Marriage Nullity Process
The processes for proving the nullity of marriage and for requesting the dissolution of marriage in the Archdiocese of St. Louis are outlined below.
The theology of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Canon Law describe marriage as a "covenant by which a man and 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 toward the procreation and education of offspring, and which, between the baptized, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament" (canon 1055, Gaudiam et Spes, 48).
For this reason, the Catholic Church views the reality of divorce with great seriousness and considers it only to be a last resort taken at times to safeguard the rights or well-being of a spouse or children under secular law. As such, the Catholic Church recognizes civil divorce only as indication of the discontinuance of the lived experience of a couple’s marital relationship. Civil divorce has no power to sever the marital bond itself, the bond which is created between the two parties on the day of their wedding through their mutual exchange of consent. Rather, the Catholic Church presumes that once consent is exchanged every marriage is valid and binding until the contrary is proven.
II. Decree of Nullity
A Tribunal Process in pursuit of a decree of marital nullity (annulment) has the sole purpose of determining whether or not a valid and binding bond was created when the parties exchanged consent. It does not seek to attribute blame to one or the other party for the breakdown of the relationship. A decree of nullity, therefore, is a judgment by an ecclesiastical tribunal which states that on the basis of evidentiary proof a given relationship was not a binding marriage in the way the Catholic Church understands marriage to have been created by Almighty God. Here it has been proven either that one of the essential elements of marriage or the necessary personal capacity for competent consent was lacking at the time the parties wed. The decree of nullity does not deny that a wedding ceremony took place, nor does it imply that the husband and wife never had a relationship (c. 1061 §3). Moreover, any children born of a relationship which was presumed by at least one of the parents to be a valid and binding marriage at the time are considered to be legitimate, even if at a later time the marital bond is proven to have been invalid and null (cc. 1137 & 1138).
III. Dissolution of Marriage
Dissolution of a marital bond is a different reality than proving marital nullity. The Catholic Church believes that a marriage between two baptized persons is permanently indissoluble once consent is validly exchange and the relationship is consummated. Hence, the parties are obliged by that marital bond until one or the other is deceased. However, on the basis of the teachings of St. Paul (cf. I Corinthians 7:12-15), the Catholic Church believes that marital bonds between two non-baptized persons or between a baptized person and a non-baptized person can — under certain circumstances — be dissolved in favor of a subsequent bond in which baptismal faith can thrive and be nourished. Such dissolutions of marriage between two non-baptized persons are referred to as Pauline Privilege cases and dissolutions of marriage between a baptized person and a non-baptized person are referred to as Privilege of the Faith cases.
IV. Concerning Tribunal Processes
The Catholic Church has three basic processes which are used to assess the binding nature of a person’s prior marital bond and to determine that person’s freedom or lack thereof for any subsequent marital bond. The processes are called documentary cases, privilege cases and formal cases.
1. Documentary Cases
There are two basic types of documentary cases. The first is for circumstances in which a baptized Catholic, without obtaining dispensation from the Church to do so, exchanged marital consent in a setting outside of that which is required for Catholics by canon law (the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon, and two witnesses). These are called Lack of Form cases.
The second type of documentary case deals with situations in which one or both parties are considered not to have been free to enter marriage at the time of the wedding because he/she was still bound by a prior marital bond which had never been proven null. These are called Ligamen cases.
2. Privilege Cases
As mentioned above in the section concerning Dissolution of Marriage, privilege cases concern circumstances in which at least one of the parties to a marriage was not baptized. The granting of these dissolutions require proof of the lack of baptism on the part of one or both parties and proof that the person requesting the dissolution was not the culpable cause of the breakdown of the relationship.
3. The Formal Process
The focus of a formal investigation is centered on the period of time leading up to the wedding and seeks to discern the truth concerning the state of mind, intentions and capacity for consent which each party possessed at the time of the wedding. Later developments in the couple’s relationship may or may not shed light on these issues. The mere fact that a couple’s marital relationship broke down is not proof that incapacitating or invalidating factors existed at the time of the wedding. In other words, there is no guarantee that nullity will be proven simply because a relationship broke down.
