The United States, with 6 percent of the world’s Catholics, accounts for 60 percent of the Church’s annulments.
Apart from the papacy, few doctrines divide the Catholic Church from non-Catholic ecclesial communities as does the doctrine of the indissolubility of a consummated Christian marriage. Eastern Orthodox Christians are permitted three marriages; King Henry VIII’s desire to remarry helped lead to the formation of the Anglican Communion. Martin Luther permitted divorce in the cases of adultery, desertion, failure to fulfill conjugal duties, and “where husband and wife cannot get along together.”
The Catholic Church holds that the teaching of Jesus Christ is clear: husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.… Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:8-12).
Thus, in 1563, the Council of Trent decreed that
if anyone shall say that the Church has erred in having taught, and in teaching that, according to the teaching of the Gospel and the Apostles, the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved, and that neither party—not even the innocent, who has given no cause by adultery—can contract another marriage while the other lives, and that he, or she, commits adultery who puts away an adulterous wife, or husband, and marries another; let him be anathema.
In our own time, Pope John Paul II taught that “it is a fundamental duty of the Church to reaffirm strongly…the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, 1981). He affirmed the discipline of “not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried,” adding that
reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.
Declarations of nullity
While most New Testament passages on marriage make no exception for divorce, our Lord says in St. Matthew’s Gospel that “whoever divorces his wife, except for porneia (unchastity), and marries another, commits adultery.” Catholic exegetes have debated the meaning of porneia for centuries, with the Navarre Bible explaining that “it is almost certain that the phrase refers to unions accepted as marriage among some pagan peoples, but prohibited as incestuous in the Mosaic Law and in rabbinical tradition. The reference, then, is to unions radically invalid because of some impediment.… They had never in fact been joined in true marriage.”
This explanation speaks to the development of the annulment, the declaration by Church authorities that a putative marriage never truly existed because of reasons such as consanguinity or lack of consent. In the West, popes and bishops were declaring marriages invalid in the early Middle Ages, with Pope St. Gregory VII beginning to systematize ecclesiastical court procedures in the 11th century.