“The Church's teaching on the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage needs to be seen alongside her teaching on the need for compassion and understanding towards those in any kind of difficulty” New Zealand Catholic Bishops, When Dreams Die, 1982
In the Catholic Church marriage is viewed as a permanent, exclusive partnership between a man and a woman who have become husband and wife through a sacred covenant with God and each other. A Catholic marriage is based on Christian values of love, faith, fidelity, partnership, and openness to having children.
The Catholic Church considers both civil and church marriages valid. However, if both spouses are baptised and married in the Catholic Church, the marriage is also considered a sacrament – the sacrament of matrimony. Once consummated, a Catholic Church marriage cannot be set aside by any human power, including a civil court.
Although Catholic marriage is considered a vocation – a calling from God – and a lifelong commitment, sometimes married couples are faced with difficulties they feel their marriage cannot overcome, and the marriage breaks down.
Marital separation or civil divorce alone are not considered a sin and do not mean estrangement from the Church. While causing a marriage to break down can indeed be sinful, the Church recognises that people can be the victims of another’s sins, or even of their own misunderstandings and mistakes.
While supporting the permanence of marriage, the Church offers to review a broken marriage to determine whether there could have been something defective from the beginning. If that can be proven, the Church can recognise the marriage as one that never had permanent binding force and the couple can be given a Decree of Nullity.
A marriage annulment in the Catholic Church is not the same as a divorce, and does not have civil effects. For example, it does not make children illegitimate, it cannot be used to question a child's paternity, and it will not influence a civil court to set or change terms of civil divorce, child custody, child support or property settlement.
However, it does allow spouses to marry again in the Catholic Church and the Catholic spouse or spouses in the new union are able to participate fully in the life of their Church.
Whether a marriage is eligible for annulment is a decision made through the Tribunal – the Church body established to assist bishops in determining the status of persons according to the laws of the Catholic Church. Each of New Zealand’s six dioceses has an office of the Tribunal.
While no one can be guaranteed a declaration of impermanence in advance, a person who thinks her or his marriage may have been defective from the beginning should request a study of that marriage. The Tribunal staff members are not interested in deciding “who is to blame”, but in finding out if there are factors that could make a marriage invalid.