The Sacrament of Marriage
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a community of life and love, an enduring and exclusive partnership between a man and a woman for the giving and receiving of love and for the procreation and education of children. According to Church teaching, every valid marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament, and thus it is permanently binding and cannot be dissolved. In addition, the Church recognizes the validity and permanence of the marriages of unbaptized persons. The Church teaches that certain elements must be present in order for a marriage to be valid. Some of these would be minimal maturity, a personal commitment to marriage and to the other party, average emotional stability, a belief that marriage is a lifelong and faithful union, an openness to children, and sufficient evaluative judgment in entering marriage.
The Marriage Tribunal
Unfortunately, not every marriage, including some that are entered with the best intentions, is successful, and many marriages end in divorce. The Church is aware of the stress and suffering experienced by separated, divorced and remarried people, particularly Catholics, and it expresses its pastoral concern in different ways, especially through the ministry of the Marriage Tribunal. The Marriage Tribunal is composed of trained personnel and is designed to help determine whether the divorced and remarried person or the divorced person intending another marriage, is free to have his or her marriage celebrated in the Catholic Church. The law of the Church requires that every diocese have a functioning Marriage Tribunal.
Church Declaration of Nullity
A Declaration of Nullity is a judgment of a Marriage Tribunal of the Catholic Church concerning the invalidity of a particular union. If a Declaration of Nullity is granted, it means that in the eyes of the Church, a basic element was missing from the union in question from the very beginning and that on account of this, the marriage was not valid from the start. The Declaration of Nullity does not deny that a real relationship may have existed, nor does it imply that the union was entered with ill will or moral fault. Rather, a Declaration of Nullity states that the relationship fell short of at least one of the elements seen as essential for a true, valid Christian marriage. Finally, a Declaration of Nullity does not seek to establish guilt or innocence, but rather validity or invalidity. In the United States, a church Declaration of Nullity has absolutely no civil effects. The granting of a Declaration of Nullity will not affect anything that is determined by civil law, such as alimony, child custody, visitation rights, division of property, etc.
Divorced persons, regardless of religious affiliation, have the right to apply for a Declaration of Nullity of their former marriage. Persons who are not members of the Catholic Church often pursue a Declaration of Nullity in order to establish their freedom to marry a Catholic. In order to make application, the individual must approach the Marriage Tribunal which has the proper jurisdiction for the case. This would include the Tribunal of the Diocese where the marriage in question took place, the Tribunal of the Diocese where the other party lives, the Tribunal of the Diocese where the party seeking the Declaration of Nullity currently lives, and the Tribunal of the Diocese where the majority of the proofs can be gathered.
Initiating the Process
In order to initiate the process, parties believing that their marriage may have been invalid should contact their parish priest, who will refer them to an Advocate approved by the Tribunal to act on their behalf. The Advocate will conduct the initial interview in order to explore the possibility of a Declaration of Nullity. At this time the person, hereafter known as the Petitioner, will tell the story of his or her marriage, with special emphasis on any circumstances, personality traits, and behavioral patterns on the part of either or both parties which in their opinion may have caused or contributed to the failure of the union. Specific facts such as the duration of the courtship, the religious affiliation and baptismal status of both parties, the date and place of marriage, and of divorce should also be presented at this time. The Advocate will fill out the initial form to introduce the case and forward it to the Marriage Tribunal for acceptance and direction. Upon acceptance of the case, the Tribunal will forward the necessary forms to the Advocate acting on behalf of the Petitioner. This person is known as the Advocate. Any communication or inquiries with the Marriage Tribunal regarding the case should be made through the Advocate.
Petitioners coming for an initial interview should bring a legally certified copy of the Final Divorce Decree, a Church Marriage Certificate for Catholic weddings, a legally certified copy of the civil Marriage Certificate for non-Catholic weddings, and recently issued Baptismal Certificates for the Catholic parties. If these documents are not available at the time of the initial interview, they should be given to the Advocate as soon as possible after it. No case will be brought to a hearing unless all the necessary documents have been submitted. Depending on the nature of the case other documents may be required.
Church Law requires that the testimony of the Petitioner be corroborated by witnesses. Before Petitioners come for an initial interview, they should have the names and the complete current addresses of three witnesses who knew the parties in question from the beginning of the union, and who are willing to cooperate by giving testimony concerning the marriage. These witnesses should be individuals, be they relatives or friends, who knew the couple well and who can testify concerning the quality of the union. In situations where the marriage in question took place many years ago and potential witnesses may be deceased, the Tribunal will consider accepting the testimony of three individuals who have known the Petitioner for at least ten years and who are willing to testify to his or her veracity and honesty.
The Other Party
Church Law requires that every possible effort be made to contact the Other Party, who must be given an opportunity to testify if he or she so chooses. Petitioners should provide the Advocate the last known address of the Other Party. If this proves to be impossible, the Tribunal will request that the name and address of a parent or close relative of the Other Party be submitted as a possible contact. If the Petitioner cannot provide this, then an Internet People Search must be presented to the Tribunal in order to establish that every effort has been made to provide the last known address of the Other Party.
The Other Party will be informed in writing of the proceedings and will be given a month to complete a questionnaire provided by the Tribunal. If the Tribunal does not hear from the Other Party within that period of time, and no extension of time is requested, the Tribunal will presume that the Other Party is choosing not to cooperate. The Other Party has a right to request an Advocate in order to be assisted in the proceedings.
Church Law specifically states that children born of a marriage that has been declared null are considered legitimate by the Church.
When the Tribunal determines that sufficient testimony, as well as the necessary forms and documents, have been secured in a case, the case will be scheduled to be heard by a Judge. Usually, prior to this, the Petitioner and the Other Party will have an opportunity to review the testimony in the case. This is called the Publication of Acts and takes place at the Tribunal office. Cases may be decided by a panel of three Judges, by a single Judge, or by the Diocesan Bishop. In order to render a Decision, the Judge consults other members of the Tribunal, particularly the Defender of the Bond, who is charged by Church Law with ensuring that all requirements have been observed and that the permanence of the marriage has been protected. After the necessary consultation and consideration the Marriage is null, or stating that the invalidity has not been proved. The parties will be informed of the Decision of the Judge and will be given an opportunity to appeal it if they disagree with it. If neither party appeals, the Sentence becomes final, the parties are notified, and if everything else is in order, they are free to marry in the Church.
The Tribunal cannot promise that a case will be completed within a specific period of time. Each case is unique, and many different factors may either contribute to or hinder its conclusion, including the ability to secure the testimony of witnesses, and the increasing workload of the Tribunal. The time element can vary, anywhere from six to eight months or more.
There is no fee for a Declaration of Nullity.
Often the Tribunal will place a restriction on a person’s right to marry in the Church because of facts that were presented in the case. This prohibition will require that the person and his or her intended spouse have at least one session with a professional counselor to insure, as far as possible, the success of a future union. After this session the restriction may be removed or counseling may be required before it is lifted.
Note: No wedding date may be set until written notification is received that the Declaration of Nullity is final and until any restriction on a future marriage has been removed.