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Cynthia Moseley Fox
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(St. Louis)

Marital Annulment or Dissolution Are Options Available To Some Catholics

Last week’s column reported the comments of Monsignor John Shamleffer, Judicial Vicar of the St. Louis Catholic Archdiocese regarding divorce. He said: “Divorce is not, in itself, morally wrong in the eyes of the Catholic Church”. A divorce ends the couple’s contractual relationship relative to civil law, but in the eyes of his church, “has no capacity to alter the binding nature of the marital contract or covenant”.  A divorced Catholic remains a member in good standing, but cannot remarry in the church while their spouse is alive until that first marriage is either annulled or dissolved by the Catholic Church.


Although not a Catholic, I found my discussions with Vicar Shamleffer about annulments and dissolutions within the Catholic Church both eye-opening and fascinating. Like many, I knew that a Catholic could apply to have his/her marriage annulled, which according to the Archdiocese web site (, means that the relationship was “not a binding marriage” in the way the Catholic Church understands marriage to be. However, I didn’t know that the Catholic Church will actually dissolve some marriages rather than annul them.


Dissolution is only available when a Catholic or other “baptized person” is married to a “non-baptized person”, or for two non-baptized persons married to each other. (A “baptized person” would generally be someone baptized in a mainline Christian church.) The Catholic Church will only dissolve such a marriage in order to facilitate a subsequent marriage between two baptized persons, and the dissolution is contingent upon completing that marriage, says Monsignor Shamleffer. And, according to the Monsignor, the person seeking the dissolution can’t be solely culpable breaking-up the marriage.


Dissolution of a marriage between baptized and non-baptized persons is a “Privilege of Faith” case and could be applied to allow a Catholic to marry another Catholic. Dissolving the marriage between two non-baptized persons is a “Pauline Privilege” case and could be used to dissolve the marriage of a non-baptized person that is now baptized and seeks to marry another baptized person.


A “decree of marital nullity” is a judgment by an ecclesiastical tribunal of the Catholic Church based on evidentiary proof that a binding marriage, as the Catholic Church understands that to be, has not occurred. At least one of two types of proof is required. It must be proven that one of the “essential elements” of marriage was lacking at the time the parties wed, or that one or both individuals lacked the “necessary personal capacity for competent consent” at the time of the marriage.


Some annulments are based upon straightforward circumstances: A marriage by a Catholic that occurs, without dispensation, outside the presence of a Catholic priest and two witnesses can be annulled. So can a marriage where one or both participants are still bound by a prior marital bond that was never annulled or dissolved by the church.


The more complex cases, though, typically require evidence from the time of the wedding and the period leading up to it. There is a formal investigation that often involves witnesses who knew the parties then. The investigation, as the Archdiocese web site describes, “seeks to discern the truth concerning the state of mind, intentions, and capacity for consent which each party possessed at the time of the marriage”.


As the Monsignor summarized: “Did one person, or both, understand the commitment, or have the capacity to fulfill their commitment, to each other?”


Next week’s column will discuss how the Archdiocese tries to get at this issue, and on what basis it may decide to annul a marriage.