In the Roman Catholic Church, an annulment refers to a tribunal’s (church court) ruling that a marriage between a man and a woman is invalid due to specific circumstances within the relationship that prevented the formation of a spiritual bond, which consequently prevented them from fully entering into the sacred bond of matrimony with one another.
Typically, divorce refers to a process which dissolves a marriage from all civil and legal aspects.
An annulment does not dissolve a marriage civilly, legally, or even spiritually. Rather, it declares that a marriage never truly existed due to the absence of the spiritual bond which is essential to the Church’s definition of matrimony.
Anyone—either Catholic or non-Catholic—who wishes to be married in the Roman Catholic Church will need an annulment from the Church if he/she was previously married to a person who is still living. Even if the previous marriage did not take place within the Catholic Church, an annulment is still required.
Catholics who are legally divorced from their spouses may also wish to pursue an annulment from the Church as soon as the civil process has been completed. *Although this is not necessary in order for divorced Catholics to remain in good standing with the Church, it may be beneficial in helping them to identify why the marriage failed, and also allow them to clarify their marital status before they consider committing themselves to another relationship in the future.
*Divorce is not a sin in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church; therefore, divorced Catholics may remain in good standing and continue to receive Holy Communion. However, if a Catholic remarries outside of the Church, and/or enters into a sexual relationship with another individual, he or she can no longer receive Holy Communion.
Again, each relationship is unique and thus requires its own specialized investigation before the church tribunal will issue a ruling on the annulment process. The length of time this requires will vary from case to case, making it difficult to offer a solid time estimate. Some annulments may be granted in a matter of months, while others could potentially take a year or more.
Those who are seeking an annulment should contact their local parish priest, who can advise them on how to proceed according to all the necessary guidelines.