Annulments: Addressing the confusion and pain

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | March 12, 2020

ALLOUEZ — We hear the word “annulment” and many ideas arise. However, most of us don’t really know that much about the annulment process.

For example, some people think annulments mean that a once committed relationship never truly existed — as if nothing ever happened. Instead, an annulment really means that some important factor within this relationship did not exist. Therefore, a valid marriage could not be formed according to canon (Catholic Church) law.

Since annulment is a complex issue, The Compass asked both the judicial vicar of the diocesan Marriage Tribunal — Fr. Brian Belongia — and several field advocates for the tribunal about the questions they often hear about annulment. In this series, we are exploring some of these.

  • Why do I need witnesses? Don’t they trust my word? 
    Like a civil court case, the help of witnesses is sought in an annulment process. An annulment is much like any legal case, except that it is tried before a church court — the diocesan marriage tribunal. Just as civil court cases have witnesses, canon (church) law requires two witnesses for an annulment case to proceed. This is also the same number of witnesses needed at a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church.The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) notes that sometimes people put off gathering testimony from witnesses for their annulment. However, they forget the substantial benefits to be gained.“Some people find that simply writing out their testimony helps them to understand what went wrong and why,” the bishops explain. “They gain insights into themselves. Others say that the process allowed them to tell their whole story for the first time to someone who was willing to listen. A person cannot know today if they might want to marry in the future when crucial witnesses may be deceased or their own memories may have dimmed.”Deacon Jerry Cross, a marriage tribunal field advocate from Laona, wants people to know that asking for witnesses “most certainly is not an issue of trusting you. There are passages in the Bible that note that (people) must have witnesses before coming to the church and church elders. In other words, the person submitting the paperwork and the former spouse has a right to have people validate the information submitted. For a biblical perspective, feel free to read these Bible passages: (Mt 18:15-17 and Jn 8:17).”

    Also, the testimony of witnesses helps the tribunal judge get a clear picture of the couples’ relationship. Witnesses greatly help the process, but they can also delay things.

    Kerry Adam, administrative assistant for the marriage tribunal, handles the paperwork from witnesses. “The worst offenders for dragging out the case,” she said, “are witnesses who do not get their testimony in on time or at all.”

  • Won’t an annulment mean my marriage never existed?
    The USCCB addressed this question head-on: “(Annulment) means that a marriage that was thought to be valid civilly and canonically was in fact not valid according to church law. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship existed. It simply states that the relationship was missing something that the church requires for a valid marriage.”Deacon Cross reassures those who ask this that their marriage did indeed exist — from a civil law perspective.“From a church perspective, in looking at a ‘declaration of nullity’ (annulment),” he added, “the church looks at Jesus’ teaching in Mark, chapter 10. It tries to review and see if God and the couple truly joined the marriage as a sacramental bond. … The church is looking at whether God and the couple truly joined this marriage. The church looks at the relationship between the couple and tries to understand (whether or not), when the marriage vows were shared with each other, there was an essential element missing.”

    Sr. Carol Haanen, a field advocate from Appleton, notes that it’s the sacramental, not legal, aspects that the tribunal reviews.

    “The annulment,” she said, “deals with the elements of the marriage that are needed to be a sacrament. It does not state that the couple was never married, rather that the marriage lacked what it needs to be a sacrament.”

  • Everyone gets an annulment, right?
    Fr. Brian Belongia, judicial vicar for the diocese noted that this is an area of confusion.“A big misunderstanding I get,” he said, “is people think an annulment is a license to get married (again). An annulment legitimately and officially declares a previous marriage null. This can be done only after intense investigation. Not all requests for annulments are granted. Even if they are, there can be restrictions or stipulations put on a person before a new marriage can take place.”Fr. Bob Kabat, a field advocate from Green Bay, is also a former judicial vicar. He agreed that not everyone who applies gets an annulment.“An annulment is a judicial process based on evidence,” he explained. “So the evidence must show that the marriage in question was not sacramental. There was a marriage, but did it reach the sacramental status the Catholic Church considers for a sacrament?”

    However, fear of the denial of an annulment should not deter people from approaching the tribunal. As Ruthann Ross, a field advocate from Manitowoc, said, “All the cases I have been involved in have received the affirmative decision to annul. I do not know of anyone who has had the annulment denied, though I am sure it must happen from time to time.”

  • I can’t receive the sacraments because I got divorced, can I?
    Many people erroneously believe that, once they are divorced, they cannot receive holy Communion or go to confession. It is remarriage — not divorce — that can separate a person from the sacraments.“Divorce is not a sin in the Catholic Church’s teaching,” said Norbertine Fr. Tim Shillcox, a field advocate in Clintonville. “It’s a ‘civil procedure’ which allows spouses, as a last resort, to go (their) separate ways, when staying together would be impossible, unsafe or unhealthy. Remarriage would require annulment ministry; but divorced, single persons are free to receive the sacraments. The person who’s experienced divorce needs the sacraments more than ever. Don’t stay away, please!”Sacraments offer God’s grace. As Sr. Carol noted, “Sometimes the most faithful thing you can do is to leave a destructive marriage. This is a time when you need the comfort and strength of the Eucharist and the support of a faith community. Yes, do receive Communion for yourself, be strong against others’ judgment.”

    The questions explored in this series on annulment reveal the confusion, as well as pain, that results when a marriage ends. These can lead people to become fearful about approaching the marriage tribunal. They may feel reluctant to expose themselves and their families to more pain. However, the field advocates of the Diocese of Green Bay want to help.

    Deacon Cross expressed the tribunal members’ sense of mission and ministry:

    “I have been in the ministry with the tribunal for 21 years,” he said. “I have experienced the pain and hurt from the people I have tried to help. It has to be very difficult for these people to dig up old wounds, to air out ‘skeletons from a closet’ that they had hoped to never open again. I feel that; and all I can do is to be there for them whenever they want to talk and/or vent or have a personal visit. But, to the best of my ability, I try to help them be able to find some healing through this journey and then hopefully they might find some closure.

    “This is grief ministry,” he added. “Not with the family of someone who has died, but for a marriage that probably ended bitterly.”

    To contact the diocesan marriage tribunal, visit or call (920) 272-8167.

Editor’s note: Last in a four-part series.


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