The Biblical Root of Annulments. The Lord says this in regard to marriage: “What God has joined together, let no one divide (Mat 19:6). On the face of it, divorce or any sort of annulment would seem forbidden by this. But actually the text serves as a basis for the Church’s allowance of annulment under certain circumstances.
The text says “What GOD has joined together” cannot be divided. Now just because two people stand before a Justice of the Peace, or a minister, or even a priest and swear vows, it does not mean that what they do is a work of God. There have to be some standards that the Church insists on in order for us to acknowledge that what they do is “of God.”
There are a number of impediments that can render what they do ipso facto invalid. Things such as prior bond (married before), consanguinity (related by blood too closely), minor status (under legal age), incapacity for the marital act (i.e., cannot have sexual intercourse), and the use of crime or deceit to obtain consent—any of these things can render a “marriage” invalid. Further, it is widely held that if one or both parties were compelled to enter the marriage (e.g., by social or financial pressure), or if they display(ed) a grave lack of due discretion on account of immaturity or poor formation, such marriages are nullified on these grounds.
All these are ways that the Church, based on evidence, can come to a determination that what appeared to be a marriage externally was not in fact so. Put more biblically, the putative marriage was not “what God has joined together.”
One may ask, “Who is the Church to make such a determination?” She is in fact the one to whom the Lord entrusted, through the ministry of Peter and the Bishops, the power to bind and loose (Mt 18:18) and to speak in His name (Lk 10:16).
Thus, Annulments are not Divorces. A decree of nullity from the Church is a recognition, based on the evidence provided, that a marriage in the Catholic and biblical sense of the word never existed. Hence, since a person has not in fact been joined by God to another, he or she is free to marry in the future. In such a case a person does not violate our Lord’s declaration that one who divorces his spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf Matt 19:9).
Hence the Church does not set aside the Lord’s teaching by her teaching on annulment. Rather she has reflected on His teaching and seeks to apply the Lord’s premise for a valid marriage, namely, that it is “what God has joined together.”
But here then comes the basis for the great debate: are we giving too many annulments? While it is clear that the Church has some pretty precise canonical norms regarding marriage, like any norms, they have to be interpreted and applied. Certain American practices and norms have evolved over the last thirty years that many think are too permissive and thus no longer respectful of the binding nature of marital vows.