Annulment Granted? Expect More than a Simple 'Yes' or 'No'

Every annulment case ends one of three ways. First, the invalidity of the impugned marriage might be proved and canonical nullity declared. Canon lawyers call these cases “affirmatives” because the doubt about the validity of the marriage was answered in the affirmative. Other people might refer, somewhat misleadingly, to the annulment as being “granted.”

Conversely, the case might not be proven and, since marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise, invalidity is not declared. Canon lawyers call these “negatives.” Others say the annulment was “denied” or “rejected.”

Finally, some annulment cases might result in neither an affirmative nor a negative sentence. This possibility will be discussed below. First, let's focus on annulment cases which end in a decision.

Negative Decisions

If nullity is not declared, that means the parties to the impugned marriage, despite a subsequent divorce, and despite perhaps the passage of many years since the marriage was “over,” are still held to the bond of that marriage. They are not free to contract marriage in the Church during the lifetime of the ex-spouse. A negative decision does not mean, however, that the impugned marriage was proven valid, any more than a “not guilty” verdict means that someone accused of a crime was found “innocent.”

A negative decision simply means that, in the case before it, the tribunal could not reach moral certainty about the invalidity of the marriage. Therefore it ruled in accord with the favor of the law, which presumes the validity of marriage.

Moreover, in cases that deal with one's status in the Church, there is no rule in canon law against what Americans would call “double jeopardy.” Therefore, it is possible for the same marriage to be impugned at a later time with, possibly, different results. Such cases are unusual, but they do occur. In the meantime, the parties to an annulment case which is decided in the negative should regard themselves as still married in the eyes of the Church and, to the extent they are able, conduct themselves in accord with that status.

Affirmative Decisions

If, on the other hand, the nullity of the marriage is declared, and provided that this affirmative decision has been ratified by the appellate tribunal, then the Church does not consider either party bound by the putative marriage. Hence both parties are free of the marriage bond which would have prevented them from entering a future marriage in the Church. In many annulment cases that is the end of the matter, and the parties are then free to contract marriage in the Church.

In some cases, however, even though the annulment has been granted, either or both of the parties to the marriage proven null are prevented from entering another marriage in the Church until certain matters are adequately addressed. In such cases, a vetitum or prohibition is placed on either or both parties. Let's take an example.

If drug or alcohol addiction was sufficient to have prevented either or both parties from consenting to marriage, as the Church understands and proclaims it, and an annulment of a first marriage was granted, then there is little reason not to expect that the same factors, if they remain unaddressed, will destroy either or both parties’ attempts at a second marriage, and a third, and so on. In such cases, the tribunal has the authority to impose a vetitum, or prohibition, against a future marriage. The prohibition lasts until, in this example, the substance-abuse issues are adequately dealt with—for example, in a rehabilitation program.

Prohibitions are an aid in stemming the tide of marriages doomed before they start. But for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this series, their effectiveness is often limited. Furthermore, prohibitions are rarely applied to persons who have not already been through the tribunal system. And canon law presently makes it very difficult for pastors and even bishops to toughen marriage preparation standards.

Meanwhile, those laboring under a prohibition need only contact the tribunal to learn how the vetitum can be lifted. In any event, they should see the prohibition as an occasion to face some difficult, but usually ultimately remediable, personal issues.

A Word of Caution

Besides a vetitum, however, which prohibits marriage in the Church until the prohibition is removed, a tribunal might place what is called a monitum, or admonition, on either or both parties to a marriage declared null. A monitum(Latin for “warning”) is a serious recommendation that the person give careful attention to various issues which the tribunal found in the course of investigating the earlier attempt at marriage. A monitum does not prevent one from contracting marriage in the Church, but rather serves as a cautionary reminder that some things in a person's history or behavior cause concern in regard to marriage. Again, let's consider an example.

Suppose a man had married a woman whom he had met only a few days before. The marriage ended in divorce for reasons related to the wife's instability, and indeed, the marriage was declared null by the Church though no grounds for nullity were identified on the man's side. In such a case, the tribunal would have no basis upon which to prohibit the man from entering marriage in the Church. But obviously there is still reason to question his prudence because he committed to the marriage on such short notice. In a case like this, the tribunal might impose a monitum on the man, advising him against repeating such precipitous behavior in the future.

