Introduction of divorce did not affect applications for nullity

The influence of a growing secularism has undoubtedly played a significant role

Over the past 10 years in the Armagh Regional Marriage Tribunal (ARMT) there has been a gradual decrease or tapering off in applications for decrees of nullity compared to the highs of the late 1980s and 1990s. This is reflected across other Irish marriage tribunals. The decrease in applications might best be understood in the context of the subtle and more evident changes that have taken place in society and in attitudes toward the institutional Church over a similar period of time. It would be wrong to attribute the decrease to a single factor and it is important to note that when compared with other neighbouring marriage tribunals, applications in Ireland remain significantly higher than elsewhere in Europe. Many people in Ireland still set significant value on going through a Church process to obtain a decree of nullity principally so they can get married in Church and/or for peace of mind. This is a service which the Church provides in particular circumstances and to which scores of trained and accredited lay faithful and qualified full time personnel devote time and, in some cases, many years of ministry.


The availability of divorce in Northern Ireland appears to have had little or no effect on the numbers of applications to our local tribunal and, interestingly, there appears there was no immediate or noticeable downturn in applications for nullity when divorce was introduced in the Republic of Ireland in more recent years.

Painful process

However, leaving aside the personal opinion expressed above, and acknowledging that marital breakdown is, if anything, on the increase, personal tribunal and pastoral experience suggests to me that those who would otherwise have applied for an annulment 20 or 30 years ago may have decided it is not something they would now wish to obtain because; they cannot face the difficulty of going through a fairly long and painful process, they believe, erroneously, that its costs a fortune, they no longer practice their faith and they see an annulment as ëunnecessaryí, they have grown disillusioned in general with the institutional Church or, in particular, have lost faith in the Church and canon law due to the sex abuse scandals which have eroded the Churchís moral and juridical authority.

Growing secularism

The influence of a growing secularism in a once traditional, devout and monolithic society has undoubtedly played a significant role in discouraging some from approaching a Church tribunal or seeing the significance and importance once attached to a decree of nullity. Finally, the long and ongoing debate about access to Holy Communion and the sacraments for the divorced and remarried, and either confusion or rejection of the Churchís discipline regarding same, has led some to conclude that a decree of nullity, whilst desirable, is not absolutely essential to oneís full practice of the Faith. Questions on this very topic were included in the recent Vatican questionnaire made readily available to all the faithful in advance of the forthcoming 2014 Synod in Rome on the pastoral challenges facing the family. It will be interesting to see what emerges from it.

Tempting though it may be to conclude otherwise, a rejection of the nullity process should not be immediately interpreted as a rejection of either faith or practice. Similarly, I know of many others who remain in the pews convinced their broken marriage is valid and they will never be known to a tribunal – there are few, if any, figures or statistics relating to them.

* Fr Eugene OíHagan was Judicial Vicar at the Armagh Regional Marriage Tribunal from 1992-2013.