General Background Information
How does the Church view marriage?
In his public ministry, Jesus unequivocally and consistently taught that the matrimonial union of a man and a woman is both holy and indissoluble. (See Mt 19:6) The sacrament of matrimony is a source of inspiration and life (i.e. sacramental) both for parties in the marriage as well as for the Christian community in which they live. By means of the matrimonial covenant, a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life which, by its very nature, is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. Because of its place of importance in the Christian community, marriage is a public act regulated by church law.
How does one enter into a valid marriage?
The parties to a sacramental marriage covenant are baptized persons who are free to marry (i.e. they are not impeded by any natural or ecclesiastical law) and who freely express their consent. Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by means of which a man and a woman, through an irrevocable covenant, mutually give and accept each other in order to establish marriage.
Two Catholics normally will exchange this consent before their Bishop. (or his delegate) or their pastor (or his delegate) in a church and, usually, during the celebration of Mass. This form of celebration is required for validity for two Catholics unless they have received the explicit permission of their bishop not to fulfill one or another of these formalities.
Two non-Catholics are expected to marry according to the authentic teaching of their own faith community (/-ies). Hence, if two non-Catholic parties marry before a Justice of the Peace, since they are not bound to observe the Catholic formalities for marrying, the Church assumes their marriage to be valid unless and until the contrary is proven.
Whenever a couple marries according the teaching of their faith community, be it Catholic or non-Catholic, and observes all the required external formalities prescribed by civil and/or religious law, Catholic Church considers that marriage to be valid until such time as it is proven null/void/invalid.
Who can challenge the validity of a marriage?
Normally, only one of the two parties to a mirage has the right to challenge its validity before a Church court (tribunal).
Annulments and Declaration of Nullity
Are these two terms synonymous? Most emphatically, NO!
General speaking, in law, when an action is annulled, it is wiped out and it’s consequences are equally eradicated. The concept clearly is that someone (usually a Judge) does something to an action whereby it is eradicated from existence. A CHURCH COURT (TRIBUNAL) DOES NOT ANNUL MARRIAGES!
When one of the parties in a marriage alleges before a Church tribunal that his/her marriage is invalid/null by church law, the tribunal is required to receive the allegation of nullity and to study the alleged nullity of the questioned marriage. If, after a lengthy and careful process, the tribunal rules in the affirmative that the Petitioner’s allegation of nullity has been proven, then the tribunal issues a Declaration of Nullity – and official statement that the marriage in question is (and always has been) null and void. The Church court merely officially declares a marriage null – a condition that existed from the very inception of the “marriage.” The declaration of the tribunal in no way alters the status of the marriage. If a marriage is valid at its inception, there is nothing that a Church court can do to render it invalid.
Why might a marriage be declared null?
There are many reasons a marriage might be declared null by a Church tribunal. In general, some essential element(s) of the marital consent was so gravely flawed or lacking that a valid marriage was impossible for one or both of the parties at the time of the attempted marriage.
A marriage might be found to be null by reason of an incapacity of one/both of the parties to contract marriage.
1. because of an insufficient use of reason.
2. because of grave lack of discretion of judgment, or
3. because of an incapacity to assume and fulfill the essential obligations of Christian marriage.
A marriage might also be found to be null by reason of the existence of an impediment at the time of the exchange of vows.
2. existence of a prior bond of marriage.
3. Consanguinity or affinity
4. error in concerning a quality of a person
6. conditional consent
7. force or grave fear, and
Why go through such an involved process?
The Church believes that marriage is an intimate community of life and love which was instituted by God himself. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God’s relationship with his People has been likened to a nuptial covenant. Jesus, in his public teaching, unfailingly upheld the indissolubility of the matrimonial union - as we read in the gospel according to Matthew: “what therefore, God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mt 19:6) the Church has never taken this injunction lightly. In order to be faithful to our Scriptural tradition, we believe that, before we declare a marriage to be null, we must be as certain as we can humanly be that this, is in fact the case. Church law grants a presumption of validity to all marriages. In other words, in Church law, all marriages are considered to be valid unless and until they are proven to be invalid/null.
Not all intimate human relationships are marriages. There are some very close relationships that are not marriages. Should a marriage be found to be null, that declaration does not in any way imply that a relationship never existed between two people. What the declaration does say is that, according to Church law, the exchange of marriage vows was so flawed in some essential component that a sacramental marriage (or in the case of an unbaptized person, a “natural marriage”) never came into being as a result of the attempted marriage.
Finally, a Declaration of Nullity from a Church tribunal has NO civil consequences whatsoever. What ever a civil court established as a settlement in a divorce hearing in no way is affected or altered by a Church Declaration of Nullity. Specifically, a Church Declaration of Nullity in no way affects the alimony, financial settlements, or the legitimacy, inheritance rights of offspring of the union, or child support awards. Whatever the civil courts have ruled in these regards remain valid an unaltered by a Church Declaration of Nullity. A Declaration of Nullity affects ONLY the internal discipline of the Catholic Church and its members.
Information for Petitioners
What is a Petition for a Declaration of Nullity?
The Petition is a formal request made to a Diocesan Tribunal (local Church Court) to perform a particular action or to hear a specific case.
