A couple wants to have their marriage ended by the Church, and a priest said that they should ask about the Pauline Privilege. What is that, and how does it differ from an annulment?

A Pauline Privilege is the dissolution of a purely natural marriage which had been contracted between two non-Christians, one of whom has since become a Christian. The Pauline Privilege is so-named because it is based upon the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16.

The Pauline Privilege differs from an annulment because it dissolves a real but natural marriage. An annulment is a declaration that there never was a valid marriage to begin with.

The Pauline Privilege does not apply when two baptized people marry and later one quits being Christian. These people had a sacramental marriage forged between them and this marriage is indissoluble, even if one partner is failing to fulfill his marital responsibilities.

The Pauline Privilege also does not apply when a Christian has married a non-Christian. In those cases, a natural marriage exists and can be dissolved for a just cause, but by what is called the Petrine Privilege rather than by the Pauline Privilege. The Petrine Privilege is so-named because it is reserved to the Holy See, so only Rome can grant the Petrine Privilege (which it seldom does).

A biblical precedent for the Petrine Privilege, where some of the faithful marry unbelievers and then are permitted to divorce them, is found in Ezra 10:1-14.