Ministry of Reconciliation
Marriage is, by God’s plan an enduring and exclusive partnership between a man and a woman. The purpose of this partnership is the giving and receiving of love and the procreation and education of children. For all baptized Catholics, a valid marriage is also a ‘sacrament’.
The Church teaches that a marriage can be called real and genuine only when it is founded on the kind of relationship that Christ intended when He raised marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament. Certain intentions and capabilities must be brought to this relationship by the parties involved, in order that their relationship might indeed be a foundation of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Without these intentions and capabilities and regardless of appearances, there can neither be sacramental marriage nor even a more fundamental union, which is a valid and/or legitimate marriage or bond. The purpose of an annulment proceeding is to prove that the parties are not bound to a valid marriage because some essential elements were lacking from the inception of the union or contract – from time that consent was given.
In accord with the Gospels, the writings of St Paul and centuries of Christian tradition, the Catholic Church teaches that every consummated sacramental marriage is indissoluble. The Catholic Church presumes that every marriage, or at least every initial marriage, including a marriage between two non-Catholics, is valid unless otherwise overturned.
What is an Annulment?
An ecclesiastical [Church] annulment is a declaration by a competent Church Tribunal that a particular marriage was never a real and genuine union of the spouses from the outset. That is, there never was a marriage in the true sense of the word. It differs from a civil divorce in that a divorce attempts to dissolve and\or break a marriage, while a church’s decree of nullity declares that there never was a true bond to begin with. A church annulment does not ‘wipe out’ those historical events that took place during those years of the union of the couple, nor does the Church ever make a judgment upon the legitimacy of the children.
The ending of a marital relationship can be one of the most painful and difficult experiences a person will ever face. While the Catholic Church teaches and believes in the permanence of the marriage bond and strives to promote stable and faithful marriages, she also recognizes that some unions do not survive because they were lacking from the very beginning some essential ingredient without which there could not be a valid marriage. When such a lack of an essential element can be proven by evidence in a Church court, that marriage can be declared null.
What are common reasons an annulment may be granted?
A marriage can be declared invalid for several reasons related to the ability of one or both of the partners to understand and agree to the Catholic understanding of marriage before the wedding ceremony. This must be proven and supported by the witness testimonies also.
Here are some common reasons:
- The existence of an impediment, such as a previous marriage or religious vows or a close blood relationship between the couple (a brother and sister or first cousins). Some of these can be dispensed.
- Psychological incapacity, at the time of the wedding, to assume the duties of marriage; for example, if one of the parties suffers from a serious mental illness that prevents him or her from taking up parental or spousal duties.
- The presence at the time of the wedding, of an intention contrary to marriage or something essential to marriage; for example, one of the spouses refuses to have children, does not intend to remain faithful to the other spouse, or believes in the possibility of divorce.
- The presence of a future “condition” for marriage, such as one spouse demanding that the other spouse will achieve a certain level of income.
- Psychological immaturity that did not allow one or both parties to understand the true nature of marriage at the time of the wedding. An example would be a teenage couple who hardly know each other, but who decide to marry because the girl is pregnant. They have not thought about how they will support each other in marriage, nor do they know each other well enough to make lifelong commitment.
What Are the Civil Effects of a Church Declaration of Nullity?
It may surprise you to learn that there are no civil effects of a Church Declaration of Nullity in the United States. It does not affect in any manner the legitimacy of children, property rights, inheritance rights, visitation rights, names, etc. A Church annulment is a declaration from the Catholic Church that a particular union, presumably begun in good faith and thought by all to be a valid marriage was in fact an invalid union as the Catholic Church defines marriage. There is no attempt in the annulment process to accuse or to punish individuals. On the contrary, the purpose of an annulment procedure is, whenever possible, to reconcile persons to full sacramental participation in the community of the Catholic Church.
What is the Initial Step in the Process?
An individual interested in submitting a Petition to the Tribunal should contact the Tribunal Office or parish priest for an initial interview. At this time the person, hereafter known as the Petitioner, will tell the story of his or her marriage, with special emphasis on any personal background, 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 the parties, date and place of marriage and of divorce should also be presented at this time.
The Tribunal makes an initial evaluation of each Petitioner to determine whether or not there are grounds acceptable in Church law for proceeding with the case. The Preliminary Process can take as much time as necessary to review. You would be notified directly or through the priest of the action to be taken. You may be asked to give additional information for further consideration. You will be assigned an ‘Advocate’ to help during the process.
Witnesses are required by Church law to assist the Tribunal in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the marriage in question. Your witnesses would be contacted by the Tribunal and asked to give their observations in writing, usually through a questionnaire. At least four or five witnesses are required. Normally, it is not the quantity of witnesses that is helpful in these situations; but, rather, the quality of their testimony. We would need witnesses with specific information and knowledge concerning the parties at the time of the marriage as well as prior to the marriage. It would be wise to seek the cooperation of witnesses before you list them on the witness form.
Inform them that you are petitioning the Catholic Church for an annulment and that they will be contacted by the Tribunal Office if they agree to cooperate. You may release them from a former bond of confidentiality either written or spoken or even presumed. They must also know that their statements are held in confidence by the Catholic Church.
Tribunal Ministry of Reconciliation
Divorce is often an emotionally painful experience. Dreams are ended. Persons feel hurt and alienated from one another, their community, the Church and God. Often a person holds the pain of rejection inside.
This process is an opportunity for reflection. One recalls and tells the story of the marriage as a whole. In recalling one’s story the person looks at the cumulative effects of their experience on this relationship. As one writes or speaks about the marriage relationship, a person learns more about the former spouse and yourself. As the parties come to recognize the root of the failure of their marriage, they can more easily forgive and move on.
The Declaration of Invalidity provides an official statement that the former marriage is not an obstacle to a future marriage within the Catholic Church.