The short answer is "no," an annulment is not a Catholic divorce.
Although the term "annulment" has come into common use, it is somewhat misleading, since it makes it seem as if an existing marriage is "annulled" or "cancelled." In fact, Church law does not use that term, but instead contemplates a declaration of the nullity (or non-existence) of a marriage. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
For this reason [i.e., lack of freedom in giving marriage consent] (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged (No. 1629).
The Church, basing itself on passages such as Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18, Romans 7:2-3, 1 Corinthians 7:10-15, and 1 Corinthians 7:39, claims that it has no power to dissolve marriages that are both sacramental and consummated. (See below.)
It is important to note that there the Church actually does contemplate the possibility of dissolving certain marriages under some circumstances: specifically, marriages that lack one or both of these characteristics just mentioned—marriages that are either non-sacramental, not consummated, or both. According to the Code of Canon Law,
Can. 1141 A [sacramental] marriage that is ratum [i.e., validly contracted] et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.
Can. 1142 For a just cause, the Roman Pontiff can dissolve a non-consummated marriage between baptized persons or between a baptized party and a non-baptized party at the request of both parties or of one of them, even if the other party is unwilling.
Can. 1143 §1. A marriage entered into by two non-baptized persons is dissolved by means of the Pauline privilege in favor of the faith of the party who has received baptism by the very fact that a new marriage is contracted by the same party, provided that the non-baptized party departs.
§2. The non-baptized party is considered to depart if he or she does not wish to cohabit with the baptized party or to cohabit peacefully without affront to the Creator unless the baptized party, after baptism was received, has given the other a just cause for departing.
A declaration of nullity is very different from the dissolution of marriage contemplated in these canons. The dissolution of marriage could be considered a kind of Catholic divorce, as it were, but a declaration of nullity cannot be so described.
Some Background regarding the Sacrament of Matrimony
To understand the difference, it is helpful to understand the basics of the Catholic teaching about marriage.
The Church describes marriage in this way:
"The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament" (Catechism No. 1601, quoting the Code of Canon Law, 1055 § 1, which in turn is inspired by Gaudium et Spes, No. 48).
The important point here is that marriage is a natural institution that existed prior to the sacraments. However, the Church claims, Jesus elevated marriage to a sacrament, which means that it gives grace to those who participate in it, especially those graces necessary to make the marriage a loving, life-long union.
It is precisely the sacramental character of marriage that makes a sacramental and consummated marriage absolutely indissoluble:
This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy - heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to "receive" the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life (Catechism No. 1615, emphasis added).
A marriage is considered consummated if the couple has performed the conjugal act together. It is sacramental if it is contracted by two baptized persons; non-sacramental otherwise (Canon Law, 1055 §2). If a marriage is both sacramental and consummated it is considered ratum et consummatum. It is this last type of marriage that is absolutely indissoluble (as the canon cited above states).
A couple enters a marriage through something called "matrimonial consent," popularly called the "exchange of vows" (although in Church law a "vow" is something specific that does not include matrimonial consent). For Catholics, this consent must be witnessed by an authorized sacred minister (a priest or deacon with the necessary "faculties" or permission), a requirement called the "canonical form." (Note that non-Catholics are not bound by this requirement; moreover, in emergency situations, non-authorized clerics and even lay persons may be the witnesses.)
Grounds for the Declaration of Nullity
As mentioned above, a consummated marriage between two baptized persons (i.e., a consummated, sacramental marriage) cannot be dissolved for any reason.
What happens, however, is that a number of factors may arise that make it so that a marriage was never contracted in the first place. These fall into two general categories: impediments and defects of consent.
An impediment is some extrinsic situation that makes it impossible for a marriage to be contracted at the time of the exchange of consent.
For example, someone who is already in a previous marriage cannot contract another one at the same time. (Someone in a valid sacramental, consummated marriage can never contract another marriage until his spouse dies.)
