Questions about Marriage, Divorce and Nullity
1. What is the Catholic Church's understanding of marriage?
Marriage is a covenant by which a man and woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, which of its very nature is ordered to the well being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children.
2. When is a marriage a Sacrament?
A validly contracted marriage is raised to the level of a sacrament solely by virtue of the fact that both parties are validly baptized. This is true even between two baptized non-Catholics. Through the grace of baptismal status, Christ himself raises a marriage to sacramental dignity. Marriages between a baptized and an unbaptized person can be valid and binding even though not a sacrament.
3. What is a declaration of nullity?
A declaration of nullity, also called an annulment, is a judgment made by a Tribunal of the Catholic Church 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 established 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. Therefore, a relationship which may have approximated marriage according to civil or social standards is deemed not to have been a binding marriage in the way marriage was ordained by Almighty God.
4. What is the difference between divorce and an ecclesiastical decree of nullity?
Divorce indicates that the lived experience of a couple's partnership has been irremediably damaged. Divorce puts an end to the binding contractual relationship which exists between spouses relative to civil law. From the Church's point of view, divorce merely indicates that the lived experience of a couple's partnership has been severed. Divorce has no capacity to alter the binding nature of the marital contract or covenant a couple creates by their exchanged consent.
A decree of nullity issued by a Tribunal of the Catholic Church is a judgment based on proof that, because of some personal incapacity or because of the exclusion of some essential element of marriage, a valid and binding marital bond, as ordained by Almighty God, was never created between the two parties.
5. If the Church teaches that marriage is forever, how can annulments be granted?
The Catholic Church believes that a valid and consummated marital bond between two baptized persons cannot be severed by any entity, civil or religious. However, there are circumstances in which what may have appeared to have been a marriage between two persons was never in fact a binding covenant, either because of personal incapacity for consent or because one of the essential elements of marriage was excluded when the parties gave their consent.
6. Can I seek a decree of nullity if I've been married a long time or have children?
Yes. A Tribunal investigation examines the capacity of the parties for sufficient and proportionate marital consent at the time the consent was given. Whether a couple's partnership lasts a few months or for several years and whether or not a couple bore children are not always determinant issues.
7. Does a decree of nullity make children illegitimate?
NO! The law of the Catholic Church never denies the factual or historical existence of the parents' relationship, nor does it deny that it may have been a binding marriage by civil or social standards. Hence, the Catholic Church's law deems that 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 to be considered legitimate, even if at a later time the marital bond is proven to have been invalid and null.
8. Can a divorced Catholic receive the Sacraments?
YES! Divorce only indicates that the lived experience of a couple's partnership has ended. As long as a divorced person has not initiated any subsequent marital or similar relationship with another partner and as long as he or she is, according to one's conscience, in the state of grace, there is nothing preventing him or her from sacramental participation.
9. Can a divorced person remarry in the Catholic Church?
Only if, through a Tribunal process, that person's previous marriage has been proven to have been null can a divorced person be considered free to exchange marital consent with a new spouse.
10. Can I still be a part of the Church if I am remarried without a declaration of nullity?
The choice to remarry without having received a declaration of nullity concerning one's prior marital bond sets a person apart from the Church with regard to full sacramental participation. One cannot receive Holy Communion when one's lifestyle is not in communion with the teachings of the Catholic faith. Still, there is grace to be gained through participation in Sunday worship, particularly in the nourishment that comes from God's Word, the Homily, the Church's devotional piety, community fellowship and other aspects of Catholic life.
11. Why would a non-Catholic need a decree of nullity from the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church recognizes all marriages between non-Catholics to be valid and binding as long as they meet civil requirements about the way consent is to be exchanged. A divorced non-Catholic, in order to seek marriage with a Catholic in the Catholic Church, must be considered free to marry. This requires that the whole of his or her life and marital history be brought into harmony with the teaching of the Catholic faith to which the Catholic intended spouse adheres. Hence, if the non-Catholic has previously been married, that first marital bond must be proven null before he or she can be considered free to marry anew.
12. Do I have to contact my former spouse? What if he/she will not cooperate or cannot be contacted?
Ecclesiastical law requires that the rights of both spouses be protected. This demands that every legitimate effort be made to contact the former spouse and allow his/her participation in the Tribunal process. If a former spouse truly cannot be found or chooses not to participate, the Tribunal process continues. There is no need for the parties to have direct contact with one another.
13. Are witnesses necessary during a formal investigation?
Yes. The law of the Catholic Church requires that all allegations of marital nullity be substantiated and wholly corroborated by the testimony of witnesses who had knowledge of the parties prior to and at the time of their wedding. These witnesses can include family and friends, as well as counselors.
14. How do I begin?
It is best to begin with your parish Priest, who will assist you in formulating your initial application. Then the Tribunal will send you the appropriate questionnaire as well as assign you the assistance of an Advocate for the remainder of the process.
15. Does applying for an annulment assure me of getting one?
No. Every marriage is presumed to be valid and binding until proven otherwise. The process of proving nullity is not an effort to assess blame for marital breakdown, but to understand its root causes and to determine whether it resulted from an incapacity for competent consent or any other impediment to marriage. If the testimony provided during an investigation is inconclusive or insufficiently probative, a declaration of nullity cannot be issued.
16. How much does the Tribunal process cost?
In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, a formal Tribunal investigation is assessed a fee of $750, which is the responsibility of the Petitioner. Declarations of nullity cannot be purchased. This fee is payment for the Church's legal services and yet, does not cover the entire cost of the process. The remainder of the actual cost 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.
The Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Louis is a court of the Catholic Church charged with the responsibility of seeking and administering justice. With regard to marriage cases, our task is to assist people in arriving at a determination of the truth concerning the binding nature of their marital bond.
The pursuit and acceptance of the truth about one's life can surely facilitate the healing process. Yet, we believe that this is but one aspect within a broad spectrum of processes that accompany a person in his/her recovery from marital breakdown and return to wholeness.
The Tribunal's responsibility to those suffering the pain of marital breakdown is primarily canonical. Therefore, we encourage men and women who have suffered marital breakdown to establish and develop a professional relationship with a priest or pastoral minister. In that additional forum, a person can benefit more directly from pastoral assistance along the path of reconciliation and be provided appropriate pastoral counsel. These ministries lie outside the primary ministry of the Tribunal.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis provides various programs and services to assist a person in healing and recovering from loss. For more information, please contact the following:
Catholic Family Services (Catholic Charities of St. Louis)
9200 Watson Road
St. Louis, MO 63126
Office of Laity and Family Life
Ministry to the Separated or Divorced