Marriage First, Nullity Second

The faith community's understanding of marriage is steeped in 2,000 years of theological knowledge. The theology of marriage has developed over the centuries through a broadening of horizons and a bridging of expanses. The writings on marriage could fill libraries. So let the reader beware! Though the following series may be somewhat informative regarding the nullity of marriage, it pales into insignificance in regard to the church's theology of marriage.

Our theology of marriage is like a coin. On one side there is an exposition of "what marriage is." When the coin is flipped over, the converse is established - "what marriage is not." This series will deal with the underside of the coin - what marriage is NOT in light of what it is.

Aware of the church's rich teaching on marriage the series situates marriage within its legal categories. A church law is referred to as a canon. I will reference key canons throughout the series [should the reader wish to investigate further!]. The specific canons, or laws, on marriage number one hundred and eleven. Admittedly, these laws are both dry and dense. Nonetheless they are rooted in the theological understanding of marriage. Some of our laws have been in existence for almost two millennia, and others are derived more recently from the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

The series offers a cursory overview of tribunal proceedings regarding marriage nullity. Canons 1055-1062 set the stage. They define in legal categories, "what marriage is." Though marriage is a contract between two persons, it is much more. It is a covenant relationship between a man and a woman that is ordered to their good and the procreation and education of children. When a baptized man and a baptized woman marry, it is a sacrament (c. 1055).

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws .... God himself is the author of marriage (CCC, 1603)."

The law declares that marriage is brought about (c. 1057) through: (1) the consent of the parties (the bride and groom), (2) legitimately manifested, (3) by those qualified according to the law (again, the bride and the groom). So, if the consent was defective - marriage was NOT brought about. If the consent was NOT legitimately manifested - marriage was NOT brought about. If one or both of the persons was unqualified according to law - the marriage was NOT brought about. Each of these three concepts will be addressed fully.

Furthermore the teachings and laws of the church touch on all marriages to varying degrees, i.e., marriages between Roman Catholics, Protestants and non-Christians. This series will deal with each of these instances, but the initial presentations will focus on sacramental marriages. However, first an important presumption.

A legal presumption - marriage enjoys the favor of the law

Once a wedding ceremony has taken place the legal presumption is that there is a valid marriage union. Anything to the contrary is going to have to be proven. Marriage enjoys the "favor of the law" (c. 1060).

The ministers of marriage are the bride and groom. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "In the Latin Church, it is ordinarily understood that the spouses, as ministers of God's grace, mutually confer upon each other the Sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church (CCC, 1623)."

So after these two ministers (the bride and groom) have stood up publicly, and made a manifestation of their consent, a presumption takes over in Church law. The presumption is: now we have a valid sacrament of marriage. The two ministers are old enough; capable according to church law; and they have said what needed to be said. So the faith community presumes the sacrament of marriage has come about (c. 1057).

Nevertheless, like any legal presumption in any legal system, it is a "presumption." It will yield to contrary evidence. Analogously, in American criminal law, a well known legal presumption is that you are innocent until you are proven to be guilty. The presumption is innocence. Yet if enough proof is brought forward to indicate otherwise, the presumption of innocence will yield to the verdict of guilt.

In much the same way, in church law any marriage (c. 1055) that takes place is legally presumed to be a valid sacrament. Yet if enough information is brought forward to indicate otherwise, the presumption of validity will yield to a declaration of nullity.

A declaration of nullity, not an annulment

The word annulment is not used in the universal law of the Church. It is not utilized because it is inappropriate. The word annulment implies that you are taking "something" and wiping it away. This is not what is being done when a declaration is granted.

The more apt term is declaration of nullity. The Church is really declaring, in hindsight, that on the day of the wedding these specific factors (consent, its legitimate manifestation, or the legal qualifications of the ministers) prevented the two ministers from bringing about a valid sacrament - as had been presumed! The ceremony is not wiped away - all the guests saw it happen! The relationship of husband and wife is not wiped away - that remains the supposed relationship between the man and woman (c. 1061.3)! The children are not wiped away - they remain legitimate (cc. 1137 & 1138)! The declaration states that a valid marriage had not been brought about, as had been presumed.

Once a wedding has taken place, the legal presumption is that a marriage has been brought about. This presumption of validity stands in law, until contrary facts prove otherwise. The declaration of nullity affirms the contrary to be true.

Next, can other sacraments also be declared null?