Cases without Decision

Having looked at the effects of those annulment cases which result in a decision, whether affirmative or negative, some attention should be given to those cases which do not result in a decision by the tribunal. This can happen in a couple of different ways.

First, canon law, like every legal system, allows people who file lawsuits to change their mind and to drop their case. Some petitioners do this in annulment cases. Their reasons vary. Perhaps their intended marriage in the Church, which precipitated the desire to obtain a declaration of nullity in the first place, has been called off. Or perhaps they have decided, rightly or wrongly, that this is not a good time to ask certain persons to be witnesses in an annulment case.

The formal withdrawal of a case by a petitioner is called “renunciation.” Persons considering renouncing their cases should contact the tribunal for instruction on the proper way to proceed in order to prevent the loss of various procedural rights.

Another way in which an annulment case might never reach the decision stage is called abatement. Once again canon law, like every legal system, prefers not to adjudicate cases which are not formally withdrawn, but in which it is clear that both parties have lost interest. Therefore, under certain circumstances, annulment cases in which the parties have failed to participate for at least six months are subject to abatement.

As is true for renunciation, cases that abate, or stall, usually may be reopened at a later date. But confusion about intention can arise in abatement cases and, therefore, the parties to an annulment case should avoid letting their cases abate without contacting the tribunal in advance. In particular, respondents should be aware of extended inactivity on their part, lest their silence be taken not as conformity to abatement, but as a stubborn refusal to participate in the case—a fact that can be held against them.

Sometimes, the tribunal itself will suggest to a petitioner that he or she renounce the case or at least allow it to abate. This suggestion, when it is made, is often the tribunal's way of saying that the case is weak and, if a decision is forced, it is likely to be negative. The choice remains the petitioner's, of course, and some prefer to accept a negative decision if only to be able to appeal the case to a higher tribunal.

Of course, the tribunal is under no obligation to make an abatement suggestion. Indeed, in cases which canonically deserve negative sentences, some critics have urged American tribunals to avoid abatements. A higher proportion of negative sentences, they argue, would demonstrate the tribunal's commitment to the permanence of Christian marriage. Maybe, maybe not.

No matter how such a practice might play in the press, it may not be wise for a tribunal to use its precious resources this way—especially when so many other people with provable annulment cases are awaiting decisions in order to establish their true canonical status in the Church. First of all, it may not be wise because a negative sentence only declares what the law already presumes anyway: that the marriage was valid. And second, a negative sentence remains subject to reopening in a variety of ways, and thus to a future claim on the tribunal's resources.

Of course, it is possible that mere tribunal back-log, and not abatement or opposition, explain the months of silence which some people experience in their annulment cases. If one has questions about the length of time since hearing from the tribunal, it is a good idea to address a short note or letter to the tribunal inquiring about the status of the case. Phone calls to the tribunal, however, usually cannot be answered on the spot. They interrupt the heavy workload of the tribunal, and they do not preserve one's procedural rights. And in cases that are renounced by the petitioner, or that abate because of petitioner's failure to participate, respondents should know that they can, if they wish, file an annulment case in their own name.

An Unexpected Fruit

One final but very important point should be noted in discussing the effects of annulments. This point applies if the annulment is denied or granted—although it's a little easier to see in cases which are granted.

It is this: Often the parties to an annulment case achieve a certain perspective on their earlier failed marriage, and from this vantage point they can understand themselves and their lives in a more complete way. One person in an annulment case put it to me this way: “My divorce never answered any of my questions about why my marriage failed. The annulment case did.”

As long as the Church's juridic norms on annulments are faithfully followed by those involved in a case, one should not be surprised when, through such a process, the merciful hand of Christ reaches out and touches men and women with his healing Truth.

Dr. Edward Peters is a matrimonial judge with the Tribunal of the Diocese of San Diego. His“100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments” (Basilica Press/Simon & Schuster, 1997), is available at Catholic bookstores.