Q. When Is A Marriage Not Really A Marriage?

Frank Sinatra has one. So does former Chrysler Corp. chairman Lee Iacocca. New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato may need one; Sen. Ted Kennedy reportedly got one, and his nephew Joseph P. Kennedy II, a congressman from Massachusetts, hopes to get one. Four of these men are divorced and remarried -- Sinatra several times over. What each man has or is seeking is a marriage annulment from the Roman Catholic Church.

Cynics call it divorce, Catholic style, especially for wealthy, high-profile members of the church. But celebrities are by no means the only Catholics who win annulments of church marriages. Each year, canon lawyers estimate, 50,000 American Catholic marriages are declared null and void. About 90 percent of all petitions received by the church are approved. That's a far cry from 1968, when the church courts granted only 450 annulments to American Catholics. In the last 20 years, the grounds for granting annulments have been greatly expanded, and many of the 189 American dioceses now have marriage tribunals better run than the civil courts.

For many Catholics whose marriages have fallen apart, this liberalizing trendis good news indeed. With an annulment, they are free to remarry in the church; without one, remarriage means they are barred from receiving holy communion -- the heart of the Catholic religious experience. ""I wanted to date Catholic women and have them not feel they were dating damaged goods,'' says Daniel Kane, 48, a manager for the Chicago Transit Authority whose five-year marriage was annulled in 1986. ""It seemed like the method to the madness is to really get you to take a look at what you did, second-guess yourself and prevent you from making the same mistake again.''

This liberal attitude does not sit well in Rome. Vatican officials have repeatedly complained that the church's marriage tribunals -- especially in the United States -- have become far too lenient. Just last month, Pope John Paul II himself warned the Roman Rota, the church's appeals court for marriage cases, not to rely on the evaluations of psychiatrists who do not accept the Catholic doctrine on marriage. Other churchmen complain that the annulment process is demeaning and hypocritical for an institution that still opposes divorce. ""We get criticism from all sides,'' says Father Patrick Cogan, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America. ""Even some theologians think we are simply creating legal fictions.''

Jesus himself was quite clear on the matter. When asked whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, he replied: ""What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.'' In Catholic doctrine, marriage is much more than a legal contract: it is primarily a sacramental bond uniting two people until the death of one of the spouses. Unlike a civil divorce, which the church does not recognize, an annulment is a declaration that for some reason the marriage was not valid in the first place. ""If we are going to hold people to the permanence of marriage,'' says Father Cogan, ""then justice demands that the church should declare which persons are not bound because they are not in a valid marriage.''

In the past, the grounds for granting annulments were limited and obvious. Severe mental illness, failure to consummate the marriage and refusal to have children were common reasons for ""a degree of nullity.'' But today, says Father James Provost, chair of the canon-law department at the Catholic University of America, most annulments are based on psychological factors at the time of marriage, such as immaturity or unwillingness to assume the responsibilities of married life. ""Both spouses must be ready, willing and able to marry,'' says Father Provost. Tribunal judges also look into whether the spouses intended a marriage that would be monogamous and permanent. Many annulments are granted to couples who separate within five years of their marriage. ""We live in an age of prolonged adolescence,'' observes Father Cogan. ""A young person who wants to live just as he did before he was married offers strong grounds for declaring a marriage invalid.''

The annulment process differs from a divorce proceeding in several key respects. It is considerably cheaper: depending on the diocese and the complexity of the case, expenses range between $300 and $1,000. Some tribunals, like Detroit's, charge nothing, and all of them subsidize poor petitioners. Most proceedings in the United States are decided within six to 18 months. More important, there is no assignment of guilt to either party. A spouse may choose to cooperate with or oppose the process but cannot stop it. (Penelope D'Amato, separated from the senator for 13 years, has said she'll object if he files an annulment petition so he can marry Claudia Cohen, the gossip columnist turned socialite.) Each spouse is assigned a court representative. Witnesses are called and, frequently, both parties are psychologically evaluated. In cases where one spouse is found to be habitually violent, emotionally disturbed or drug-dependent, the tribunal may prohibit a second marriage. ""The church does not want to bring pain on someone else,'' says canonist Cogan.

In practice, however, the American church will not annul a marriage until it has been legally ended by divorce. Most Catholics don't apply until they want to remarry. Some, like Ted and Joe Kennedy, even remarry outside the church and then seek an annulment almost as an afterthought. For the other spouse, typically an ex-wife, the annulment can be jolting. It's one thing to end a marriage. But it's another to have the church declare it never existed, especially when children are involved.

Episcopalian Sheila Rauch Kennedy knew Joe Kennedy for nine years before they married. Both received marriage counseling from a Catholic priestbefore their marriage, which was blessed by both the Episcopal and the Roman Catholic churches. They were married for12 years and had twin sons, now 14,before Sheila divorced the congressman in 1991. ""This is not two people whohad too many beers and went to Vegas,''she has said. Now, after remarrying in a civil ceremony, Joe, 42, is seeking an annulment, and Sheila, 45, is opposing itin church proceedings. Although an annulment in no way brands children as illegitimate -- a common misunderstanding -- Sheila wants her boys to know thatthey were born of a ""sanctified union.'' ""I don't believe in annulments,'' she says.

Despite such criticism, canon lawyers believe the church courts offer a ministry of compassion to beleaguered Catholics. They worry, too, about the thousands of divorced Catholics every year who do not bother to seek annulments. But moral theologians like Father James T. Burtchaell are concerned that annulments may become ""as perfunctory as the weddings they disallow.'' As he and others see it, the very ease of the liberalized process almost invites abuse. If Catholics are expected to marry for better or for worse, they shouldn't approach the altar with their fingers crossed.