Nullity of marriage (canon law)

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The nullity of marriage according to the canon law (colloquially marriage annulment is called) a process in which the competent court of the Catholic Church , the canonical nullity of marriage is pronounced. It is thus legally established that the marriage, which was reviewed at the request of one or both parties, was not valid from the church's point of view due to the invalidity of the marriage under Catholic marriage law . The declaration of nullity is therefore not a dissolution of an existing marriage, but the establishment of the fact that, according to the Catholic understanding, there was no valid marriage from the start because the conclusion of the marriage lacked one of the essential characteristics according to the Catholic understanding.

In Germany there are 22 competent courts. In 2016, 580 judgments were pronounced, 90 to 95 percent of the proceedings ended with a declaration of nullity. In Austria around 200 marriages are annulled every year (as of 2014). Across Switzerland , around 80 Catholic marriages are declared invalid every year.

Marriage nullity grounds

According to ecclesiastical law, a marriage is invalid if at the time of the marriage

  • there was a lack of consensus, i.e. about
    • one of the partners was in error about important facts or characteristics of the marriage at the time of the marriage (e.g. believed that the marriage is not indissoluble according to the Catholic understanding);
    • one of the partners had important reservations about the marriage at the time of the marriage (e.g. ruled out the conception of children from the beginning and for good or reserved the right to have extramarital relationships during the marriage or to divorce after a certain period of time) ;
    • one of the partners at the marriage was unable to grasp the scope of the act,
    • or wanted to enter into marriage only for pretense ;
    • or if the marriage came about through external coercion
    • or their future survival at the time of marriage was linked to a secret condition (e.g. inheritance).

In these cases, no marriage consensus was reached because, legally speaking, there was a lack of knowledge or lack of will on the part of those involved.

In addition, a marriage can also be ineffective and the marriage void if there was an impeccable consensus between the bride and groom, but there were other (external) reasons for invalidity, namely if

  • there was a breach of the formal requirement, i.e. the marriage was not concluded in the form prescribed by the church or, in the event of non-compliance, with an episcopal dispensation from the formal requirement (only applies if at least one of the partners is “formal”, i.e. Catholic and with Marriages until December 2009, in addition, had not left the Church at the time of the marriage);
  • there was an impediment to marriage from which either no dispensation was possible or, if it was, it was actually not dispensed, for example if

According to church law, a marriage can be invalid if at least one of the two spouses did not have the mental abilities at the time of the marriage that are necessary to enter into or lead a marriage (so-called "mental incapacity to marry"). Here, too, one assumes a lack of consensus, one then speaks of a “psychological deficiency”.

Annulment proceedings


The decision is made at the request of one or both spouses by the diocesan church court (matrimonial jurisdiction), the official office , with episcopal authority, after this has formed a corresponding conviction by questioning the parties involved and, if necessary, further witnesses. The parties can be represented and advised in the proceedings by lawyers who are trained in canon law and who have a special ecclesiastical license. In addition to the church judges and the church notary (court secretary), a so-called marriage bond defender is also involved in the proceedings, a church attorney who has the task of finding reasons that speak for the existence of the marriage bond . The entire procedure is usually conducted in writing, but personal hearings of those involved by the court are possible. Finally, three judges discuss the result of the evidence and give the verdict. All parties are bound to secrecy.

Instance move

Up until 2015, all decisions were ex officio, i.e. without the parties involved having lodged an appeal, by the next higher instance , the Metropolitan Court . In some countries this sometimes took several years. If the appellate body came to a different conclusion than the first court, a third instance had to be invoked. The highest authority for appeal proceedings in matrimonial matters is the papal court, the Roman Rota .


With the apostolic letter Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus ("The mild judge Lord Jesus") of August 15, 2015 in the form of a motu proprio , Pope Francis simplified the marriage nullity procedure. Marriages can now be legally annulled by a church court in the first instance, a second instance decision is no longer absolutely necessary. Under very narrow conditions, the local bishop can now also act directly as a judge in cases in which the facts are clear and undisputed among the parties involved . Such shortened procedures decided directly by the bishop as a single judge, which can be completed within a few weeks, are rare. The second and third instance is the case of disputed decisions still open and can by the parties or the marriage bond defenders with the appeal of the appeal to call (appeal). The reform also reduced the requirements for witness evidence. In addition, the rules of jurisdiction have been simplified so that most applicants can now appeal to the court in the diocese of their place of residence. A factually corresponding second moto proprio ( Mitis et misericors Iesus - on the reform of the canonical procedure for declarations of marriage nullity in the code of canons of the oriental churches ) regulates the new procedure for the Eastern Catholic churches . The new rules of procedure came into force on December 8, 2015. In the following year there was an increase in the initiation of proceedings by 25 to 50 percent in the German-speaking Catholic dioceses.

Legal consequences of nullity

The final declaration of nullity means that the parties involved may be free to enter into a new, ecclesiastically valid marriage after the civil divorce .

Differentiation from other marriage proceedings

A distinction must be made between a marriage annulment, which is very seldom granted, in favor of the faith (i.e. the dissolution of a marriage in which the unbaptized are involved, making use of the Pauline or Petrine privilege ) as well as the dissolution of the marriage in the event of non-execution (the is also possible among the baptized). Unlike the mere determination of nullity given from the beginning, these proceedings actually lead to the dissolution of a validly concluded and possibly also consummated canonical marriage.

