Annulment FAQ

“It should be kept in mind, as with all things in the Church, that her processes spring from and are dependent upon our faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ” –Keynote – MCLS convention, 2009

1. Why does the Church go through this process?

If your brother offends you, go to him and take up the matter between yourselves and if he listens to you, you have won your brother over. If he will not listen, take one or two others with you, so that all the facts may be duly established on the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the church. Mt 18, 15-17

If one of your number has a dispute with another, has he the daring to take it to pagan law courts instead of to the community of God’s people? It is God’s people who are to judge the world; surely you know that! If therefore you have disputes, how can you entrust jurisdiction to outsiders, men who count for nothing in our community? Can it be that there is no single wise man among you able to give a decision in a fellow Christian’s cause? I Cor 6: 1-2, 4-6

At least since the time of St. Paul, the Church has trained up men and women of wisdom to assist in settling ecclesiastical disputes, among them the relative freedom of particular persons to marry according to the rules and regulations of the sacraments of the Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing around the year 110 AD, already speaks of the divine nature of marriage and suggests that its proper celebration ought to be governed by the Church, and over the centuries since he shared his initial reflections, a rich theology of marriage as one of the seven sacraments has developed. That theology leads the Church to believe that marriage is ‘sign and symbol of God’s ever faithful love for his people’. As one of the sacraments, and to assure that sacramental graces redound to their celebrants, as well as to assure the continuing common good of the community of believers, where there is a dispute over the proper celebration of the sacrament of marriage, the Church maintains a system of courts whose work is to examine, as Matthew reminds us, the testimony of one or two witnesses so that a disposition can be made. The process is ancient and seeks to bring to life the words of scripture and the words of those who regularly proclaim that “I believe. . .

2. Isn’t a Catholic annulment really just another way of saying a couple got a divorce?

To the married I give this ruling, which is not mine, but the Lord’s: a wife must not separate herself from her husband […] and a husband must not divorce his wife.” I Cor. 7, 10-11

Even before Paul penned those words, Jesus himself reminds us that from the beginning of time God intended marriage as a permanent, equal partnership of man and woman, and that such a bond cannot be set aside by anyone: not the couple, not the civil government, not even the Church. A divorce or dissolution of marriage obtained from a civil court has absolutely no effect on the sacred nature of a marriage first reported in the Book of Genesis, regardless of where that sacred rite may have been celebrated. The Church understands marriage to be part and parcel of being a truly human person, and that therefore every man and every woman has a natural right to marry according to the rules of nature. The Church also exists in the framework of civil society, so often and in some ways defers to the right of the State to define the purely civil requirements for and effects of natural marriage.

However, the Church also believes that Jesus the Christ wanted all marriages to share in his manifold blessings so that the consent of any man and woman in marriage binds them to the natural ends of marriage, among which are the three famous architectonic goods, or bonae, of marriage (defined at the end of the fourth century of the common era): permanence, fidelity and an openness to sharing in the natural and mutual acts by which future generations of humanity are brought into being. Once such a relationship has been validly crafted, no power on earth, not even the civil state or the unhappy couple which failed to advance the goodness of marriage and family, can entirely proclaim that sacred marriage to have ended. What a Tribunal process examines is the moment of consent to determine whether the necessary rules were followed, individually by each party to an act of consent and mutually by the couple, which would forever bind them to marriage. What is not brought into being according to the rules can be declared to be so, and the result is a declaration of freedom to go out and try to follow the rules.

