Within the Catholic Church, the seven sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation (Penance), Matrimony, and Holy Orders are considered the outward showing of inner grace, instituted by Christ. They are the very components of salvation as the Roman Catholic Church teaches it. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments themselves—in their view the foundation of salvation—cannot be tossed aside easily. Only if the sacrament was not lawful from the moment it was conferred can it be renounced. In recognition of the fact that that may happen from time to time, the Catholic Church has created the Catholic marriage annulment process, which will declare a sacrament invalid from the very beginning.
An annulment is properly referred to as a Declaration of Nullity. Though it can be applied to any of the seven sacraments, it is most often sought for Matrimony. Since the Catholic Church holds that a married couple cannot divorce for any reason whatsoever, a divorce is not recognized by the Catholic Church as a valid end to a marriage. It then follows that a Catholic priest will not marry those individuals who were divorced, even if the divorce occurred prior to joining the Catholic Church, even if the divorce occurred before the divorcee truly understood the consequences.
When issued, an annulment does not end the effects the Roman Catholic Church teaches are conferred by the sacrament. Rather, the annulment declares that the sacrament in question was not valid from the start, and the recipient is treated as though he or she never actually received the sacrament. That does not mean that children from the marriage are now considered born out of wedlock or that the ex-spouses committed any sort of fornication. It means that the receipt of the sacrament was somehow flawed.
Annulments are granted for a variety of reasons by the Catholic Church. The most common reasons presented to tribunals are a lack of due discretion, defective consent, and psychological incapacity. Some annulments are for minor technicalities and rarely involve more than filling out the correct forms; for example, if one of the parties had a prior bond (was married in the Catholic sense of the word) at the time of the wedding. There is also defect of form, which includes marriages performed by a non-Catholic minister or weddings held outside of a Catholic Church. More than half of all the annulments granted are for defect of form.
But is the concept of Catholic marriage annulment a biblical concept? In regards to marriage being a sacrament, please read our article on the seven Catholic sacraments. The Roman Catholic concept of marriage as a sacrament is itself unbiblical. This puts the concept of an annulment on shaky ground to begin with. Catholic doctrine is based upon both Scripture and Church tradition. Based upon Jesus’ words, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6, Mark 10:9) and upon the Church tradition that receiving a sacrament creates an undeletable mark upon the soul of the recipient, the Church teaches that a marriage CANNOT end. The Church does not ignore Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 that allow divorce only in the case of the adultery of the other party. No, the way this is handled is much more disturbing. According to the New American Bible (NAB), a Catholic Bible translation, Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 read thus: "whoever divorces his wife (UNLESS THE MARRIAGE IS UNLAWFUL) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." The concept of an "unlawful marriage" in the NAB is translated as either "(marital) unfaithfulness," "adultery," or "fornication" in every other major Bible translation. There does not seem to be any textual basis for the NAB’s choice of words, except to support the Catholic Church’s own doctrine.
Although Jesus taught that divorce was only written into the Law because of human stubbornness (Matthew 19:8) and that the original intent of God was for the spouses to never separate (Genesis 2:24), He makes the exception in cases of sexual immorality/marital unfaithfulness. The Catholic Church’s teaching of marriage does not ignore this fact; rather, it mistranslates Scripture to support its own unbiblical teaching of marriage as unending, and then creates the annulment process to allow a Catholic-sanctioned way to end said marriage by declaring it invalid. The Catholic marriage annulment process is unbiblical in the sense that Jesus only allowed for sexual immorality/marital unfaithfulness as the basis for ending a marriage, and the annulment process allows for many, many reasons, but not for the one reason Jesus mentioned. The Catholic Church does not accept the only biblical reason for divorce as valid and, in fact, creates a new list of unbiblical reasons for a marriage to end.
The Roman Catholic Church’s practice of annulment is not biblical. It is founded on an unbiblical concept, that of the sacraments conferring grace. It is essentially an “escape” from what the Bible defines as a marriage. It ignores what the Bible does say about marriage, divorce, and marital unfaithfulness. Essentially, the Catholic practice of marriage annulment is an unbiblical way to escape from a doctrine that is itself unbiblical.