Frequently discussed problems

Mental incapacity to marry

The difficult to judge question of the "mental incapacity to marry" at the time of marriage, which in practice plays a relatively large role as a catch- all factor if (which is often the case) other reasons for cancellation do not apply or cannot be proven , sometimes leads to controversies between the ecclesiastical court and the non-complaining parties, who regard this finding as an attribution and feel discriminated as "guilty". In most cases, at least in German-speaking countries, the judges endeavor to ensure that the proceedings are handled as amicably as possible and often see themselves as pastors to those affected, but the wish to enable the complaining partner to have a new church marriage (in almost all cases Cause of the procedure), in the eyes of the other partner, who may be distant from the church, can certainly lead to stigmatization , even if he refuses to participate in the expert procedure that is usually required. If necessary, the court will also decide in the absence of the person concerned on the basis of other witness statements about his (then) “mental” state.

Reason for cancellation impotence

Contrary to popular perception that plays impediment of impotence ( impotentia coeundi against it today) as a cancellation reason in church court marriage process hardly matters, since it is a very difficult to detect events from which (in practice extremely rare is required already at the time of marriage existing, stable and effective inability of spouses, the sexual intercourse even begin to perform together).

Civil legal consequences

In contrast to divorce under civil law, the question of post-marital maintenance claims is regularly excluded in the church court marriage process, because church law refers to the applicable state law in economic matters. The purely theoretical argument that, according to church logic, no legal consequences should result from a marriage that never existed, is therefore irrelevant, at least in legal systems that distinguish between civil and church marriage law. Countries such as Poland , Greece , Spain or Portugal , where a Roman Catholic marriage is recognized as a marriage under civil law without an additional civil marriage , have their own state regulations with regard to the legal consequences of the marriage (e.g. maintenance obligations), which are in addition to church law gain. Incidentally, in cases where, in the absence of a state regulation under church law, a decision on maintenance issues would have to be made, one must in principle assume that the obligation to support the needy partner can also have arisen through a putative marriage . After all, children born in such a marriage are still considered legitimate under canon law after the nullity has been established. In individual countries with a Catholic legal system, the best-known examples are Malta and Italy , the annulment of a Catholic marriage still automatically leads to civil-legal nullity and thus to the retroactive extinction of all civil-law claims from the marriage; in Italy this is sometimes used to evade post-marital maintenance obligations.


Web links

See also

Individual evidence

  1. a b c Peter Wensierski : It was humiliating (book review on: Eva Müller : Richter Gottes: The secret processes of the church. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2016). In: Der Spiegel , January 7, 2017, p. 44 f.
  2. a b Jakob Wetzel: As if nothing had ever happened. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung , January 28, 2014; accessed on February 4, 2017.
  3. a b Mia Eidlhuber: Divorce in Vatican. In: Der Standard , June 22, 2014; accessed on February 4, 2017.
  4. Codex Iuris Canonici ( Memento of the original of June 10, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , Book 4, TITLE VII MARRIAGE @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  5. German text of the Motu proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus - The mild judge Lord Jesus on the Vatican website.
  6. Jörg Bremer: Pope facilitates marriage dissolutions , in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , September 9, 2015, p. 4.
  7. Simplified marriage annulment procedure comes into force. In: Der Standard , December 8, 2015, accessed February 3, 2017.
  8. ^ "Significantly more marriage nullity proceedings" (interview with Würzburg official Stefan Rambacher), in: , October 30, 2016; accessed on February 4, 2017.
  9. On legal history and legal classification cf. Klaus Lüdicke: The annulment of marriage. Substantive law. Münster 2010, pp. 55–67. For the term, field of application and relationship to the so-called “inability to lead marriage” cf. Karin Gutiérrez-Lobos and Eva Trappl: Disadvantage of People with Mental Illnesses in the Austrian Legal System - A Contribution to Destigmatization and Discrimination. (Section “Marriage Laws - Canon Law”), online publication of the Austrian Society for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy , Vienna 2006, pp. 161–165.
  10. a b marriage: "Annulment" (section "Marriage inability"), information on the nullity proceedings of the diocese of Trier ; accessed on February 4, 2017.
  11. Peter Mühlbauer: Pope corrects statement that the "large majority" of church marriages is invalid In: Heise online , June 23, 2016; accessed on February 4, 2017.
  12. When the marriage is invalid. ( Memento of the original from February 4, 2017 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. In: Engagiert (members' magazine of the Catholic German Women's Association ), issue 3/2013, February 28, 2013; accessed on February 4, 2017.
  13. 'The goal of legal activity in the Church is salvation' , address by Pope Benedict XVI. to the Roman Rota of January 29, 2010, documented by Zenit and published on on the same day; accessed on February 4, 2017.
  14. Andreas Wollbold: Pastoral work with divorced remarried people: Gordian knot or unimagined possibilities? Friedrich Pustet Verlag, Regensburg 2015, p. 220.
  15. Klaus Lüdicke: The annulment of marriage. Substantive law. Münster 2010, p. 66 f.
  16. Irene Zöch: “Yes” to divorce in Malta. In: The press . July 26, 2011, accessed August 7, 2016 .