The formal process has four basic stages:
a. Application Stage
The person who makes the application is called the Petitioner. He or she speaks with the Parish Priest or Pastoral Minister and completes an initial application form. This form is sent by the Priest or Pastoral Minister to the Tribunal on behalf of the Petitioner.
The staff of the Metropolitan Tribunal assesses the application to determine which type of process is required and forwards an appropriate questionnaire to the Petitioner. Special instructions accompany the questionnaire and explain how it is to be completed. At this time, the Petitioner is assigned an Advocate to assist in formulating responses to the questionnaire. A request is also made at this time for the names and addresses of knowledgeable and credible Witnesses. The best Witnesses are persons who knew the parties well prior to the wedding and during the early years of the couple’s marital life.
b. Investigative Stage
When the Petitioner returns the questionnaire and his or her responses, the investigation begins. The investigation is assigned to the oversight of a presiding Judge. After an initial assessment of the Petitioner’s testimony, the presiding Judge may either ask for additional information or may move directly to the point of contacting the former spouse (the Respondent), who is then given the opportunity to participate in the investigation. Witnesses are contacted next. There is no need for any of the parties to have direct contact with each other during the investigation.
c. Publication Stage
The parties are informed by the presiding Judge that the taking of all available testimony has been completed. This testimony (the acts of the case) is made available for the parties to review and make comment. Afterward, another staff member of the Tribunal (the Defender of the Bond) examines the testimony. This Defender of the Bond has the responsibility to defend the particular marital bond in question and to defend the dignity of the institution of marriage in general. Hence, the Defender presents an argument from the evidence which gives reasons why the marital bond should continue to be considered valid and binding. This stage of the process is governed, as is the entire process, by the policy of confidentiality articulated below.
d. Decision-Making Stage
The presiding Judge and any associate Judges consider the pertinent law regarding the case as well as the facts which have been submitted in evidence and a judgment is rendered. Just as every marital relationship is unique, so also is every formal case. Therefore, it is not possible to give any estimate regarding how long a formal investigation will take to complete. There are too many variables from one case to another. Moreover, there is never a guarantee of an affirmative decision. Please be advised that NO NEW MARRIAGE DATE MAY BE SCHEDULED IN ANY CATHOLIC PARISH UNTIL THE ENTIRE PROCESS IS COMPLETE AND A DECLARATION OF NULLITY HAS BEEN GIVEN AND RATIFIED.
Rights and Responsibilities of the Petitioner and Respondent
The Petitioner and Respondent are equal before the law. The Tribunal maintains communication with each party by mail as the investigation proceeds. Both parties have a right to the assistance of an Advocate, should they desire, as well as other rights and responsibilities for which Canon Law provides and which the Metropolitan Tribunal defends.
The Metropolitan Tribunal is the judicial branch of government in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Tribunal processes are governed by Canon Law. The Tribunal is obliged to uphold that law in protecting and promoting justice and the pastoral welfare of the Christian Faithful. In the United States, tribunal processes are purely ecclesiastical in nature and are conducted in accordance with the procedural norms of Canon Law. Hence, the Petitioner and Respondent are afforded access to the acts of the case with certain restrictions which may not be germane to the processes for civil divorce. It is the policy of the Metropolitan Tribunal to disclose the acts of a marriage case to duly authorized persons or to other ecclesiastical tribunals only to the degree necessary for the just and expedient resolution of the case. Confidentiality regarding the acts of a case is essential in order for the Metropolitan Tribunal to fulfill its obligation to the parties involved. Any materials received by the Metropolitan Tribunal become the property of the Metropolitan Tribunal.
The operating cost for the legal services required to conduct an investigation in a formal case totals approximately $800. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, a fee of only $750 is assessed to the Petitioner for a formal case. The remainder is subsidized by the Archdiocese. At no time is anyone denied a Tribunal process because of financial hardship. All billing is handled by the Archdiocesan Finance Office, not the Tribunal.