I’m explaining the process of handling marriage annulment cases in this series of ti morceaux. It’s easy for me to speak about this, since for three decades now in addition to more conventional priestly work I’ve headed up our Diocesan Tribunal, the office which serves as the judicial branch of the local Church. This kind of case makes up the bulk of our work.
I’ve described the initial process of petitioning, and then the responsibilities of the Judicial Vicar (me!) to notify the other party and defender of the bond that our evaluative process is beginning. Then the grounds are set and questionnaires are sent out, seeking proofs of the marriage’s invalidity on those grounds.
This is a good point to pause and consider the possible “grounds” in a Tribunal case: these are the reasons, which if proven true, result in marital invalidity. Of course, if these reasons do not exist or can’t be proven, no annulment can be issued, since a sacramental marriage “cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death” (can. 1141). (It is true that non-sacramental marriages – that is, when one or both parties is not baptized – can be dissolved when there is some advantage to the faith. Non-consummated marriages also can be dissolved. But even in such “non-annulment Tribunal cases” the proper reasons still have to be proven, and often go to Rome for the final decision.)
So what are the “grounds” in a standard annulment case? What kind of things cause the invalidity of the union, so that what looked like a marriage-relationship at least for a while never really was one?
As you might suspect, some reasons are pretty rare! If you try to marry your child, parent or sibling (yuck!) – or a former priest or nun who hasn’t gotten permission from the Holy See – the union will be invalid. Fortunately, these rarest of grounds are also among the easiest to prove!
Other fairly easy-to-prove reasons for marital invalidity happen more often, like when someone tries to marry someone who already is validly married, or if a Catholic attempts to wed but not before a priest or deacon without getting the proper permissions first. There are a few other grounds like this, and while they are easy to prove it’s always important to remember that even so there’s usually been much disappointment and sadness within those relationships later on.
But most annulments revolve around more difficult issues. I’ll begin explaining these in my next morceau.
- Fr. Paul Counce