Is an Annulment Just a Catholic Divorce?

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It was the summer of 2015, several months before I realized I could know longer stay in my marriage. I made an appointment with the then rector of our local diocesan seminary. A close priest friend of mine knew I was trying to decide what to do. I wanted an outside opinion. My friend, who is like a brother to me said, “If I had a sister in a situation like you, I would want her to talk to this priest.”

The priest greeted me at the door with a booming voice and kind eyes. I sat down in his office and began to cry as I told him the whole story. I was looking for advice and wise counsel to help me decide if I needed to leave my marriage. Father was so gracious. He let me cry and experience all my feelings.

I finished, quietly wiping away the mascara from my cheeks with a tissue. The priest leaned forward. “Patty, God hates divorce, but he doesn’t hate divorced people,” he said gently. “Yes, have hope that God could restore your marriage. But don’t be stupid, either. Be wise and discerning. Pay attention to what you see and notice.”

I have come back to that advice many times over the last few years. I’m so grateful this kind priest gave me permission to trust myself and what God was doing in my life. I never would have imagined that at thirty-one years old, I would be divorced and annulled in the Catholic Church. 

Going through divorce and annulment as a young Catholic woman, I have learned there are many misperceptions on this topic among Catholics and non-Catholics.

However there’s one question I have been asked more than one time. Is an annulment just a Catholic divorce? 

The quick and easy answer? No. An annulment is not a Catholic divorce. No such thing actually even exists.

What is an annulment?

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Annulments are only specific to Catholic Christians. Our Protestant brothers and sisters do not have a process like this one. A civil divorce is a judicial act legally ending a marriage. An annulment is an ecclesiastical decision where what was believed to be a valid sacramental Catholic marriage is declared to never have been a marriage in the first place. 

What do annulments mean for Catholics?

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The day a couple got married, the Catholic Church presumes that they entered into this covenant with full knowledge, freedom, and consent. It looks like a marriage took place and it appeared both parties had proper intent and will to live these vows until death. However, after the Church does a thorough investigation, there can be found reasons or circumstances that prove a marriage never actually happened at all, therefore making it null. What this means is that it was never a sacrament to begin with, even though it had appeared to be one.

However, even though the steps of the annulment process are the same across the board, the process may look a bit different depending on your circumstances and the diocese you live in. Along with the fact that annulments are not a Catholic divorce, it is a detailed process that takes a significant amount of time and work.

If you are civilly divorced but haven’t received a decision on your annulment case, in the eyes of the Catholic Church you are still married. Until the Catholic Church says your marriage is null, it is presumed to be valid and sacramental. To be married again in the Catholic Church, you’d need receive an annulment.

The annulment process is an opportunity for healing and growth

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I was grateful for the annulment process and experienced it as a gift in my life. I didn’t open myself up to dating until my annulment came through and was accepted. Until the Catholic Church said I was never married, I knew personally it would not be wise or healthy for me to be going out and meeting men. I also found it helpful because this allowed me extra built in healing time as I waited on the Church’s decision.

In the end, I was grateful for the process and consider the annulment process to be healing. I think these clarifications in our terms are important and helpful, as we help other Catholics better understand what and why the Church teaches about divorce and remarriage.

The pain of divorce is something our God cares passionately about. When his children are in pain, it matters deeply to the heart of God.

If you or someone in your life is a divorced Catholic, prayerfully consider beginning the annulment process if you have not yet done so. Contact your parish priest or deacon to ask initial questions on how to go about starting the process in your diocese. Submit yourself fully and freely to the process. It can be a healing and transformative experience if you allow it. 

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