There is no such thing.
I touched on this topic earlier in Family, sex, life quoting Mark 10:6-12. Jesus explained the nature of marriage. When pressed further by His disciples, Jesus was unambiguous with no “wiggle room” for misinterpretation. This is what the Catechism says:
By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. This is the consequence of the gift of themselves which they make to each other. Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement “until further notice.” The “intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children, demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable union between them.”
The Church recognizes all valid marriages between a man and a woman. Marriages may be invalid for a variety of reasons, such as:
- The free intent to enter into, or understanding of, marriage was not present
- Either party was previously married
- A direct blood relationship exists
- A party is bound by a vow in Holy Orders or religious institute
- Murder of spouse in order to marry another (crimen – possibly why Henry VIII simply could not kill Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn)
- Impotence, incompetence and fraud are some additional reasons, among others
Civil authority plays no role in the Church’s recognition of a valid marriage. In this regard, there is no civil authority. Valid marriages are valid and invalid marriages are invalid regardless of secular decrees. For this reason civil divorce simply can not dissolve a valid marriage and is not recognized by the Catholic Church.
Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond which remains indissoluble.
While it is impossible to dissolve a valid marriage, it is possible to petition the Church to officially annul an invalid one. This is not divorce but recognition that the parties were in fact, never married to each other. The annulment process is intensive, exhaustive, time consuming and expensive. Evidence must be gathered and carefully examined by a tribunal established by the local Bishop. Catholics who recognize their marriage as valid do not go down this path. Of those who believe their marriage was in fact invalid, nullity is not found for a significant percentage. It is a myth that annulments are as easily obtainable as civil divorce, that annulments are “Catholic divorce” or that the Church makes any profit in their investigation.
Note that no consideration may be given to anything occurring after a valid union as Jesus Himself gave no such “out.” The validity of a marriage could not change if for example, one spouse became adulterous, abusive, or committed despicable crimes. We would pray for the couple and their family and offer the support we could – but the marriage would remain.
Annulments themselves create complications. Children are the most important (Canon law declares them legitimate in this unfortunate circumstance). Other obligations of the previous union must be resolved. If the annulment is due to a prior marriage, that prior marriage remains valid.