Sharp fall in number of couples seeking an annulment
The number of Catholic couples seeking an annulment of their marriage from the church has fallen dramatically in the last decade.
New figures show 224 Irish couples began the process for a church annulment in 2012 – a drop of almost half from 2003, when 402 couples applied to have their marriage declared null.
The drop suggests a decision by couples to divorce rather than to apply for a church annulment, which is perceived as being more difficult to obtain.
Figures from Census 2011 showed the number of divorced people jumped from 35,059 in 2002 to 87,770 in 2011.
According to the Catholic Church process, a decree of nullity declares a marriage null and void, meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to be invalid from the beginning, almost as if it had never taken place.
However, in around 80pc of cases where an annulment is granted, the church imposes a veto on future marriages on one or both parties, believing that the 'defect' is still present and may pose a risk to future marriages.
The declining figures – while the number of divorced people increases – may indicate that Catholic couples whose marriages break down are less concerned about being free to remarry in the church, according to 'The Irish Catholic' paper.
The highest number of applications for an annulment was in 2004 when 499 couples approached the church to have their marriage declared invalid.
However, there has been a steady decline ever since, with applicants falling below 300 in 2009 and to just 224 in 2012.
Only a minority of applications for an annulment move beyond the preliminary stages, with about 40pc 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 A further third are withdrawn by the applicant.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 1992-2013, said it was only possible to speculate on the declining figures for annulments, saying one reason would be increased secularism.
"There are those who perhaps no longer practise their faith and find the nullity process irrelevant to their circumstances . . .or some may find it too harrowing or difficult a process to engage with," he suggested.
He conceded that he found the process to be "a difficult one" but said staff approach the matter "very sensitively" and with an awareness of the rights of both parties to have a fair hearing.
Meanwhile, Fr Michael Byrnes, Judicial Vicar at the Galway Regional Marriage Tribunal, believes there is no longer the same social pressure to get a decree of nullity to be free to marry in a church.
"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," he said.