The number of couples seeking an annulment of their marriage from the Church has fallen dramatically in the last 10 years.
Figures show that 224 Irish couples began the annulment process in 2012, down almost half from 2003, when 402 couples applied to the Church to have their marriage declared null.
In Catholic tradition, a decree of nullity declares a marriage null and void, meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to have been invalid from the beginning.
The falling figures suggest that Catholic couples whose marriages break down may be less concerned about being free to remarry within the Church.
The number of divorced people in Ireland has risen by over 150% since 2002. Figures from the 2011 census reveal the number jumped from 35,059 in 2002 to 87,770 in 2011.
Divorce is legal in Ireland since the 1996 Divorce Act, but Ireland continues to have one of the lowest divorce rates in Europe.
The highest number of applications for an annulment came in 2004, when 499 couples approached the Church to have their marriage declared invalid.
However, according to figures obtained by the Irish Catholic newspaper, there has been a steady decline ever since, with applicants falling below 300 in 2009 and just 224 in 2012.
The number of annulments granted in a particular year does not tally with the number of applications for that year, since the process often takes several years and cases are held over from previous years. Annulments granted by the Church here peaked in the mid-2000s, with 701 Catholic marriages declared null in 2006 and 517 annulled in 2007.
Only a minority of applications move beyond the preliminary stages, with about 40% found to have no prima facie case for nullity. A further third are withdrawn by the applicant.
Fr Eugene O’Hagan, judicial vicar for the Armagh Tribunal from 1992 to 2013, said it was impossible to pin down the exact reason for the decline.
“One can only speculate, based on experience, but one reason would be the increased secularism,” said Fr O’Hagen.
“There are those who perhaps no longer practice their faith and find the nullity process irrelevant to their circumstances or disposition or some may find it too harrowing or difficult a process to engage with.”
Fr Michael Byrnes, judicial vicar at the Galway Tribunal, said social attitudes have had an impact, where there is no longer the same social pressure to get a decree of nullity to be free to marry in a church. “The expectation to marry in the family is still quite high, but at the same time where people used to get married in a church for their mam and dad, this generation now hitting their late 20s don’t feel that same pressure,” said Fr Byrnes.
In about 75% to 80% of cases ending with a nullity decree, a veto known as a vetitum on marriages in the Church is imposed on one or both parties. This is because the Church believes that the defect which caused the nullity is still present, putting the validity of future marriages at risk.
Before an annulment is granted, a case must be judged independently by two Canon Law courts, first by a regional tribunal and then by the National Appeals Tribunal. The onus is on applicants to provide convincing evidence that the marriage is invalid.
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