Decrease in annulments reflects change in attitude to marriage

There is no one single factor for decrease

Occasionally I am asked why there has been a drop in applications for annulment. Some have thought it a sign that relationships in marriage are more stable. I believe the divorce figures would suggest otherwise. There is, I believe, no one single factor for the decrease in people seeking an investigation into their marriage with a view to getting a declaration of nullity. It could be that people do not know that the service is available. It could be that they do not see the value of such a process. It could be fear of going over their painful past in detail. It could be that people are afraid that their application will not be successful. In my opinion, a major factor is the social and religious change that has taken place in Irish society. 

Change in belief

The effect of the change in belief is important – there is a significant minority of people who have no belief in God or in the Church. Their personal understanding of marriage doesn’t reflect Church’s teaching of marriage as a sacrament. For some, marriage today is seen very much in the personalist mode, ‘my’ marriage, ‘our’ marriage. The concept of seeing marriage as public statement of belief in marriage as ‘sacramental  witness’  is for some absent, or at best not conscious to them.


Up to recent times there was a general expectation that people in relationships eventually seal that love in a marriage bond. Marriage was very much viewed as an ‘institution’ one entered and the idea of a person not marrying was frowned upon. It was the expected thing to do by family and friends. Today’s generation behave in a more single-minded way when considering marriage; they view it as their decision and are not significantly motivated by expectation of others, i.e. parents who would like them to marry in the Church. This is not peculiar to Ireland; this is experienced throughout the Western world. In Ireland expectation to marry is still quite high in the family but at the same time where people used to get married in a church for their Mam and Dad, people now hitting their late 20s don’t feel that same pressure. I think there would be a sizeable number able to marry in a church but chose not to. This would also account for a drop in application for an ordinary nullity process.

There was a great fear that once divorce was introduced into Ireland it would significantly reduce the stability of marriage. I believe the introduction of public places as venues for civil marriage, such as castles and hotels, has had more impact on the significant minority choosing to opt for such venues and not marry in the Church. When I was a newly ordained priest in mid-1980s, some couples said to me they married in the Church because it was a ‘nice setting’ and openly admitted that that was the only reason for marrying in the Church.  It is possibly an indicator because as soon as the opportunity presented itself to marry in very nice civil and public buildings the number taking up the opportunity rose, and requests for a ‘blessing’ emerged.  


It is important to keep in mind that behind the statistics, and in this case the subject of marriage and annulment, are human beings with expectations full of promise and that promise is being shattered making those who suffer such pain and disappointment very vulnerable, bruised and hurt. The Church through the nullity process endeavours to meet such persons with sensitivity, understanding and care, and they not feel personally judged. It is about letting their story speak for itself in an impartial environment and the evidence solely determining the outcome of the process.

*Fr Michael Byrnes, JCL is Judicial Vicar at the Galway Regional Marriage Tribunal.