Last week we saw that marriage is a life long union of a man and a woman, joined by God. A Catholic marriage, once validly entered into, is dissolved only by death. Jesus, in Matthew chapter 19, makes this clear. But, as we know, divorce has become common. Statistics vary, but anywhere from 40% to 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and the numbers jump to 60% to 75% for second marriages. While the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of civil divorces, we do recognize that marriages fail, and that Catholics are not immune from this reality. But once a person is married in the Church, they are not free to marry another, even if they are civilly divorced.
The Church struggles to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus while living His compassion toward people in need. Since a marriage, validly entered into, can not be dissolved the Church performs an investigation to see if the failed union was valid from the beginning. This process is commonly known as an annulment, which is different from a divorce. The Church’s declaration of nullity states that certain conditions existed at the time of the wedding ceremony, which prevented the union from being valid. A civil divorce simply states that a marriage bond is broken, for whatever reason. Grounds for an annulment include emotional immaturity, external pressure to marry that impairs one or both of the spouses’ free will, lack of understanding of what a Church marriage is, or a lack of intent to live such a union. The other main ground for nullity is if the couple is related by blood or marriage. Problems that arise after the couple is married are not grounds for an annulment. For more details you can go to the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Chicago website (http//www.archchicago.org/departments/tribunal/faq.shtm),
A declaration of nullity does not mean that a relationship, in the human sense, never existed. It means that a sacramental marriage, because of certain impediments, was not validly contracted on the wedding day. Any children from the union are legitimate, and both parents are still responsible for their material and spiritual well being. It says that a marriage did not fail by accident, but that the grace of the sacrament was not present because the union was not valid. It also allows these people to attempt to marry again in the Church.