Is Annulment Just Catholic Divorce?

Some people ask: “Isn’t it is hypocritical for the Catholic Church to forbid divorce, but permit annulments?”

Though it may seem hypocritical, there is actually a fundamental difference between a divorce and an annulment.

  • A divorce is the attempt to dissolve a valid marriage.
  • An annulment, or, more properly, a decree of nullity, is the declaration that the marriage was defective from the start.

Because the necessary elements for a valid marriage were never present, the marriage in effect never took place.

In order for the Church to grant a decree of nullity, therefore, it must be irrefutably shown that the necessary elements were absent from the beginning. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The consent [to marry] must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid” (par. 1628).

Occasionally, there is concern raised regarding the legitimacy of children from a marriage that has been declared invalid.

Because the granting of a decree of nullity has to do with the sacramental status of the marriage only, and not its civil status, the legality of the children produced by the marriage is unaltered.

A decree of nullity does not deny a civil marriage took place; it denies that a sacramental marriage took place.

Similarly, the Church may grant a dispensation permitting one to marry under circumstances that ordinarily would be forbidden—to marry one who is unbaptized, for instance—but the Church does not grant dispensations for second marriages.

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