“Lack of marital capacity” as a reason for annulment

Canon Law: Marriage Law in the Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC) © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

According to Catholic understanding, marriage is a sacrament. This sometimes makes things difficult – especially when the marriage is breaking up. In East Germany, the Erfurt marriage court is hearing this and other cases.

The head of the Erfurt church court, Monsignor Heinz Gunkel, simply wanted to know and asked Siri: "Will you marry me??"

The digital voice assistant's response was adorably unromantic: "There is nothing about marriage in my contract."It is not always so easy to be legally precise in matrimonial matters – especially in the Catholic Church.

Unlike Protestants, where according to Luther, "Marriage is a worldly thing," for Catholics marriage is a sacrament and thus indissoluble.

No divorce, but annulment proceedings

The Church does not recognize a Catholic "divorce" – but of course marriages still break down. If one of the partners subsequently wants to remarry in church, the path usually leads to the church court, the Offizialat, in order to have the first marriage annulled via "marriage annulment proceedings".

In eastern Germany, the Interdiocesan Office in Erfurt is usually responsible for this. As a Catholic church court, it is responsible for the dioceses of Dresden-Meissen, Erfurt, Gorlitz and Magdeburg. This Monday it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

At the same time, Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr announced an expansion: It is planned, he said, that the archdiocese of Berlin, which so far still has its own ecclesiastical court, will also join the Interdiocesan Offizialat Erfurt starting in 2020. At present, the legal details are still being clarified.

"Difficult when the first contact is canon law"

Around 50 to 60 cases are heard in Erfurt every year. About half of these are so-called marriage annulment proceedings. According to Gunkel, an East German peculiarity is the additional high number of so-called "proceedings for the dissolution of marriage in favor of faith".

The point here is that an unbaptized person who has previously entered into a civil marriage and divorced can seek dissolution of his first marriage. It is the prerequisite to then be allowed to marry a Catholic partner. "Of course, that's not easy when the first contact with the church for these people is directly with canon law," Gunkel reports. "There it is important to convey in a good way that law has an auxiliary function."

The Offizial therefore has a great responsibility. "He needs a great openness to the people who come to him in order to do justice to them. Our experience is that many couples say in the course of the proceedings: here we have really talked deeply about our marriage for the first time," said Gunkel, who is retiring in August after 19 years as officiant.

The main grounds for annulment, according to him, are the ie of "lack of marital capacity," such as when couples have married very young. Or the question of inner freedom. "What is increasing now is the question of sexual orientation, when in the course of a marriage one partner finds out that he is homosexual," Gunkel said.

What makes marriage a sacrament?

Again and again, the Catholic understanding of marriage engages a broader public: whether in matters of labor law, for example, when a Catholic hospital terminates its remarried head physician. Or at the introduction of "Marriage for All".

But what constitutes the sacrament of marriage in concrete terms?? It is difficult to describe what the theological specifics of this union of two people are, notes the Erfurt dogmatics professor Julia Knop: "To equate the sacramentality of marriage simply with its indissolubility would be undercomplex."

Throughout history, sacramentality has been justified in very different ways, he said. In the meantime, there is a legal narrowing to the consensus between the partners, the "yes" word, which, however, is dogmatically difficult: "Because such a consensus is first of all something human, which two people balance out with each other. But that is something different from what we as a church actually understand as a sacrament, namely the unconditional devotion of God, which is precisely not based on human preliminary performance."

If one asks where in a wedding service this unconditional devotion of God becomes most clearly visible, "then I am at the blessing and not at the conclusion of the contract".

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