The Catholic Church considers marriage an institution of divine origin both in the order of creation and in the order of redemption. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, teaches that marriage forms a relationship “which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one.” The Council described marriage as a "community of love" and an "intimate partnership of life and love" (GS, #48).
The Church presumes that every marriage is valid unless proven otherwise. If there has been a marriage of any kind (religious, civil, common law) ended by a divorce, some Church process is required before a previously married person is recognized as free to marry in the Catholic Church. This applies even if the partners in the former marriage were not Catholic. The Church considers a marriage entered into by two non-Catholics, Christian or other, to be true marriages. Therefore, any previous marriage is an obstacle to a new marriage with a Catholic ceremony. (Not every marriage needs the same kind of process. What is needed depends upon the unique circumstances of each marriage.)
The Church’s Code of Canon Law summarizes the essential Catholic teaching on marriage by stating: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.”
Husband and wife create together an exclusive, intimate partnership of the whole of life. A true marriage, whether sacramental or natural, bonds a couple in a union that is faithful and lifelong. It is the bond of marriage which makes a second marriage impossible as long as both spouses are alive. This principle guides and directs the Church in the pastoral preparation of couples for marriage and directs the ministry of the Tribunal. In its examination of marriages that have been broken by divorce, this ministry is carried out with compassion. The Church’s ministry of justice endeavors to be faithful to this vision of marriage as sacred and salvific while bringing the Lord’s compassion to those who have been wounded by the failures and limitations of human loving.
Church law requires that every diocese establish a Tribunal. The Tribunal of the Diocese of Fresno exists as a ministry of justice to assist the Bishop in fulfilling his ministry to the faithful entrusted to his care. It offers assistance to persons who ask that the Church examine a marriage to determine if some defect existed at the time of the wedding which may have prevented the establishment of a true and lasting bond of marriage.
If the investigation of the marriage in question discloses some essential defect to have existed in the union undertaken, the parties can be declared free to marry again.
A declaration that there was no bond of marriage must be based on grounds consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and recognized in Canon Law. Grounds arise from the nature of marriage as a partnership of the whole of life freely consented to by both parties. Grounds can be found in the failure of one or both parties to understand the essential obligations of marriage. Grounds may be found also in a lack of freedom to give consent or in the lack of ability to assume the obligations of marriage.
Other grounds include: Intentions deliberately excluding some essential aspect of marriage, such as the rights to children, fidelity or permanence, or the entire partnership of the whole of life. Future conditions, deliberate or fraudulent deception about an important marital quality, force or fear which compelled the marriage, mistaken ideas about marriage and other grounds may be alleged. This list is not exhaustive, but grounds must touch the essence of marriage and they must be proven to the certainty of the Tribunal. The length of a marriage, problems in the common life, children born of the marriage and the circumstances of the breakup do not of themselves establish validity in a marriage. Rather, it is the quality of the consent given originally that affects a marriage’s validity or invalidity.
For a divorced Catholic, a declaration of invalidity would allow a new marriage in the Church, provided that the other party to the new marriage is free to enter a Catholic marriage. For a divorced and remarried Catholic, a declaration of invalidity would allow full participation in the sacramental life of the Church, including a new marriage in the Church on the same condition as just mentioned. For members of other religious traditions, a declaration of invalidity will enable the Catholic partner to celebrate the marriage in the Catholic Church and to participate fully in the sacramental life of the faith community.
If a Tribunal declares a marriage invalid it does not mean that the marriage never occurred, nor does it imply guilt. It is impossible to deny or “annul” a historical reality. A declaration of invalidity means that a marriage lacked at least one of the essential elements of a binding union. It shows that a marriage presumed valid was in fact invalid as the Church understands marriage.
A declaration of invalidity does not render children illegitimate nor does it have any civil meaning or effect in the United States. All children remain fully legitimate according to both civil and Church law. It has no effect on the rights of property ownership, inheritance, and custody, visitation of children, child support or similar legal matters. This also means that it does not absolve parties from their moral and legal obligations to the spouses and children of former unions.
A canonical investigation into the validity of marriage can occur only when there is no hope of reconciliation and after a final decree of civil divorce or dissolution. The process for a formal declaration of invalidity is initiated by the submission of a petition and preliminary questionnaire, obtained from the Office of the Tribunal through the parish. A person (Petitioner) who believes he or she may have grounds for a declaration of invalidity of marriage should first consult with a parish priest, deacon or other parish minister who has been trained and delegated to prepare marriage cases.
After an initial evaluation of the case history and a review of the documents submitted, the case is assigned to a Tribunal Judge, who assesses whether the Tribunal of the Diocese of Fresno has jurisdiction and determines whether potential grounds exist to warrant opening the case to trial. If so, the former spouse (Respondent) is notified of the petition and invited to participate in the search for the facts and the truth of the relationship. Each party is asked to name qualified witnesses who can corroborate the statements of the parties. Since this is a canonical-legal process, proofs and evidence are required.
Church law requires that a case be proven by documents and the supporting testimony of witnesses. Witnesses are necessary for the Tribunal to gain a deeper understanding of the background and dating experience of both parties, the wedding and marriage itself, and the reasons for its breakdown. Anyone who has known the parties well or for a long time may be a witness. The best witnesses are those who have known the former spouses since the time of courtship. Typically, parents, brothers and sisters, childhood neighbors or other relatives and friends make good witnesses. A minimum of two witnesses will be contacted by mail and asked to give their personal observations. It may be necessary to follow up the testimony of the parties and witnesses by a personal interview. Parties should invite the cooperation of potential witnesses before they are contacted by the Tribunal.
