Many Catholics feel annulment is just a clever loophole, but according to Rev. Patrick R. Lagges, Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of Chicago, that's one of many misconceptions. To Catholics, he says, the indissolubility of marriage is a testament to the permanent and faithful love of God. Annulment is no loophole, but a process whereby a marriage tribunal determines that a valid marriage never existed. His experience has shown that, in most cases, "a declaration of invalidity doesn't tell people anything they didn't already know."

Responding to a common concern, Lagges points out that children of an annulled marriage aren't considered illegitimate. Though a Decree of Nullity (as annulment is formally known) establishes that the marriage was never valid in the sacramental sense, their one-time civil marriage is sufficient for legitimacy, and annulment can't affect children's status retroactively.

Official Stance on Divorce: "The Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry." (From the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

True marriage is permanent, but we often fall short of our potential. Divorce itself is not a sin in Catholicism, but remarriage is not permitted without an annulment. Individuals who are divorced and remarried without annulment are not permitted to receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Annulment frees remarried individuals to participate in the sacraments and thus fully realize their relationship with God despite their previous failings.

When? After a civil divorce is granted. Often, participants wait until they are about to remarry before considering an annulment. Most pastors urge individuals to consider it as soon as they feel ready, rather than waiting.

Where? At home, in your pastor's office, and/or the offices of your diocese's marriage tribunal. In the rare instance that annulment is denied, you can appeal to a higher jurisdictional (city, provincial, state, or national) level. In some special cases, either party may have the right to petition the highest appeal court in Rome (the Roman Rota).

Who Participates? Annulment can be initiated by either spouse, but both may be asked to testify. The spouse's pastor will be the contact person, though the annulment itself is processed by a marriage tribunal at the archdiocese level. Individuals and couples can also seek the counsel of priests and laypeople who are expert in the annulment system.

Children don't usually participate or testify, but if they're old enough to understand the civil divorce and have some understanding of Catholic traditions, you can discuss what annulment means and how it affects your relationship with them (and theirs with the Church). Making time to sit down together with your pastor may help resolve any questions they may have and ensure that they don't develop bitter feelings about the confusing and painful process they see their parents going through.

The Ceremony:
There is no public ceremony to mark annulment. The initiating spouse, and sometimes both spouses, are generally informed of the progress of their application by their pastor, who can also provide assistance in filling out the required forms.

Annulments are granted on one of many "official" grounds. These focus on the ability of the spouses to agree to specific Catholic views on marriage. If, at the time of your marriage, you failed to fully understand the Catholic view of the permanency or exclusivity of marriage, you might have grounds for annulment. The same holds true if you married on some condition, for example, that you'd live in a specific city or have a certain number of children.

Annulment may be easier to obtain if you have friends or family members who knew you at the time, who can testify to your claim. Even if the "obvious" causes for the marriage ending didn't surface until later--like if one partner has had an affair--these can often be tied to earlier flaws that may not have been obvious at the time of marriage.

The first step towards annulment takes place at home, in privacy, filling out paperwork, which may vary from diocese to diocese. Just as in a civil court case, you're asked to provide information about the particulars of your marriage--but in this case, the tribunal is also looking for information about your courtship and the marriage breakdown as well. Then, there is usually an interview at the tribunal's offices, which can take up to several hours, depending on the details involved. The tribunal takes over from there, calling in your ex-spouse if available, along with two or three witnesses, and possibly consulting with professionals (psychologists or counselors), if they see fit.

Recently, the Archdiocese of Boston became the first in the Roman Catholic world to hire a child advocate to assess how the divorce is affecting certain children. This report is taken into account when ruling on annulment requests.

Though the process sounds like it means dredging out humiliating details of your married life, Lagges is reassuring: "Any process can be made impersonal by the way that it is applied," but recent years have seen much improvement in the pastoral nature of the annulment process. The Church has helped turn the process into a cathartic one that helps both spouses confront the truths of a failed marriage.

Patricia, married to a man who obtained an annulment 14 years after his civil divorce, has seen this side clearly: "The annulment forced Jim to look at circumstances he tried to force into the past. Over the course of the annulment process, my husband lost his long-held anger at his ex."

Once the annulment is finalized, remarried Catholics and their Catholic spouses are free to take Communion. The experience of receiving the host again after a long absence can be intense. Patricia recalls, "When I finally could take Communion, my prayers and anticipation made it a very special day." A special "liberation" meal can also be observed at home with friends and close family to celebrate the new freedom that annulment has granted the divorced individual.

Word to the Wise: With greater understanding, more divorced Catholics are considering this option early in their divorced lives, saying it offers affirmation of their original intention to marry within the Church, while freeing them to consider a Church marriage in their future. Lagges believes that when a couple divorces, they usually realize "that the relationship they had was not what the Church means by marriage. To have that confirmed by the Church brings a sense of relief and comfort to people whose lives have been turned upside down by the failure of a relationship that began with so much hope."

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