“Ask a Priest: Are Annulments Really Licit?”

Q: Our daughter with three little ones was divorced from her husband because of his adulterous affairs. She’s now seeking an annulment. They married 10 years ago. He converted before they married. His family background suggests that he didn’t know or believe marriage was indissoluble. He also broke the engagement prior to getting back together. My husband and I are conflicted about annulments, as they seem to be merely Catholic divorces. So many are granted. It makes us uncomfortable that a few people (on the tribunal) can dissolve what God has joined. Our concern is for her immortal soul. She’s a good Catholic, and we’d like to help her do God’s will. She’d really like another chance with a faithful Catholic man. But we just can’t understand how she can justifiably remarry. We are very, very concerned about this. – K.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I am sorry to hear about your daughter’s situation, especially for the sake of the children. It must be a terrible wound for the family to bear.

Annulments (technically, decrees of nullity) are judgments by the Church, after an investigation, that a marriage was faulty from the start, and thus a valid union never took place.

This isn’t some kind of canonical sleight of hand. It has a real basis in theology. For a couple to enter a marriage there need to be certain conditions in place, such as (as you mention) an understanding of the indissolubility of the union. Also, the adultery could reflect some fundamental problems in the man, even beyond basic human weakness.

The point here is that we can have faith that the Church is within its rights to make this type of decision, notwithstanding the occasional abuses of the annulment process in the past.

Ideally, the marriage-prep programs should avoid these kinds of marital breakdowns. But those programs aren’t always as effective as they should or could be. This is one reason why Pope Francis has called for more effective catechesis in preparation for marriage.

From what you describe about the situation, there might be grounds for an annulment. We don’t need to speculate further; suffice it to say that this is the kind of decision a tribunal could legitimately make.

If and when an annulment is granted, however, it would be advisable not to try to sow doubts in your daughter. The decision about an annulment is up to the Church — it is not for you or me to decide. So if the Church says that an annulment is justified, then it would be good to accept that ruling.

Your daughter already has a heavy burden on her shoulders. This is the moment your love can do a lot for her and the little ones.

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