Do some divorce situations require no annulment?

Q: Are there certain divorce situations for Catholics that do not require annulments? I'm thinking about Justice of the Peace marriages, marriages at sea or even marriages conducted by someone who is "ordained" online. How does the church handle these types of divorce situations? (Corydon, Ind.)

A: Yes, there are certain situations where the church might declare a union invalid even without a full marriage nullity process.

Technically, "declaration of nullity" -- the more accurate term for what is popularly called an "annulment" -- is just what it sounds like. It's an official declaration by the church that, while a union might have appeared on the surface to be a binding and valid marriage, that union was affected by a serious problem that prevented a true marriage from being contracted in the first place.

There are a number of reasons why a marriage might be determined to be invalid, such as: a defect of consent on the part of one of the parties (for example, if one of the parties never intended to be faithful or open to life); consent obtained by fraud or deceit; or a psychological condition that rendered one of the parties unable to consent to marriage or otherwise incapable of fulfilling the essential obligations of marriage. Such reasons are rarely what we would call "manifest," or readily and unquestionably obvious in an objective way. Proving that someone was unable to marry because of psychological issues or a lack of proper intention, for instance, requires at least some focused investigation and serious consideration from well-trained and unbiased third parties. This is the typical way the church grants declarations of nullity, which in Catholic marriage tribunals we refer to as the "formal process."

But as you observe, there are some situations where the usual in-depth formal process for marriage nullity is not required. Specifically, it should be noted that all the examples you mention are cases where a Catholic was married in a non-Catholic ceremony.

In addition to all the normal human, universal requirements for a valid marriage -- such as sufficient freedom, insight, and willingness to embrace all the obligations marriage entails -- Catholics have a unique obligation to observe "canonical form": for a Catholic to marry validly, they must do so in the context of a Catholic wedding ceremony.

Granted, there are a few "loopholes." For example, if a Catholic is marrying a non-Catholic, for a serious pastoral reason it may be possible to obtain a "dispensation from canonical form" from the local bishop. This would allow the Catholic to marry validly in a non-Catholic religious celebration or even in a secular marriage ceremony.

Since we know that Catholics need to observe canonical form for the sake of validity, if a Catholic marries in a non-Catholic wedding without a special dispensation, then it clearly follows that the resulting marriage would be null. The circumstances of a wedding outside of canonical form are a matter of plain historical fact, and thus are generally very clear-cut and black-and-white. Therefore, unlike more subtle reasons for marriage nullity, there is no need for a lengthy formal process to determine and declare the nullity of a marriage that lacked canonical form. "Lack of form" cases are typically just a matter of submitting relevant documents like baptismal and civil marriage certificates, and they can be resolved relatively quickly.

Keep in mind also that individuals who were never Catholic at any point in their lives are not bound to canonical form, which means that even a non-religious marriage of two non-Catholics would be presumed valid until proven otherwise.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.