Are Catholic Annulments Biblical?
by Cory Tucholski
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Within the Catholic Church, the seven sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation (Penance), Matrimony and Holy Orders are considered the outward showing of inner grace, instituted by Christ. They are the very components of salvation as the Church teaches it. The Catholic Encyclopedia states it thusly:
"Almighty God can and does give grace to men in answer to their internal aspirations and prayers without the use of any external sign or ceremony. This will always be possible, because God, grace, and the soul are spiritual beings. God is not restricted to the use of material, visible symbols in dealing with men; the sacraments are not necessary in the sense that they could not have been dispensed with. But, if it is known that God has appointed external, visible ceremonies as the means by which certain graces are to be conferred on men, then in order to obtain those graces it will be necessary for men to make use of those Divinely appointed means.... [T]he Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. 4) declared heretical those who assert that the sacraments of the New Law are superfluous and not necessary, although all are not necessary for each individual. It is the teaching of the Catholic Church and of Christians in general that, whilst God was nowise bound to make use of external ceremonies as symbols of things spiritual and sacred, it has pleased Him to do so, and this is the ordinary and most suitable manner of dealing with men."
The Bible teaches that salvation, once accepted, cannot be tossed aside easily (Romans 8:38, 39). Building on that, the Catholic Church teaches that the effects sacraments themselves, the foundation of salvation, also cannot be tossed aside so very easily. Only if the sacrament was not lawful from the moment it was conferred can it be renounced. In recognition of the fact that that may happen from time to time, the Catholic Church has created the annulment process, which will declare a sacrament invalid from the very beginning.
An annulment is properly referred to as a Declaration of Nullity. Though it can be applied to any of the seven sacraments, it is most often sought for Matrimony. Since the Catholic Church holds that a married couple cannot divorce for any reason whatsoever, a divorce is not recognized by the Catholic Church as a valid end to a marriage. It then follows that a Catholic priest will not marry those individuals who were divorced, even if the divorce occurred prior to accepting Christ or joining the Catholic Church. Put another way, even if the divorce occurred before the divorcee truly understood the spiritual and temporal consequences.
When issued, an annulment does not end the effects conferred by the sacrament. The annulment declares that the sacrament in question was not valid from the start, and the recipient is treated as though he or she never actually received the sacrament. That does not mean that children from the marriage are now considered born out of wedlock or that the ex-spouses committed any sort of fornication. It means that the receipt of the sacrament was somehow flawed.
An annulment works like a military court. Three priest-judges (called a tribunal) hear the case, and render a decision. The complainant, usually with a priest or lay advocate, presents the case against the validity of the marriage. The defender of the bond, a court officer, presents the evidence that the marriage was legal. Usually, this takes place in the complainant’s diocese or in the diocese where the marriage took place. A second tribunal in another diocese must also hear the case and decide it. Two concurring affirmative decisions must occur before the annulment is granted. The Roman Rota, the highest ecclesiastical court, will hear the case if the two diocese tribunals split. Their decision is final. An unfavorable final outcome can also be appealed to the Roman Rota. The average length of time from start to finish is 16 months, and the usual cost is between $500 and $1000, although the Church will only charge as much as the seeker can actually afford.
Annulments are granted for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons presented to tribunals are a lack of due discretion, defective consent, and psychological incapacity. Some annulments are for minor technicalities, and rarely involve more than filling out the correct forms; for example, if one of the parties had a prior bond (was married in the Catholic sense of the word) at the time of the wedding. There is also defect of form, which includes marriages performed by a non-Catholic minister, or weddings held outside of a Catholic Church. More than half of all the annulments granted are for defect of form.
Annulments granted for lack of due discretion are given in cases when the complainant hastily chose marriage when this would not have been the best option. Such as a woman who found herself pregnant and rushed to the altar, only to find out her husband didn’t take care of his family.
Defective consent includes cases where a party to the marriage said “I do” to a complete lie. That is, one of the entrants to the marriage presented a false picture of his or her status in life or present situation. The annulment is granted if the deception is substantial enough to amount to a serious fraud. This is the situation where the defender of the bond shines the most; to avoid circumstances where the husband and the wife have concocted a false story just to receive the annulment.
Finally, an annulment may be granted for psychological incapacity, in the case of a mentally-challenged individual or a minor. It is impossible for a person to promise to do something that he or she is not capable of doing. The Roman Rota has traditionally upheld that people who are mentally handicapped or those diagnosed with certain neuroses, psychoses, or with paranoid schizophrenia are not capable of living up to the conditions of a canon marriage.
Jesus told His followers “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32) Matthew also tells us that Jesus admonished the Pharisees by saying, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.... And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (19:4-6,9). Mark concurs, writing “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (10:6-9). Finally, in the Gospel of Luke is found: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (16:18).
Catholic doctrine is based upon both Scripture and Church tradition. Based upon Jesus’ words, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:9) and upon the Church tradition that receiving a sacrament creates an indelible mark upon the soul of the recipient, the Church teaches that a marriage cannot end.
The Church does not ignore Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 that allow divorce in the case of adultery of the other party. In fact, ignoring it would have been better. No, the way this is handled is much more disturbing. According to the New American Bible (NAB), the Catholic Bible translation, Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 read thus: “whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery [emphasis added].” The concept of an “unlawful marriage” in the NAB is translated as either “(marital) unfaithfulness,” “adultery,” or “fornication” in the Bible in Basic English, the Contemporary English Version, the Douray-Rheims Bible, the English Standard Version, God’s Word, the Good News Bible, the International Standard Version, the King James Version, the Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, The Message paraphrase, the New International Version, and the New King James Version. There does not seem to be any textual basis for the NAB’s choice of words, except to support the Catholic Church’s own doctrine.
Although Jesus taught that divorce was only written into the Law because of human stubbornness (Matthew 19:8) and that the original intent of God was for the spouses to never separate (Genesis 2:24), He makes the exception in cases of adultery. The Catholic Church’s teaching of marriage doesn’t ignore this fact; it mistranslates Scripture to support its own unbiblical teaching of marriage as unending, and then creates the annulment process to allow a Catholic-sanctioned way to end said marriage by declaring it as never having been valid. The annulment process is unbiblical in the sense that Jesus only allowed for adultery as the basis for ending a marriage, and the annulment process allows for many, many reasons, but not for unfaithfulness by itself. The Catholic Church does not accept the only biblical reason for divorce as valid, and in fact creates a new list of unbiblical reasons for a marriage to end.
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