This impediment stems from the very nature of marriage, however, the Church has imposed other impediments on its members in order to protect the dignity of the Sacrament of Matrimony. For example, the following situations cause an impediment from contracting marriage:
- Murdering someone in order to marry that person's spouse. (The murderer is only impeded from marrying that spouse.)
- Attempting marriage with someone who has received Holy Orders (a deacon, priest, or bishop), or who has pronounced his solemn or perpetual vows.
- Attempting marriage without following the canonical form (as described above).
- Attempting to marry a non-baptized person.
(Note that a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian is not impeded; also the impediments mentioned in numbers 3 and 4 are readily dispensed with. See Canons 1083-1094 for specifics.)
Defects of Consent
Another way that a couple might fail to contract a marriage occurs if there is some defect in the matrimonial consent. For example,
- If one or both of the spouses enters the marriage by force or through fear.
- If one or both have insufficient use of reason (e.g., small children, severely mentally handicapped persons, or persons in a coma).
- Those unable to assume the obligations for psychological reasons (a severe inability to make a permanent commitment, for example).
- Exclusion of an essential characteristic of marriage (indissolubility, unity, exclusivity, openness to children) on the part of either.
- Error regarding the person (i.e., you thought you were marrying John but it was really Dennis).
There are many others. (See Canons 1095-1107.)
When a tribunal (basically a court) examines a marriage case, it checks to see whether one or more of these conditions is met. If it can be proven that such is the case, then it will give a verdict of invalid. Marriage, however, always enjoys the favor of the law, and so if there is insufficient evidence, or if the evidence shows positively that both parties were free from impediment and gave a valid consent, then it will give a verdict of valid.
As can be seen, this procedure is very different from that followed by civil courts, which simply grant a dissolution of marriage (i.e., divorce).
The only analogous procedure in the Catholic Church is that which grants, under certain circumstances, the dissolution of a marriage that is either non-sacramental or non-consummated (or both), as mentioned.
Regarding the Opinions Expressed by Cardinal Kasper
In the interview, the cardinal says, according to the original poster,
But take the case of a couple who are ten years married and have children, in the first years they had a happy marriage, but for different reasons the marriage fell apart. This marriage was a reality ...
The statement is somewhat problematic, because here "marriage" is taken in two subtly different ways. There is the marriage bond, which is effected at the moment of consent, and cannot be broken (at least in sacramental, consummated marriages) until the death of one of the spouses; and there is the lived reality of the spouses in question.
The marriage bond either comes into existence, or it does not. As mentioned, it comes in existence when a couple free from impediments validly exchanges matrimonial consent. It becomes absolutely unbreakable once the marriage is consummated.
The lived reality of the marriage, however, may or may not proceed well. A number of factors may cause it to "fall apart." Nevertheless, if the marriage bond is already in existence, the spouses have an obligation to respect it. Although for legitimate reasons such spouses may separate, at the very least neither one may attempt a new union with another person.
(It is important to mention at this point that separated couples are not prohibited from receiving the Sacraments, including Communion. It is only persons who attempt remarriage while ineligible who are so prohibited.)
In pastoral practice, the fact that the lived reality of a marriage has "fallen apart" may very well be a sign that there were conditions impeding the existence of the marriage bond. It is precisely the function of a marriage tribunal to investigate such conditions.
On the other hand, if the marriage bond never came into existence, then in fact a couple in this circumstance has lived a only a putative marriage, even if the situation has lasted for many years. (It must be stressed that the Church makes absolutely no moral judgement on couples in this situation; it is assumed that they acted in good faith.)
Hence, when the cardinal calls the granting of a declaration of nullity after many years of putative marriage a kind of "Catholic divorce," he does not mean that in a technical way. He is suggesting that many declarations of nullity of this kind are dishonest, because they seemingly disregard the lived reality, the many years of what appeared to be normal married life. (This is, however, Cardinal Kasper's personal opinion and not the Church's official position on the matter.)