Tribunal and Marriage

Are You Divorced? 

‘I earnestly call upon priests and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced and with great care ensure that they do not consider themselves to be separated from the Church’. These are the words of Saint Pope John Paul II (Apostolic Exhortation ‘Familiaris consortio’, 22 November 1981). He continues, ‘Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself to be a merciful mother and so sustain them in faith and hope.’

One way in which the Church may offer help is through the Diocesan Tribunal. The Tribunal considers matters relating to Church Law. Although this Tribunal can consider a variety of cases, its main work is with declarations of marriage nullity

What are the Effects of a Declaration of Nullity?  If an applicant is successful and obtains a declaration of nullity then he or she is free to marry in the Catholic Church. If the person has already attempted a second marriage outside the Church then it may now be possible to put this right. It must be noted that if a marriage is declared null it does not mean that the time the couple spent together was wasted or valueless. With regard to this, a declaration of nullity does not affect the legitimacy of any children. Also, in this country, a declaration does not have any effects in civil law.

What is a Declaration of Nullity? 

A declaration of nullity is an official statement from the Church to say that what initially appeared to be a marriage is in fact not one. Thus, although a couple might have gone through a wedding ceremony and even had children, there is something which means that there is not a true marriage. Probably the simplest example concerns those Catholics who celebrate weddings outside the Catholic Church without the required approval of the Church. These cases can usually be processed quickly, provided the wedding outside the Church was never made valid by the Catholic Church – eg. by a Catholic ceremony.

Other cases tend to take longer. Again, there has to be something which means that there was not a true marriage. For example, a woman who married because she discovered she was pregnant and her family made her marry the father of the child. Another example could be of an individual who stood in front of the minister at the wedding and made the necessary vows concerning remaining faithful, having children and not divorcing but did not actually mean them.

The Tribunal will consider purely whether there was a marriage in the true sense. The Tribunal does not try to apportion blame.

Who Can Apply?  Either party is free to bring a case to the Tribunal for it to inspect. Declarations of nullity can be given to both Catholics and non-Catholics, irrespective of whether the wedding was celebrated within the Catholic Church or outside it. In order not to contravene the law of the land there has to have been a divorce decree absolute granted before the Tribunal becomes involved.

What Does the Process Involve?  Once a case is brought to the attention of the Tribunal, evidence will be collected. For this to happen, the individual will be interviewed. This will involve asking personal questions. We always try to do this sensitively but it can sometimes be painful if bad memories are evoked. Also, the individual will be asked to suggest witnesses who are willing to be interviewed. The best witnesses are those who knew the bride or groom well during the period leading up to the wedding or shortly afterwards – for example, close relatives and friends. If the witnesses are overseas we shall arrange for them to be interviewed there.

Under Church Law and out of justice and courtesy, the other party (the ex-husband or ex-wife) must be invited to take part in the proceedings. Very often they do not wish to be involved but they must be invited. Experience has shown that they react better if they are told to expect a letter from the Tribunal. In order for the Tribunal to contact them we must have their contact details. It is rare for the Tribunal to start a case without these details.

Once all the evidence has been collected both parties are invited to read it and comment on it. The case will then go for judgement. The decision is based purely on the evidence and the law of the Church as understood and developed over many years. It must be emphasized that although the Tribunal will do all it can to make a case as strong as possible, it cannot guarantee a successful outcome to the case.

Sometimes an individual can be made free to marry if his or her failed marriage involved someone who was not baptized. These cases are rather technical because certain conditions have to be met in order for them to be successful. The Tribunal will offer advice on these cases and process them where possible.

How Long Does It Take?  Just as it is impossible to say whether a case will be successful, it is also impossible to say how long it will take. Generally, if a case goes smoothly, it can take about ten months. However, cases can take longer, especially if it proves difficult to interview some of the witnesses.

How Much Does It Cost?  For those who can afford it, when we start a case we ask for a deposit of £150.00. If a case is successful we then request a further amount which will vary depending upon the length of the case. Although it is not possible to say exactly how much this second amount will be for a particular case, amounts are often between £200 and £300. These payments cover the running costs of the Tribunal which include secretarial fees and the costs of interviewing witnesses, as well as postage, stationery and photocopying. Some people find it easier to pay in instalments. However, the golden rule is that we never let money be an issue. If people cannot afford the whole amount, we simply ask them to pay what they can afford. In many cases they do not make any payment at all.

For More Information  Please write to: The Rev. Canon Dr. Brendan Killeen, Judicial Vicar, The Diocesan Tribunal, Bishop’s House, Marriott Street, NORTHAMPTON, NN2 6AW