When is a Marriage Not a Marriage?

When is a Marriage Not a Marriage?

My experience with separation, divorce and annulment has shown me how misunderstood is the whole process, even by the faithful within the Church. Today’s post takes  some extracts from an excellent book, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine by Archbishop Michael Sheehan to explain the meaning of the term ‘annulment’-  which by the way, is a misnomer.

Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine was first written in 1818, and the current version was revised in 2001 and later 2009, by Father Peter Joseph, from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.

An astounding thing about this book is that it was once a high-school text for 15- and 16-year-olds, which is an indication of how impoverished our catechesis is now.

From Chapter 18: Marriage.


The Church never dissolves, and has never claimed power to dissolve, a marriage entered into by two Christians, if the parties have actually lived together as husband and wife. Canon 1141 declares: “A ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or by any other cause than death.” ‘Ratified’ means ‘sacramental,’ i.e., because both parties are baptised.



An ecclesiastical marriage tribunal may decide, after detailed examination, that a marriage apparently valid is not really so. This decision cannot be spoken of as a dissolution of the marriage. It is a declaration of invalidity, i.e., a declaration that in fact, from the very start, there was no marriage tie in the particular case, because of the absence of some condition necessary for validity. This is what is commonly called an “annulment” - but more correctly, a declaration of nullity. No marriage is being made null; rather, it is being declared never to have existed, to have been null and void from the beginning. To be declared null, it must be ascertained that some essential element was missing on the wedding day itself. Whatever happens afterwards is irrelevant, except insofar as it manifests what was missing on that day…..

It could be said that most marital problems are characterised by wanting to ‘go back to how we used to be’, whereas marriages which are candidates for the tribunal are characterised by ‘wrong from the beginning.’

Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine goes on to clarify some less well-known grounds for dissolution:


A marriage between two unbaptised persons is a solemn covenant, but not one of the seven Sacraments. In such a marriage, if one party becomes a Catholic, and the other refuses to live in peace with the convert, the Catholic may seek permission from the local Bishop to make use of the Pauline privilege. By this privilege, the Catholic party may seek freedom to enter into a new marriage with another person, by which the first non-sacramental marriage is at once dissolved. This is called the Pauline privilege, because it is fully set forth by St. Paul in 1 Cor 7:12ff. He introduces it with the words, “I say, not the Lord”, i.e., “I do not quote the words of Christ, but I speak as an Apostle with His authority.” Under the Pauline privilege, therefore, it is not man that ‘puts asunder’, but God. Before it can be invoked, the converted party must inquire of the other (1) whether he or she is willing to become a Catholic, and, if not, (2) whether he or she promises to live in peaceful wedlock without insulting or attacking the Catholic religion of the partner. It is only when a negative answer is returned that the Catholic partner can be granted the privilege.


In certain cases, by the ‘privilege of the faith’, sometimes called the Petrine privilege, a marriage in which one of the parties is unbaptised ‘can be dissolved by the Roman Pontiff in virtue of his ministerial power’ (that is, his privilege as vicar of Christ), thus freeing the parties to marry again. This privilege is not available to those who have received a dispensation to enter a natural bond of marriage in the Catholic Church.

The language here is almost from another age, but the truth of it is unchanging.


On the subject of marriage and the preparation for it, the Church sets forth the grave obligations of husband and wife to one another and to their children. She condemns the false and shameful views that teem in the books and magazines of the modern world, and she warns us against the dangers of uncontrolled intimacy outside of marriage …. Hence, when the Church explains the Divine Law in regard to marriage and the preparation for it, and declares this or that to be sinful, all Catholics are bound to accept her ruling; to resist it is to resist God Himself.

Archbishop Sheehan mentions some broad guidelines for choosing a suitable marriage partner. It is really the kind of down-to-earth advice that is so often lacking in this era of the ‘Church of Nice.’



The best preparation for marriage, apart from the fulfilment of one’s particular religious duties, is a life of chastity and the faithful fulfilment of one’s daily duties. A lazy and selfish life is no preparation for the generosity and sacrifices demanded of spouses. Unchastity before marriage can weaken one’s ability to promise chastity within marriage….The choice of marriage partners should be based on the virtues of the other person. Merely external and worldly qualities and talents must never be the chief factor. Affection and passions come and go; the attachment must be founded upon virtue and love, which is the desire for the true good of another. Married love, as St. Thomas says, is the highest form of friendship. The love between husband and wife leads them to desire the happiness of each other, even more than their own. Of a potential partner, one must ask oneself: will this person be a good father or mother to my children?

Author: genericmum

Share This Post On


  1. It is indeed a vexed question and the gate is very narrow. I fear that in our day most people are quite ‘unqualified’ for marriage, and the very concept in the secular world (in which we live) is so distorted that it is barely recognisable.

    I am aware of your personal situation, as you are aware of mine, and we both rely upon the merciful understanding of God. We have both moved further to the Cloisters than many. :)

    Post a Reply
    • You are so right about the concept of marriage being distorted. But I have hope there are still some who take its responsibilities seriously. God bless you always. X.

      Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *