Marriage as the church understands it
To understand what the Catholic Church means when it issues a Declaration of Nullity, it is helpful to look first at the Church’s teaching on marriage.
The Church teaches that marriage is created by God and governed by his laws. Since the institution of marriage is of divine origin, the Church’s teachings concerning the dignity of marriage apply to all marriages, not merely those of Catholics. All people who are capable of giving consent can marry.
The Church teaches that marriage is also a covenant between a man and a woman which establishes an indissoluble and exclusive partnership. It is a vocation which fosters the good of the spouses and naturally leads to the procreation and education of children. A marriage between validly baptized Christians is a sacrament, regardless of the denomination of the spouses.
In addition, the Church’s teaching respects the natural bond of marriage whenever one, or both, of the spouses is unbaptized. This is rooted in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels; the writings of Saint Paul; and centuries of Christian tradition. Therefore, although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage in which both parties are marrying for the first time, is presumed to be valid. This presumption is the case for every marriage, regardless of whether the parties to it are Catholic.
The Church holds that a couple’s spiritual bond is sealed by God and does not end, even if the emotional and physical bond has ended in civil divorce. Moreover, the Catholic Church shares the belief of other faith communities and of society, that a marriage is not just the private affair of a couple, but rather it is a public reality, affecting both the civil and religious sphere of society and serves as their foundation.
For a Catholic, a valid marriage results from four elements:
• both spouses are free to marry (i.e. no canonical impediments exist)
• both freely exchange their consent
• in consenting to marry they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another, and to be open to children
• their consent is exchanged in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized priest or deacon