There are a number of distinct types of Declaration of Nullity procedures in Church law. The ordinary procedure is described here. This does not apply to the case of Catholics who were married outside the Church without permission or to people who were married to a person who was married before. There are special procedures for these types of cases.
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament made by Christ. By doing so Christ enhanced the dignity of an institution already made holy in God’s creation. Marriage is an enduring and exclusive partnership in which husband and wife establish a loving and life-giving relationship. This natural-sacred relationship becomes a Sacrament if both parties are baptized.
For this reason the Church views divorce very seriously – a last resort to safeguard rights under secular law. The Church does not believe that divorce can sever the actual bond of a valid marriage. Church law presumes that a marriage is a valid one once it is entered, a presumption which remains in force unless and until the contrary is proved. Not every marital relationship meets the minimum standard established by the Church to constitute a sacrament– a standard which requires certain intentions and capabilities on the part of husband and wife. Without these intentions and capabilities a marriage does not have the kind of enduring bond which Christ taught is indissoluble (unbreakable). In other words, while a marriage relationship exists between the parties and has certain consequences; it is not necessarily the type of marriage bond which can be broken only by the death of one of the parties.
The purpose is to determine whether or not an indissoluble marriage bond was created when the parties entered their marriage. It must be proved clearly and without doubt that this enduring bond was not established in order to declare the marriage null. This proof must focus on grounds of nullity recognized by Church law and apply to the marriage from its very beginning. Examples of such grounds are a definite intention against having children, against the permanence of the marriage, or against fidelity, or psychological factors psychological factors which seriously impeded the freedom of the parties entering the marriage. There are many other grounds as well. In all instances they focus on the time the marriage was entered. The annulment proceeding is handled by the Tribunal. This office of the Diocese works under a set of guidelines and laws established as a part of the universal law of the Church.
Each case submitted to the Tribunal is unique, involving distinct individuals who are themselves unique, and whose marriage relationship is also unique. It is impossible, therefore, to generalize accurately about marriage cases. Only a broad picture of the actual procedure is possible.
The first step for a person considering a marriage case (this person is called a “petitioner” by the Tribunal) is to approach the local parish priest or pastoral assistant, who will assist in completing a questionnaire for submission to the Tribunal. This questionnaire provides the Tribunal staff a general overview of the marriage. If the information indicates no evident basis for a case, the Petitioner will be assisted by the Tribunal to provide necessary details. To have a petition accepted for investigation, the petitioner must: 1) indicate that there was present from the beginning of the marriage some basis on which it might have been null, and 2) show that there is some reasonable hope of being able to prove this contention through the testimony of a number of knowledgeable and cooperative witnesses. The petitioner must also provide other necessary documents and a list of witnesses who can testify about the alleged grounds of nullity.
The Tribunal next contacts the other party to the marriage (called the “respondent”), who has a right in law to be heard. The Petitioner must provide a mailing address for the respondent. A questionnaire is sent to the Respondent to provide information regarding the alleged ground of nullity. The respondent has a right to be represented by an advocate in the proceeding and is given an opportunity to appoint a member of the Tribunal staff to fill this role.
The importance of the respondent’s cooperation varies from case to case. In some instances it might well be impossible to prove the contention without such cooperation; in other cases it might be less important. The respondent is given a set period of time to reply. An additional period can be requested if the one initially established is inconvenient. A respondent is not permitted, however, to delay a cause unreasonably. The Tribunal process presumes the cooperation of both parties. Nevertheless, in the event of the respondent’s non-cooperation, the case can proceed, recognizing that the grounds of the case must still be proved.
It is the petitioner’s responsibility to ensure that the various witnesses cooperate. Ordinarily, the petitioner is expected to inform witnesses of the situation, indicating that they will be receiving a questionnaire from the Tribunal and requesting their prompt cooperation. Witnesses are encouraged to be as complete as possible in their answers. The testimony is to be given under oath, and witnesses have the option of signing the completed questionnaire before a Catholic priest, a Catholic pastoral minister, or a notary public.
A declaration of nullity by the Church has no civil effects in the United States. It does not, therefore, affect rights in regard to such matters as property, inheritance, or custody and visitation of children.
It has no effect on any children born of the union, in regard to their familial right or legitimacy, either in secular law or Church law. There is no attempt in the proceeding to impugn the good faith of either party in entering the marriage or to assign guilt or moral blame for the breakup of the union.
The length of time involved varies from case to case and depends on many factors most of which are beyond the control of the Tribunal. There are no guarantees concerning the time the process will take but if the petitioner has previously informed the respondent about the annulment procedure and asked the witnesses to participate it has been our experience that they will more likely to cooperate quickly.
Because the time required to complete the process can not be guaranteed, the parties are cautioned not to make any plans for a possible future marriage or convalidation until the entire proceeding is completed and the final decision rendered. In certain cases, when a defect of nullity is granted, a Prohibition may be placed on one or both parties, indicating that no future marriage in the Catholic Church can be contracted without prior counseling. This must be satisfactorily resolved before setting a date for a marriage.
The Diocesan Tribunal is heavily subsidized by the Diocese. To keep the subsidy within manageable limits, persons submitting a case are asked to pay three hundred dollars ($300) to help defray the expense. This money is used primarily for the cost of the psychological assessment and the required appeal process. Petitioners who feel they can not meet this schedule should provide a letter to the Tribunal detailing the manner in which they could pay their fee. In no instance should financial considerations prevent or discourage a person from submitting a case.