3. Why does a non-Catholic whose church does not believe in this process have to go through it?

‘We are free to do anything,’ you say. Yes, but is everything good for us? ‘We are free to do anything,’ but does everything help the building of the community? Each of you must regard, not his own interests, but the others’. I Cor. 10, 23-24

Paul reminds us that each human person is possessed of genuine freedom of action. Yet he can easily see some limits to that freedom raised up by our faith in and love for Jesus the risen Lord and the community of believers who live in his presence. Essentially, no non-Catholic need ever come to the Church seeking a declaration of freedom to marry as the positive laws of the Church generally apply only to members of the Church. However, among the rules for Catholics is one which states quite clearly that no Catholic may ever marry a married person. Since civil and public documents can be produced which prove a civil marriage, or even a religious marriage on the part of the non-Catholic, these make the Catholic incapable of marrying someone he or she may love completely and sincerely. In order to declare the Catholic party free to marry the non-Catholic, the former or first act of consent of the non-Catholic must be examined to determine whether it was celebrated validly. In a more romantic sense, the non-Catholic would submit a petition for a tribunal process because he or she loves the Catholic party enough to show respect for both the beloved and the beloved’s own faith.

4. This whole thing looks like the Church is snooping into a lot of personal stuff. Why?

A direct quote from the gospel of Luke, 15, 11-32, would be far too long here. But the Parable of the Lost Son certainly reveals a lot of personal information, information which sets the stage for the tragic renunciation of family made by both the sons, based on personal want as opposed to the needs of a relational community.

Marriage requires people to undertake what might be called the Big C’s: Collaboration, Cooperation, Communication, and Compromise. The way people learn that Big Four arises from family modeling, adolescent socialization and then, in a more specified way, from dating and courting where both self-disclosure and curiosity provide the background information which will be weighed, reflected upon and evaluated by the parties to an act of consent. These, as identified by numerous Church and secular sources, are the developmental stages where relational skills take root and grow. The way a particular couple actually live out the Big Four is in a marital relationship. Therefore, it would seem that some insights into family dynamics, how a young person learned to get along with others, and then how a couple met, courted and behaved in a marital relationship reveal whether they could or did exchange a valid act of consent at the wedding. While that may all seem ‘personal’, little of it remains that way so that our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and many others are almost as familiar with what we say and do as we ourselves might be. Our lives touch and affect many others, and those many others are often quite willing to assist us in rectifying wrongs and restoring ourselves to a wholesome and happy future which is why, after all, we call them friends.


5. Does my ex get to read all this stuff?

‘Sir’, said the woman, ‘give me that water, and then I shall not be thirsty, nor have to come all this way to draw.’ Jesus replied, ‘Go home, call your husband and come back.’ She answered, “I have no husband.’ Jn 4, 16-17a

Yes. Just as Jesus told the divorced woman to share the water of life with her former spouse, and perhaps all five of them, the Church believes that we ought to share the facts of an examination of consent - even with a non-participating former spouse. Since an examination of an act of consent would yield a declaration affecting two people, the other party to any act of consent must be notified and given a chance to participate fully. Otherwise, the process itself is invalid because the other party’s rights have been gravely violated. Both the Petitioner and the Respondent (the former spouse) are invited to read the various statements made by themselves and the witnesses so that in justice each may add to or comment upon the evidence before the final decision is made. They are also invited to read the definitive sentence in order to better understand the canonical basis for the decision and, if desired, challenge that decision by the legitimate means available, including appeal.

6. What if I’m unhappy with the results of a Tribunal process?

He who has been wronged should meet with righteous judgment, of whatever religion he may be. It is necessary to examine the character of the petitioners [who] first lay their charges before the bishop [then] all the bishops of the Province. - Canon VI, Council of Constantinople, 382 AD.

From the time of St. Paul, who insisted on the right and obligation of the local Church to maintain its own system of courts, the notion of an appeal has been a central facet of all Church processes. Because the Church takes marriage so seriously, either party to a process can make a formal appeal, adding evidence as he or she thinks might be necessary. Ordinarily, this appeal is made to a specific Tribunal which has been assigned to handle such appeals; however, there is also always an option to appeal a specific case to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota (somewhat like our own Supreme Court). The Tribunal official known as the Defender of the Bond is also able to appeal, and indeed must do so if he or she feels that the decision is insufficiently founded.

