In our Church is this old icon of St. Helen, who was the woman who uncovered some of the greatest archaeological treasures of the Church, and who ordered the construction of some of the greatest Christian basilicas in our history. She was credited with discovering the long-lost True Cross that had been obscured by the empire in a vain attempt to make Christians forget about the sacrifice of our Lord. But in time even the emperors would become Christians. St. Helen lived during this time when the Church was rising to ascendancy, and she was the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the empire. As the emperor’s mother, Helen became easily the most powerful woman in the world in her day. But even before Constantine had become emperor, Helen had hovered near the height of the government based on her marriage, and yet her spouse eventually abandoned her. The imperial government had forced her pagan husband to divorce her so that he might remarry for purposes of better political alliances, and thus Helen was left alone. Her heroic Christian faith pulled her through this challenge, even at a time when faith in Christ could invite martyrdom, and today she is honored as one of the great saints of the early Church. St. Helen never remarried, but the circumstances around her civil divorce would make it possible for us to procure an annulment for her today if she wanted one. So what then, is an annulment? Is it the same thing as a Catholic divorce? No.
An annulment is not “just a Catholic divorce.” Divorces are civil realities within our secular legal system, but when we seek an annulment (or more accurately a “declaration of sacramental nullity” from its inception with respect to the prior marriage) we invite a religious court to look back at the historical marriage of a divorced person and help us to judge whether or not that marriage was merely legal, or was it a truly sacramental marriage. A government may declare that two men can get “married” these days, but that would hardly be seen as a real, sacramental marriage in the eyes of the Church. So seeking an annulment is asking the Church to make a judgment on our previous unions and to rule as to whether or not those unions were genuine sacramental marriages.
So let us take for example St. Helen’s case. If we were going to try to procure an annulment for St. Helen we might start by pointing out to the tribunal that neither she nor her husband had been baptized at the time of their marriage, and that she was likely baptized only after their marriage. Moreover they were probably married originally in a pagan or secular ceremony. These are starting points, and might be ways we could advocate for Helen’s annulment (that is if she had asked). St. Helen never asked for an annulment as far as we know, and she never remarried. She remained a chaste woman after her divorce. She lived an active Catholic life and she is a great saint of the Church.
Today, if one is Catholic and is abandoned by your spouse, and thereafter divorced, the Church does not recognize the divorce, so you are still free to live out your Catholic faith. In the Church’s eyes, you are still married until the Church says otherwise. But if divorced Catholics want to remarry, then we need the Church to first declare that they are free to marry, and so we seek a declaration of nullity or annulment for the previous marriage(s). Also, let’s say that divorced persons are seeking to come into the Church – then again we will want to talk to them about the annulment process as a part of their becoming Catholic.
All of this may be confusing, we know, but keep in mind that there is a lot of confusion out there about marriage too, as well as much misinformation about annulments. Each divorced person has his or her own specific story to tell (like St. Helen) and the specific circumstances of each of those stories make it hard to speak about annulments in a general way. Thus one really needs to talk personally to a priest, but sometimes it helps to read a few things first to get a feel for the process. That is why you’re reading this, we know. Still, if you want to understand this process more, we invite you to call our pastor, or click on the link below to begin to explore more about the process. These days the divorce rate is so remarkably high that it is clear that there is grave confusion about marriage in our age. If you are someone whose family has been wounded by divorce, and if you want to seek healing and closure from the perspective of the Church, we want to help.