“Ask a Priest: Am I able to marry in the Church without an annulment?”

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Q: My fiancé and I are both practicing Catholics. I have never been married before, but my fiancé has. We got engaged December 2012. He submitted paperwork to begin the annulment process in March 2013. We were told by his advocate that it could take up to a year to complete. I changed our wedding date from Sept. 28, 2013, to May 31, 2014, thinking that would be plenty of time. We found out this week that his witnesses haven’t even been contacted yet. We are four months from the wedding day! Lots of money has been spent, arrangements have been made, and most importantly, we are ready to move forward with our lives. I am fearful this annulment will not be complete by our wedding day. What do I do? Would we still be able to get married in the Church without a Mass and sacraments? -S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good that you and your fiancé are trying to live your faith and that you are ready to move forward. The annulment process is something that might help you reach that goal.

It is important to note, however, that decrees of nullity cannot be presumed ahead of time. During the annulment process the Church tries to discern whether a previous union was really a valid marriage to begin with. This normally requires interviewing witnesses and the couple involved. The final decision, however, rests with the Church.

Unless and until a previous union is declared null, the presumption is that it was a true marriage. No. 1060 of the Code of Canon Law states explicitly, “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.”

In practice that means people shouldn’t plan a wedding until they know for sure that the Church has decreed that a couple is free to marry. The New York Archdiocese, for instance, states plainly in its website, “Under no circumstances should a Church wedding be planned until a favorable decision is rendered” (see here for more).

At this point, all things considered, you might want to contact the priest or whoever is handling the annulment case and see if there is a way to expedite the process. There are, of course, no guarantees in this regard. And without a decree of nullity, you simply will not be able to get married in the Church, within or outside a Mass.

Don’t despair, however. God has a plan in all this. This is a moment to pray more intensely and proceed with humility. The best thing you and your fiancé can do is to keep helping each other to grow in your faith. To love one another means to want the best for him or her. The best in this case is union with Christ and his Church. The very annulment process that is under way now is designed first and foremost to protect the dignity of marriage. This is one reason why the Church is such a beautiful witness to truth and to God’s plan for men and women.

In the meantime, continue to pray about your situation. Stay close to the sacraments. Keep in dialogue with your parish. And count on my prayers. God bless.

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