(SNR) - Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has encouraged the Church to reach out to Catholics who are divorced and remarried, to invite them to deeper participation in the Church’s life. The Joy of the Gospel Campaign began a Tribunal Outreach program in the Diocese of Lincoln, intended to share information about the tribunal process, and the Church’s outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics. As part of the program, Father Steven Snitily shares with the Southern Nebraska Register some information about “annulments” and the Church’s tribunal process.
Q. What are some of the frequent misunderstandings people have about divorce and remarriage that you hope to clear up?
A. Primarily, we want people to be clear on what the Church teaches about the sacrament of marriage. We can’t start to understand annulments until we understand marriage.
Jesus himself said that marriage is permanent. He said that man cannot divide what God has united. Jesus told his disciples that if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he has committed adultery (Mark 10:2-12). If Jesus taught that marriage lasts until death, then the Church does not have the authority to change it. I also want to clarify the status of divorced people in the Church.
Q. What do you need to clarify about those who are divorced?
A. There are many who think that a divorced person is not able to receive the sacraments. This is not necessarily true.
Because of Jesus’ teaching that I just mentioned, those who are divorced can still fully participate in the life of the Church, but those who are remarried outside the Church are not in full communion and therefore cannot receive the sacraments, unless they commit to live chastely.
The Church realizes that there can be a lot of suffering in divorce and that’s why our Family Life Office has started offering the “Catholic Survival Guide to Divorce,”a 12-week series. At the end of each series, a member of the tribunal talks with the participants about the annulment process, which is also part of the Tribunal Outreach.
Q. If marriage is forever, then what is an annulment?
A. First of all, it would be helpful if we started speaking more accurately. What I mean is that we should be talking about declarations of nullity rather than annulments. There is an important difference between these two things.
In reality, the Church does not grant annulments, but it does make declarations of nullity. To say the Church grants annulments would imply that we are actively annulling something – making it null by our power. However, the Church doesn’t have this authority since Jesus himself said no man can divide what God has united. Rather, the Church, after an investigation, can declare a marriage null.
Q. How can the Church declare a marriage to be null?
A. The Church does not make the marriage null, but declares that, after an investigation, the marriage was discovered to be null from the beginning.
Some marriages may have all of the appearances of a valid marriage, but in reality be missing an essential element. This is true of all of the sacraments. If an essential element is missing, then the sacrament does not take place. For example, if a lay person were to attempt to celebrate a Mass, the bread would not become the true body of Christ. The lay person could say the Mass flawlessly, but because an essential element (a validly ordained priest) is missing, the sacrament does not take place.
There are many essential elements to marriage, such as an openness to children, the intention to be faithful, freedom from fear or pressure, the intention for the marriage to be permanent, and the mental capacity to understand what one is doing. Therefore, a wedding may have a normal appearance with rings, vows, and celebrations, but in reality something could be missing.
For example, a young immature couple might say, “till death do us part” in their vows, but the reality is that they are only getting married because of an unexpected pregnancy and the pressure to “do the right thing.” The same might be true of a spouse who gets married only for the great wealth of the other spouse, or of a spouse who gets married only to gain citizenship and avoid deportation. These are examples of marriages that had all the appearances of a valid marriage, but were really lacking some essential element of the sacrament.
Q. What are some more examples of what can cause a marriage to be declared null?
A. In canon law, we call these examples the grounds for the case. Grounds vary widely depending on the type of the case.
Some examples of grounds in addition to those listed above are: when one of the spouses was previously married and their first spouse was still alive at the time of the second marriage; when a baptized Catholic gets married outside the Church without permission, like on a beach, in a courthouse, or in a non-Catholic church; when a Catholic marries an unbaptized person; when the marriage was never consummated; when one of the parties does not have the mental capacity or sufficient maturity to be married; when a person uses deceit or fraud to get their spouse to marry them; or when a marriage is entered too hastily or by individuals who are too young.
Q. What are some of the common misconceptions that you think are keeping people from applying for a declaration of nullity?
A.Every situation is unique, but I think some misconceptions are more widespread than others. Some people worry about the legitimacy of their children, some think they could never afford it, some know that their former spouse won’t participate, and some think it will just take too long.
Q. Does a declaration of nullity affect the legitimacy of children?
A. No. This is one of the things I hear often. A Church declaration of nullity has no civil effects.
The law of the Church says that all children born to a marriage that is at least presumed valid are legitimate. Marriages are always presumed valid until proven otherwise.