A Petition for a Declaration of Nullity is a formal request made by one of the parties in a Marriage that a Diocesan Tribunal study the possible nullity of his/her marriage. Through a predetermined legal process, the Tribunal will study the marriage in question and, at the end of the study will respond to the question: “Has the nullity of the X-Y marriage been fully proven on the grounds of Z?” This question can be answered in the affirmative or the negative, but it must be answered one way or the other. In other words, at the end of the process, the legal doubt concerning the validity of the marriage in question must be resolved in a document (the Definitive Sentence or the Decision) written by the Judge.
In most tribunals in the United States, the process used to arrive at the above-mentioned conclusion is handled either by correspondence or by individual interviews – sometimes by a combination of both. It is not an adversarial scenario where the parties and their witness gather together in one place and confront each other. It would be highly unusual for any of the parties and/or witness to actually meet each other face to face during the process.
Who will be handling your request?
There are a number of people who will be handling your case file during this process. Among these are:
This is an individual (usually a priest) with a degree in Canon Law who is appointed by the local Bishop to direct processes such as this. During this process, the Judge assigned to your study will be responsible for the appropriate procedural steps in the process: for periodic reviewing of your case file, for setting the grounds for which the alleged nullity of the marriage will be studied, for reviewing the documents and testimony which came in relative to this process, and, ultimately, for deciding whether or not the alleged nullity of the marriage in question has been proven.
Defender of the Bond:
This person also holds a degree in Canon Law and is appointed by the local Bishop to function in the Tribunal. The task of the Defender of the Bond is to speak in favor of the bond of marriage which is being “attacked” by the Petitioner’s allegations of nullity. Just before the Judge writes the Definitive Sentence, the Defender of the Bond submits to the Tribunal his own opinion concerening the validly/nullity of the marriage in a written document called the Observations of the Defender of the Bond.
This person, who is approved by the local Bishop, works with either the Petitioner or the Respondent (depending upon who appointed the Procurator/Advocate) in order to assist him/her in accurately presenting his/her views and recollections to the tribunal. In the event that both Petitioner and Respondent wishes to be represented before the tribunal by their own Procurator/Advocate, a different Procurator/Advocate will be appointed for each party. In order to be represented by a Procurator/Advocate, a party must make a written request.
The Auditor is a person who interviews the parties and/or their witnesses.
The Notary is responsible for keeping the case files orderly, accurate and current and for being sure that correspondence and notifications are mailed in a timely manner.
What is the process that will be followed?
The process has three principle stages:
1. The Introduction
2. The Instruction, and
3. The Conclusion.
The Introductory Phase:
In this phase the Petitioner obtains (from his/her parish priest) and completes the General Preliminary Questionnaire, the Judge and the other court officers are appointed, the Petitioner is interviewed, the Petition is accepted or rejected, the Respondent is contacted, and the grounds on which the possible nullity of the marriage will be studied are established. This phase usually takes four to five months.
During this second phase, the witnesses named by the Petitioner and Respondent are contacted. After all the testimony has been gathered, the Petitioner and the Respondent are notified there is no more testimony to be obtained and that they may come into the tribunal office to review the testimony that has been collected. The Defender of the Bond and the Procurator/Advocate(s) are also notified at this point. (This part of the process is known as Publication of the Acts)
When the witnesses give testimony, they have the option of indicating whether or not they want to withhold their testimony from the Petitioner, the Respondent, or both. However, if a witness withholds his/hers testimony from publication and one of the parties wants to read it, Church law forbids the Judge to use any information used uniquely in the withheld testimony when he makes his final discussion and writes the Definitive Sentence.
REGARDING YOUR WITNESSES:
From the Tribunal’s point of view, the most valuable witnesses are those who knew both Petitioner and Respondent during their courtship as well as during their marriage. Consider asking parents, siblings, friends (members of the wedding party, perhaps) neighbors and co-workers to testify. The important thing is that the prospective witnesses have first hand knowledge of the parties and their relationship. Second-hand knowledge, hearsay evidence, and character witnesses are of limited use to the tribunal.
Also, before you name a witness, please contact him/her and obtain that person’s consent to serve as your witness. Witnesses generally are much more disposed to cooperate if you ask them to cooperate before we contact them.
In this final phase, the Defender of the Bond submits his recommendations and the Judge makes his decision and writes the Definitive Sentence. At this point, the parities and Defender of the Bond are informed of the Judge’s decision, which they have a right to appeal, if they wish. If no formal appeal is made, the Judge’s decision automatically goes to the Appellate Court for confirmation.
Generally speaking, this process takes twelve to fifteen months from the time of the Petitioner's interview. Due to the many variables, however, NO WEDDINGS PLANS OF ANY KIND ARE TO BE MADE PRIOR TO THE NOTIFICATION THAT OUR DIFINITIVE SENTENCE HAS BEEN CONFIRMED BY THE APPELATE COURT.
THESE BRIEF NOTES ARE NECESSARILY SKETCHY. IF YOU HAVE NEED OF FURTHER INFORMATION, PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE TO CONTACT THE TRIBUNAL.
Rev. Paul F. Robinson, O’Carm., J.C.D.
If you wish to discuss the possibility of an annulment you have three possible tribunals: the diocese where the marriage took place or the diocese of either of the parties.
If the Fall River Tribunal is one of your possibilities, please contact Msgr. Hoye and he will be happy to help you with the process. click firstname.lastname@example.org to send an email