7. This questionnaire looks awful long – how much do I need to say?

Put all your trust in the LORD and do not rely on your own understanding. Think of him in all your ways and he will smooth your path. Proverbs 3, 1-2

Before saying anything, it is a wonderful idea to enter into prayer, to speak to and then listen to the Lord so that, as Jesus himself once said, your tongue will have the words of the Spirit. Then, in preparing the answers, be sure to say enough to provide adequate factual insights into how you came to make a decision to marry based on three general areas of concern: 1) did you know what you were doing, 2) did you want to do what you were doing, and 3) did you have the personal capacity to do what you wanted to do. If each of the major questions is answered along these lines, you will provide adequate information from which a determination can be rendered. By the same token, in order to prove that consent was made validly, these same three points need to be proved by actual facts. The law presumes that most human beings after the age of 18, 16 with their parents’ permission (in the civil statutes of the State of Ohio), know what marriage is, want to marry according to its own nature, and have the natural ability to make it work, even if and when problems arise. It is not, then, necessary to go on and on, or submit every possible bit of information which may come to mind. This can create confusion and where there is confusion, there can be no certain conclusion.

8. I received a witness questionnaire – what should I say and who gets to see what I write?

No one lights a lamp and puts it in a cellar, but rather on the lamp-stand so that those who enter may see the light.” Lk 11, 33.

Be humble always, and gentle, and patient too. Be forbearing with one another and charitable. Spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace and unity which the Spirit gives. Eph. 4, 1-3.

As a witness you have been asked to assist a friend, relative, employer/ee in a Church related process which has no civil effects whatsoever. That person has placed his or her trust in you to do as Paul suggests: answer a few questions with forbearance, gentility, charity, and above all that truthfulness which is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Witness testimony seeks two fundamental pieces of information, the first is simply your assessment of the integrity and honesty of a party to a Church related process. The second is to corroborate some facts, which the party himself or herself provided, regarding the situation leading up to and proceeding from an act of consent to marriage as understood by the Catholic Church. An honest appraisal as you recollect a period in time is quite adequate. Please, however, go a little bit beyond ‘it was none of my business’. The party who submitted your name does not believe that to have been the case, so if you don’t know how to respond to some aspect of the witness questionnaire, tell us why in a bit of specific, for example, “he was just so quiet he never spoke of that,” “she was so secretive she never shared that with me,” “I was living across town and they didn’t mix a lot with us while courting.” Remember, someone is counting on your honest, charitable, and kind answers to assist him or her in this process, so the key to any answer is not to let them down in that hope.

The second part of the question – who gets to see what you answer – is rather simple: to protect the right of defense, something both Church and State guarantee in their own legal processes, both parties to a questionable act of consent, their representatives, the Tribunal staff and Appeals Tribunal would be reading through your submission. If you have been asked by one of the parties to provide your testimony, it means that he or she wants your help in being as open, honest, and clear as possible. This process seeks the truth, not accusations, blame, or an assessment of guilt, so any answer you provide, if read by either party, should reflect something about which he or she is already aware. Please note that no party and no Church or Tribunal personnel should coach you in what to reply, and if he or she does, you might want to make a note on your response that you were, in fact, asked to provide ready-made responses.

9. What does the Catholic Church, and a bunch of unmarried guys, know about marriage?

But in the beginning, at creation, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, and be made one with his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. It follows that they are no longer two individuals; they are one flesh. Mk 10, 6-8

In the quote above, Jesus is actually citing Genesis, and since that ancient book was first passed down through the generations by the People of the Covenant, the Church – both its men and its women – has had an intense interest in marriage. So the answer to this question is simple: a lot. Tribunal staff, whether male or female, whether married or single, are highly trained individuals who form a community of capable and knowledgeable experts far beyond ‘giving an annulment’. In fact, most of the priests and other staff – which includes married people – who work on a diocesan Tribunal will have studied human nature, human psychology, and the dynamics of consent and communication, as well as ordinary interrelationships which mark us out as civilized and good people. After a few years of work with the processes of an ordinary tribunal, those same staff may well have ‘lived’ with hundreds of troubled couples who endure failing and failed marital relationships and can bring to bear not only the technical material learned in a class, but the reality of many relationships which have foundered. The work of the Tribunal should be seen as part and parcel of a much larger process which is often called Pastoral Counseling in as much as one of the goals of the Tribunal Staff is to assist parties to a failed marriage better understand what went wrong so that the same difficulties do not arise in future.