Q. What about the cost? Is it an expensive process?
A. Actually, there are no charges for applying for a declaration of nullity.
However, just because there is no charge doesn’t mean the tribunal doesn’t have expenses. Currently, the Diocese of Lincoln is paying for all of the tribunal’s expenses. If anyone wants to make a donation to the tribunal, it is gratefully accepted. However, donations are never accepted by a person involved in a case until after the case has been completed, so as to avoid the appearance of bribery or favoritism. Money has no effect on the outcome of a case.
Q. Does a person’s former spouse need to agree to the declaration of nullity in order for the case to proceed?
A. No. It is always helpful when the former spouse agrees to participate, but if they don’t, the case can move forward without them. I should mention that we must always notify the former spouse that the case is taking place and invite them to participate. This is for the sake of justice, so they have a fair chance to say what they would like about the marriage. I should also mention that the tribunal does not assign blame on one of the parties for the breakup of the marriage. The tribunal only tries to determine if a valid marriage took place; it does not say who was at fault.
Q. If a person decides to apply for a declaration of nullity, how long should they expect it to take?
A. This is tough to answer because each case is unique. Some of the administrative cases can be handled in a few weeks. Most cases, however, take closer to a year from the date that the tribunal has received the application papers.
The length of the case depends heavily upon how quickly the witnesses and other participants reply to the questions and inquiries of the tribunal.
Q. What should a person do if they would like to apply for a declaration of nullity?
A. The first thing they should do is talk to their parish priest, or at least a priest they are comfortable talking to. This is important because the priest will help them determine the grounds of the case and thus give them the proper forms to fill out.
We have all of the forms on our diocesan website so people can take a look at them and get a feel for what the process involves. I don’t recommend that anyone start filling out these forms until after they have talked to their priest. This will ensure that they don’t fill out the wrong forms and end up wasting time. Once the proper forms are filled out, their priest will sign the papers and send them to the tribunal.
Q. Is the application process very complicated?
A. I wouldn’t say that it is complicated, but it can be time-consuming for some people.
Each application requires documents such as certified copies of divorce decrees and marriage licenses, and baptism certificates for all of the Catholic parties involved.
Cases also require a narrative. This narrative is essentially just the story of the relationship from the time the couple met to the time of the divorce. This is the part that sometimes delays people because it can seem a bit overwhelming.
I always encourage people to write a rough outline before they just sit down and start writing. I also tell them not to worry about getting every single story or detail into the narrative. We want them to tell us the basic story of their relationship so we can know what grounds we are dealing with. The person applying for the declaration of nullity, called the petitioner, will have opportunities to add information even after the case has started. The narrative isn’t their one and only chance to talk about the marriage.
Each petitioner will be interviewed by a priest of the tribunal, which will give them a chance to talk about the relationship and answer any further questions the priest might have. If a person needs help or guidance writing their narrative, they can email the tribunal through the diocesan website. This too is part of the tribunal outreach because it is helping people move forward with this process.
Q. What is the process like once the tribunal receives the application?
A. First, we will notify the former spouse that the case has been submitted. As mentioned above, we will invite them to participate, but if they choose not to, we can still move forward. We will also invite the petitioner for an interview with the priest who is working on the case.
Each petitioner is asked to submit a list of four to six names of people who would be willing to serve as witnesses. The witnesses should be people who were familiar with the relationship of the couple from the time before the wedding. The priest directing the case will contact the witnesses by mail and ask them to answer a series of questions in writing, over the phone, or in person. The priest might also have to contact former counselors that the couple saw, or seek the input of other experts of psychology, depending on the case. Once all of the testimony and documentation is gathered, three priests who serve as judges review the case, discuss it, and judge whether there is sufficient evidence to prove with moral certainty that a valid marriage did not take place.
Q. If someone would like more information, what would you recommend?
A. I would say the diocesan website is a good starting point. Go to www.lincolndiocese.org/tribunal to print off a flyer with some basic information that you could use to start a conversation with a loved one.
For more in-depth information, we also have a 12-page pamphlet that is written in a question and answer format. Our website also has links to other helpful sites with trustworthy information. If none of these resources answer your questions, you can contact your parish priest or email the tribunal from www.lincolndiocese.org/tribunal.