Confusion among Catholics concerning annulments is not helped when “experts” featured in the Catholic press are themselves confused about annulments.
Peter Smith, writing in the National Catholic Register (21 jul 2014), interviewed two experts about the annulment process. The quotes from one of them, Benedict Nguyen (a canonist for the Diocese of Venice FL) are reliable; but the other expert, Dcn. Patrick O’Toole (actually featured in the article) is confused about the central question in every annulment case. According to O’Toole, “We know a valid civil marriage occurred. The only question is whether a valid sacramental marriage occurred” (original emphasis). O’Toole repeats his phrasing later: “What we’re looking for is: Was everything that is required for a sacramental marriage there from the very beginning?” O’Toole is mistaken.
Not only is the sacramentality of a marriage NOT determined in an annulment case, the question of its sacramentality is not even RAISED in the process. The annulment process is about the validity of marriage and only about validity; a successful petition results in a “declaration of nullity”, not in a declaration of non-sacramentality. Experts must know and consistently present these distinctions if they are ever to help pew Catholics to understand first the fundamental juridic nature of all marriage and then the sacramentality of specifically Christian marriage.
Consider: if tribunals really regarded as null all marriages that were not “sacramental”, then no marriage between Jews, or between Muslims, or between Hindus, would be valid, for none of those marriages are sacramental. For that matter, no marriage between a Catholic and any non-baptized person would be valid, for such marriages are not regarded as sacramental, even when they are entered into in accord with canon law! This is nonsense, of course, but it’s the kind of nonsense that gains traction when an “expert” describes the central question in annulment cases to be about sacramentality instead of about validity.
There are, I’m afraid, several other problems in the article but the above should suffice to caution readers.