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Glossary of

Church Terms

Here is a brief glossary of terms often used in the Catholic Church that may not

be completely familiar to journalists who have not had a great deal of experi-

ence in covering church matters. One may hope that even more experienced

journalists will find one or two new insights here. Terms are capitalized only if

they are always capitalized. For example,


is capitalized only when

used as a title before a name, but

College of Cardinals

is a proper name in all

uses—so the


entry is lowercased but the other is capitalized.


Technically called a

decree of nullity

, an annulment of a marriage

is a decision by a church court, confirmed by an appellate court, that a


tive marriage

was not valid from the start because something was lacking: full

knowledge and consent by both parties, freedom from force or grave fear, or

some other factor needed for a valid marriage. “Putative” (meaning apparent

or seeming) is a key word in the entire process: It refers to a marriage in which

at least one party acted in good faith, believing it was valid at the time it took

place. Children from a putative marriage are considered legitimate even if

the marriage is later ruled to be invalid. This has been a source of one of the

major popular misunderstandings of annulments; namely, that an annulment

somehow makes the children of that union illegitimate. Church law explic-

itly rejects this interpretation, saying that children of a putative marriage are

legitimate even if the marriage is later judged to be invalid.

apostolic nuncio.

Church term for the Vatican ambassador to another coun-

try and the papal liaison with the church in that country. An apostolic nun-

cio, also called a

papal nuncio

, is always an archbishop, and it is his religious

title that is capitalized as a title before his name, e.g.,

Archbishop Pietro Sambi,

apostolic nuncio to the United States,


Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi

. See

religious titles before names


In a country with which the Vatican does not

have diplomatic relations, the official Vatican liaison with the church there is

called an

apostolic delegate

. Papal representatives in the United States were

apostolic delegates until 1984, when full diplomatic relations were estab-