There are many misunderstandings about annulments through the Catholic Church, and many people are misled by the media, etc. Here at St. Alphonsus, we are happy to help you with the process. The materials below are taken from sources such as the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the Diocese of Fargo, and Fr. Mike's knowledge of working with the process.
First, contact the Church Office or the Diocesan Tribunal to begin the process. A case sponsor (usually a priest or deacon) will be assigned to assist drawing up and sending in the actual petition.
We can better describe an annulment as a Declaration of Invalidity. It does not deny that a real relationship existed, nor does it imply that the parties entered the relationship with ill will or moral fault. The Church is saying that the relationship fell short of at least one element essential for a binding, lifelong union.
If the evidence shows that a particular marriage is invalid (i.e., from the beginning it suffered from a radical defect), the original presumption of a valid marriage no longer holds. To render a marriage invalid, the radical defect must be present from the beginning, i.e., at the time of the wedding ceremony. No defect that might arise during the marriage would have the power of turning a valid marriage into an invalid one. When we can prove that a particular marriage was never valid in the first place, then the Church may declare it invalid.
What elements are essential for a binding, lifelong union?
For a marriage to be recognized by the Church, it is necessary that the parties intend to have permanent, faithful, and exclusive union. Both parties need to have a certain degree of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties being exchanged. Both parties must have the mental capacity of assuming the essential obligations of matrimony. The essential rights and duties or obligations include the partnership for the whole of life for the good of the spouses and for procreation and education of the children. They specifically include self-revelation, understanding and caring.
Are there any civil effects to a Church Declaration of Invalidity?
A Declaration of Invalidity has no civil effect in the United States. It does not affect in any manner the legitimacy of children, property rights, inheritance rights, names, etc. The Catholic Church simply declares that a particular union, perhaps begun in good faith and thought to be a marriage, lacked some essential element necessary for an indissoluble covenant.
What is the purpose of the Tribunal?
Church law calls for the existence of a tribunal in every diocese of the world. The Diocese of Baton Rouge Tribunal has a staff of specially trained and experienced priests, deacons, religious and lay persons. It offers assistance to persons requesting that the Church investigate a marriage to find whether there is any possibility of a Declaration of Invalidity. The Tribunal then investigates the marriage and on completion of the investigation, declares whether invalidity has been proved. The purpose of the procedure is reconciliation and peace of conscience and spirit, as well as to determine the freedom of the parties to marry within the Catholic Church.
How is the Tribunal a Ministry of Reconciliation?
Divorce is an emotionally painful experience. Dreams are ended. Persons feel hurt and alienated from one another, their community, the Church and God. Often a person holds the pain of rejection inside.
This process is an opportunity for reflection. One recalls and tells the story of the marriage as a whole. In recalling and telling one's story, the person looks at the cumulative effects of their experiences on this relationship. As one writes or speaks about the marriage relationship, a person learns more about the former spouse and oneself. As the parties come to recognize the root of the failure of their marriage, they can more easily forgive and move on.
The Declaration of Invalidity provides an official statement that the former marriage is not an obstacle to a future marriage within the Church.
How does one request a Declaration of Invalidity?
A person, known as the Petitioner, begins by completing an application form and sending it to the Tribunal. This form is available from a parish priest, deacon, or the Tribunal. The application includes an outline for the Petitioner to provide the history of the marriage. It asks for information concerning the background of the Petitioner and the former spouse, known as the Respondent, and for significant information about the courtship and married life, the names and addresses of witnesses and also the address of the Respondent.
The witnesses should be people knowledgeable about the parties and the history of the marriage. Key witnesses are those who knew both parties before and during the marriage. These are often parents, brothers or sisters. Ideally the Petitioner would provide the name of at least one witness who would be from the side of the Respondent. If the process proceeds, the Tribunal will contact the Petitioner, the Respondent and the witnesses, and will provide the opportunity for the hearing of the case at the Catholic Life Center Tribunal offices, if required.
What documents are needed?
The Petitioner will need to supply the Tribunal with records of the baptisms of both spouses and of the marriage and divorce. Without the final decree of civil divorce, the Tribunal cannot consider any petitions for an annulment. The divorce decree serves as juridical proof that a reconciliation between the parties is unlikely.
What about the former spouse?
The Tribunal must contact the Respondent. The Respondent can complete a marital history and offer names of witnesses. The universal law of the Catholic Church requires this contact. Hearing from the Respondent is very helpful to the study. If there is sufficient evidence, we may give a decision even when the Respondent chooses not to participate in the process.
What about confidentiality?
In view of the nature of the information, we promise a limited degree of confidentiality. Only the officers of the Tribunal and the Petitioner and the Respondent have the right to view all of the information provided. The Petitioner and the Respondent do have a right to know what was said about them so that they can defend themselves. For a grave reason the judge can reserve specific pieces of information to the Tribunal. The parties also have the right to the final decision with its explanation of the reasoning. A signed release form must accompany any requests for release of a person's own testimony to a third party (such as a counselor).
How is the case decided?
When the case is presented to the Tribunal, the Auditor will assist the Petitioner in determining appropriate grounds. The Respondent will be notified of the grounds. After compiling all the testimony, an Advocate will write a brief applying the entire history of the marriage as seen by the parties and witnesses (sometimes they include the reflections of a psychological expert) to the jurisprudence of the Church regarding the set grounds. Then the Defender of the Bond reviews and points out the elements of the case that favor the validity of the marriage. After reviewing the arguments of the Advocate and the Defender of the Bond, the Judge will come to a decision.
Is the Tribunal's decision final?
If the first decision is negative, that is, declaring that the facts did not prove the marriage invalid, either the Petitioner or Respondent may appeal the decision.
Should the Court of Appeals reverse a decision in a given case, the Court of Third Instance would be the Roman Rota. The Respondent has the right to appeal an affirmative decision from the Appeals Court to the Roman Rota. The Respondent also has the right to appeal directly to the Rota for second instance. The Respondent becomes responsible for the fees that result from their appeals to the Rota.
Is remarriage in the Catholic Church allowed?
If we prove the marriage invalid and there are no restrictions concerning remarriage, they may start the usual procedure of preparing for marriage in the Catholic Church with the local parish priest or deacon.
If we prove a marriage invalid due to a possibly ongoing cause, we cannot permit a second marriage until they have shown that they have removed the cause which invalidated the first marriage.
No new marriage may be scheduled in any Catholic parish until the procedure has been completed and requirements for remarriage have been fulfilled.
Is there a fee for Tribunal services?
There is no fee for an annulment.