10. How long does this take?

Happy the man who listens to me, watching daily at my threshold with his eyes on the doorway; Proverbs 8, 34

Patience is the companion of wisdom. Augustine

An ordinary examination takes as long as it takes, and it may well require some serious watching and waiting on the part of a Petitioner anxious to remarry. In the ordinary process, there are some built in waiting periods so that people have time to pray, reflect, think, and only then to respond. These waiting periods are a requirement of the law. However, it is not uncommon that some party or witness requires even more time to prayerfully reflect upon and then respond to the various issues raised about a specific act of consent, so a petition for the ordinary process should begin with the expectation that it may require anywhere from nine months to a year, and even longer if a witness or two fail to reply to the Tribunal in a prompt fashion. On the other hand, length of the process can be greatly compressed if a Petitioner works closely with the Case Sponsor and other parties so that all involved make their responses in a timely manner. Some dioceses may take longer, or might be able to do it more quickly. Any appeal may also lengthen the process, and an appeal to the Roman Rota may take several years since it must go back and forth between Rome and the Petitioner’s diocese. Parties to a Tribunal examination should also be aware that the entire process is time-sensitive to unnecessary and lengthy delays, and at certain points a case will move forward even if one party or the other has failed to respond within a fixed time frame.

11. What is the status of children born to a marital consent which the Catholic Church says was invalid?

Fathers, do not exasperate your children, for fear they may grow disheartened. Col 4, 21

Even if a marriage is given a declaration of nullity, children are not considered “illegitimate” by the Church, since their parents entered marriage in good faith. Children are and always will be the children of their parents whose obligations of love, nurture, support and training up in the ways of the Lord are not lapsed by the unfortunate occurrence of a divorce. No process of the Catholic Church ever in any way waives the responsibilities of a parent toward his or her children, regardless of the status of a failed marital relationship. In fact, a declaration of freedom to marry must also include a clear reminder to a remarried parent that he or she has not and cannot abandon a child born to any other relationship. Children are a gift from God and a blessing to parents, family and community, and the Church believes and teaches that they ought to be treated as such by their parents, even when the parents cannot treat one another well.

12. What is the cost of a Tribunal process?

The laborer is worthy of his hire. Mt 10, 10.

This question is asked in many ways, or forms the basis of many complaints; however, the answer is rather simple. Yes, if you ask the Church to undertake an examination of consent, it will ‘cost’ something. The financial aspect of that cost is determined by looking at the ordinary budget of the Tribunal which maintains offices (rent, utilities, phone, duplicating and records), has a staff (salaries and wages, insurance, retirement), and must therefore pay its bills. Based on the assistance made possible by generous parishioner support of the diocesan Annual Catholic Appeal, and support from various endowments established so that these services can be offered at a reduced rate, there is no required fee for any of the various processes. We do, however, provide the opportunity for Petitioners to offer a donation to assist with the expense involved. Since each process requires a different time scale and records, please see the applications for any of the processes, where a suggested donation amount is indicated.

A second aspect of the question often asked is whether the Tribunal will go faster if a large donation accompanies the application, or whether the Tribunal will not act at all if no donation is provided. The law of the Church forbids the acceptance of money in exchange for a favorable decision or the increased speed of the process, as this would be an affront to justice and truth which are the goals of any judicial process in the Church. Therefore, each and every petition will be treated equally regardless of the donation amount. Furthermore, no case is ever delayed or rejected because no donation is offered.

