In this series of ti morceaux, I’m explaining the process of handling marriage annulment cases. This is done by the Tribunal, a diocesan office which I head, and which serves as the judicial system of the local Church.
Remember how I began by describing the initial, standard written petition submitted by one of the parties to the failed marriage: this person is known as “the petitioner.” Then the other party (“the respondent”) is notified. Next, the Judicial Vicar (that’s me), in consultation with other ministers in our office, decides what other information need to be gathered. It’s rare, after all, for cases to be 100% clear from the outset!
I mentioned that questionnaires are sent out to the other party and to witnesses who’ve been named; these seek the information needed to verify the invalidity of the marriage on the grounds that have been established. Often other documentation is needed, such as medical or legal – even arrest – records. Sometimes the “grounds” revolve around emotional or mental health issues, too, so occasionally we need a report from a psychologist relative to one or both parties.
Eventually a decision has to be made, of course: does the collected evidence prove the suspected invalidity of the union? If not, what more could be obtained? Remember, it’s not proof of unhappiness that’s needed. Neither is proof of sinfulness, although that often has occurred. The mere fact of a divorce is of little weight in and of itself. Likewise, the desire for a new marriage “in the Church” is not particularly relevant, since the Tribunal deals with past facts, not future wishes. For a declaration of nullity to be issued, the Church’s canon laws require morally certain proof of invalidity at the time of marital consent, and that’s often a pretty difficult thing to establish.
In the next few morceaux I’ll deal with the rest of the Tribunal’s procedures, as well as offer an overview of typical “grounds” in annulment cases. The latter, especially, sheds a lot of light on what kind of information is needed for an affirmative decision to be given in such cases, that is, a decision which affirms the invalidity of the failed union.