exclusive (the couple promise to be faithful to one another).

An annulment may be declared when “at the time of the wedding, at the exchange of consent, one of these fundamental things was missing,” Father Beach said.

He explained that there may be any number of reasons one of these elements was lacking. Immaturity at the time of marriage or the presence of abuse are examples, he said.

“Oftentimes, (it’s) because of our psychological capacity at the time of consent,” he said. “You have to have the freedom to exchange consent.”

The process to determine if a marriage bond was formed is not an easy one, Father Beach noted.

The process includes an investigation and proceeds in some ways the way a court does, he said. Evidence is collected and ultimately several canon lawyers judge the merits of the case to determine whether or not the couple entered into a valid marriage at the time of the wedding.

“This is a painful process — I’m the first one to say that — because it forces you to go back and open up old wounds … and look at a part of your life you’d rather forget about,” he said. “But it’s also an opportunity for healing. It gives you an opportunity to go back and gain some insight on a decision you made in the past.”

While the Tribunal wants couples who are living with invalid marriages to seek an annulment, Father Beach said the church approaches the process with caution.

“We don’t want people to get divorced from valid marriages,” he said. “We want people to live in valid marriages, in relationships that are all they are meant to be.

“When couples experience difficulty in the relationship, we don’t want divorce to be the first option,” he added. “Valid marriages are going to have difficulty. No vocation is easy.”

A story about the revision of the annulment process can be found here.  A list of top 10 myths about annulments can be read here.

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