13. What on earth does whether I lived with somebody have to do with exchanging valid consent?

While the psychological dynamic which makes cohabitation ‘do’ what it does is relatively unknown, the evidence is that the mere fact of living together for a period of as little as five continuous days leaves behind serious interior wounds which make a subsequent marriage nearly always fail (in fact, some longitudinal studies have found a ‘divorce rate’ of nearly 100%). It seems that there are at least two, and probably many more, mental activities going on which lead to that tragic result. First, all human beings have a tremendous natural inclination to marry according to human nature, that is, in a permanent, faithful, childbearing (therefore man and woman) union. In order to ‘live together,’ that natural urge has to be forcibly set aside, and that requires a choice made within the intellect and will. Since the choice to cohabit is at odds with our humanness, such a choice requires a tremendous effort of the will which drains the electro-chemical reservoir and leaves behind a stunted capacity to follow our real and very human desires. Weakened human nature has become further weakened. And that weakness plants within the mind the actual object of the choice made when one decides to cohabit to avoid a permanent relationship by retaining a clear and present ‘open door’ to depart at will. The mind now has at its core a deeply seeded sense that leaving a marital relationship is among the options retained at consent.

The second serious flaw with regard to cohabitation lies in the uneasy sense that anything could set off the other party and lead him or her to depart. That unease tends to mask open and objective communication, in a sense letting fear replace openness so that problematic behaviors, bad habits, and a host of other serious issues are either swept under the carpet or avoided at any cost. This means that issues normally faced and surmounted during a normal courtship lie in wait until license or marriage certificate allows them to be brought up, often with disastrous results since resentments and memory intrude to prevent resolution. Cohabitation comes with tremendous risks which can, and unfortunately often do, vitiate the ability to consent to marriage.

14. Oh, come on! Everybody’s been having premarital sex since Adam and Eve! What difference can it possibly make?

The teaching of the Catholic Church has held from the beginning that sexual intercourse should be part and parcel of the marital union, and sexual expressions should wait until a couple have been married and are united in a permanent, faithful union. And, since the beginning, people have paid little heed to that regulation since human beings are endowed with emotional and hormonal qualities which make sexuality a powerful and almost irresistible force. However, while we now live in what is perhaps as licentious an age as any in the past, with sexuality used as a product, an enticement to undertake certain actions (like buying a car or a bar of soap), and an easily acquired internet ‘habit,’ the expectation placed upon us by the Church seems to make a lot of sense, as if maybe Jesus and the Holy Spirit (who guides the Church in its pronouncements) know more than we do!

Human sexuality has three (and no doubt many, many more) powerful markers which we now know point to its best potential being exercised in a permanent and faithful union. One of these is its extremely overwhelming emotional valence so that sexual activity is immediately fixating. That means that while one may hop from bed to bed, motel room to motel room, or person to person, the first experience of sexuality becomes the benchmark one will consistently attempt to recreate, as it has left behind an extremely strong emotional memory. Because this memory is so strong, sexual expression becomes unconsciously habituating. That means that the physical interior systems brace themselves to repeat the same pattern (think about any bad habit, or good one, and you should see the connection – habits are so automatic we don’t even think about them before we find ourselves deep into them) and this automated repetition removes the truly human aspect of the intellect and soul from the equation. Finally, human sexuality has been shown to be among the most internally oriented activities anyone will ever experience. That means that as an act, sexual intercourse is self-satisfying (which leads to the moral dilemma of the person who has fixated on and habituated to self-stimulation or some other form of inappropriate sexual expression including internet addictions) and, again unless we exercise serious intellectual and spiritual supervision and control, the community aspect (what the Church would refer to as respect for the dignity, desires, and will of one’s partner) is easily set aside in favor of pursuing sex for self-gratification.

Premarital sex may well be something everybody does, but that does not mean that in individual cases it does not occur without serious consequences for a future marital union.

Citations are to the Code of Canon Law [c.] and/or the Instruction Dignitas connubii [DC], the official procedural handbook for marriage cases.

If you have other questions, please contact the Toledo Diocesan Tribunal, 1933 Spielbusch Ave., Toledo, Ohio, 43604-5360; call us at 419.244.6711, or e-mail the Tribunal at tribunal@toledodiocese.org.