A former spouse must be contacted and given the opportunity to present his or her views of the marriage as well as to introduce witnesses. This is required by the law of the Church. It is therefore necessary to have a current address. If a current address in unavailable, then the last known address and/or the address of a family member should be provided. Justice demands a good faith effort to locate the former spouse. If a former spouse is said to be unlocatable, the Tribunal will ask for evidence of this good faith effort to locate him or her.
Since both spouses are equal partners in the marriage, both enjoy the same rights in cases which may result in a declaration of invalidity. Even in cases where the former spouse is not Catholic and may not be interested in the Church's process, the party has rights under Church law. The former spouse does not have the option of preventing the process. If the former spouse ignores the citation (summons), the process continues without his or her cooperation. The spouses are never scheduled to appear at the same time.
The law recognizes the right of the Respondent to participate fully in the process if he or she so chooses. Statements may be made either by completing a written questionnaire or by appearing at the Tribunal for a personal interview. The testimony of the Respondent will always be of assistance to the Court in reaching a decision.
The Respondent is entitled to know the grounds for nullity, has the right to appoint an Advocate, the right to name witnesses and to know the names of the Petitioner’s witnesses, the right to reply to pleadings and observations, the right to know the evidence used in the decision, the conclusions and reasons for the judgment, and the right to appeal a judgment.
Advocates are trained Catholic priests, religious sisters and lay persons who represent the parties at the Tribunal. They are to assist in the timely and orderly preparation of the case, see that the rights of the parties are fully honored, and provide canonical guidance and pastoral care as the party goes through the process. Additionally, they may write briefs and accompany the Petitioner/Respondent to the hearing. The priest who witnessed the wedding may not serve as the Advocate; his assistance may be more valuable in the capacity of a witness. To expedite the processing of the case, the Advocates are usually named by the Court. However, a party may designate an Advocate of his or her choosing from the list of Advocates approved by the Archbishop.
There are three steps in the formal process of a case.
1. The preliminary stage takes place as the Petitioner prepares his or her petition and preliminary deposition and gathers the pertinent ecclesiastical and civil documents.
2. The judicial process begins when the Court is constituted and the parties are cited to give testimony before the Tribunal. Proofs are gathered from the testimony of the parties, witnesses and in some cases, experts in psychology or other sciences or fields. Advocates may submit briefs as requested by the Judge, and the case is reviewed by a Defender of the Bond, who offers all reasonable arguments in favor of the legally presumed validity of the marriage. After weighing the evidence and considering the observations of all concerned, the Judge(s) issue(s) a decision by means of a written “sentence,” setting forth both the conclusions and the basis in the law and the facts of the case. The sentence is subject to review by the parties, if they so desire.
3. In formal trials of invalidity of marriage, in case of an affirmative decision (i.e., in favor of invalidity), either party who opposes the Court’s decision may lodge an appeal either to the Tribunal of second instance or directly to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, the Church’s “supreme court” for marriage. The Court of Appeal can either ratify the first decision by decree or open it to a new investigation, leading to another judicial sentence giving a confirming or contrary decision.
All material relative to the nullity process is treated confidentially as required by the Church's law. Only those who have a right to the information (the parties, their Advocates and the Tribunal officials) are permitted to review it for the purposes expressed in canon law. All are bound by oath to keep all information confidential and to use it only for the express purpose of resolving the case.
Each case is unique. It is impossible to predict even the approximate time that it takes to process a case because of a number of variable factors. The goal in Church law for deciding a case in First Instance is within one year, if at all possible. However, though the Tribunals strive to meet these expectations of the law, the number of cases to be examined, the availability of Tribunal personnel, and possible obstacles peculiar to a given case can prolong the process.
The preliminary stage of the process does not have a timetable. A case can move along more rapidly if all documents are presented as requested and if the parties and witnesses reply in a timely and informative fashion.
A Petitioner is responsible for only a portion of the costs of a case. The faithful of the Diocese of Fresno substantially subsidize the operation of the Tribunal through their parish contributions. For efficiency, the office must be staffed with trained and qualified priests, canon lawyers, support staff and equipment, all of which is costly.
For a formal trial of invalidity, a Petitioner is asked to pay $250.00, which is payable as follows: a non-refundable filing fee of $100.00, and the balance of $150.00, is to be paid in full upon final notice of an affirmative decision. The outcome of a case is not contingent upon a Petitioner's ability to pay the fee. If there is financial difficulty, a Petitioner should make this known to the Tribunal.
Permission to remarry or validate a civil marriage in the Catholic Church cannot be guaranteed by anyone before this process is completed. Sometimes, as a condition of remarriage, counseling will be required and a report provided to the parish minister preparing a couple for the new marriage. No plans for a future marriage, not even a tentative date, may be made with the parish priest or deacon until such time as a Final Declaration of Invalidity is given and conditions are satisfied. The Tribunal bears no responsibility for any promises or guarantees made by anyone if a wedding date is scheduled before the completion of a case.
The Briefer Process for Evident Cases
The new simplified process can be applied to certain cases, however, the Judicial Vicar who carries out the instruction with the help of an auditor (instructor) (canon 1586), determines if a case qualifies for the briefer process. If this is the case, the acts are given to the diocesan bishop, who, together with the instructor and an assessor, and taking into account the observations of the defender of the bond and the arguments presented by the parties, if any, hands down the decision if he has the required moral certitude to the invalidity of the marriage in question (canon 1687.1). Nevertheless, if the bishop is not convinced, he refers the case back to the ordinary process.