Q&A – Annulments (or Declarations of Nullity)
- What is the Catholic Church’s understanding of marriage?
Marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, directed toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.
- How must Catholics marry?
A marriage is recognized as Catholic if celebrated before a priest or deacon and two witnesses. Only the Bishop can dispense from this Catholic form of marriage.
- Can others besides Catholics receive the sacrament of matrimony?
Yes. If both spouses are validly baptized and free to marry, then they give the sacrament of matrimony to one another through their exchange of consent.
- Can a divorced Catholic receive the sacraments?
Yes. There is nothing in itself that prevents a divorced Catholic from receiving the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church. A divorced person is fully and completely a member of the Church.
- Does that mean that a divorced Catholic remarried outside the Church may receive Holy Communion?
No. A Catholic who remarries without a declaration of nullity (or invalidity) for any prior marriage may not receive Holy Communion, since the reception of Holy Communion is a public statement to the faith community that one adheres to the laws of the Church. If a person is not remarried according to Church law, this would be a contradiction of symbols.
- What is a Marriage Tribunal?
A Marriage Tribunal is a diocesan office staffed by persons who are appointed by the Bishop and who have received special education and preparation to represent him and the Church in Church proceedings for marriage cases.
- What is the purpose of the Marriage Tribunal?
The Marriage Tribunal helps divorced people who ask for an investigation of the prior marriage(s). After gathering as much information as possible, the judge makes a human decision in the name of the Church as to whether a marital bond was created between the two partners; whether the couple is still bound to the bond; or whether they may be free to enter into a marital relationship. The Marriage Tribunal has a twofold ministry that involves protecting the exercise of rights given in Church law for those who might be seeking possible remarriage in the Catholic Church and helping participants experience healing and reconciliation with the Church.
- What is a declaration of nullity (or invalidity)?
A declaration of nullity, also known as an annulment, is a statement by the Church, made after a long and serious study by the Marriage Tribunal, that a marital bond was never created between a couple because one of the elements seen as essential for a binding marriage was not present in the parties’ exchange of marital consent. This declaration recognizes that a legal marriage existed but implies no moral judgment or blame regarding either of the parties.
- Who should seek a declaration of nullity?
Any divorced person who seeks possible marriage in the Catholic Church must have each prior marriage examined by the Marriage Tribunal for a determination of its validity.
- Does a declaration of nullity for a marriage have any civil effects?
No. Marriage cases that have been confirmed as invalid through the Church process have no civil effects. Issues such as child support and visitation, property rights and alimony must be determined by a civil court. A final civil divorce decree signed by a judge must be submitted to the Marriage Tribunal for each prior marriage.
- Does a declaration of nullity affect the legitimacy of children?
No. Legitimacy is a legal term. Church law states that the status of children born of a marriage that is later determined to be invalid in the perspective of the Church is not affected. Children are a gift from God and entitled to the love and support of parents as well as the Church.
- Must the Marriage Tribunal contact the other spouse?
Yes. The other spouse must be notified that a formal marriage case has been submitted to the Marriage Tribunal, out of fairness and since both parties can exercise certain rights given in Church law in a formal case process.
- What if the address of the former spouse is unknown?
The petitioner must make every effort to provide an accurate, current address of the respondent. If this is not possible, the efforts and results must be documented for the Marriage Tribunal.
- What happens if the respondent refuses to participate?
It is not only helpful to obtain the perspective of the marriage from the respondent but also advantageous to both parties to cooperate fully and honestly, since both could benefit emotionally and spiritually from the marriage case process. However, if the other spouse either refuses to cooperate or decides not to respond after being notified, then the Marriage Tribunal will proceed with the process.
- Are declarations of nullity always granted or decided in the affirmative?
No. A declaration of nullity might receive a negative decision if, after a long and serious study by the Marriage Tribunal, it is found that the marriage bond was created; or if there is no adequate testimony from the witnesses or the parties to prove invalidity.
- If I wish to remarry, what is the next step after a declaration of nullity is granted for my marriage case?
The official letter of notification for a declaration of nullity must be presented to the person who will witness your marriage (priest or deacon), and the priest or deacon will then request the necessary document from the Marriage Tribunal of your diocese.
- If a declaration of nullity is granted by the Marriage Tribunal, does that mean both parties may seek a marriage in the Catholic Church?
Yes. However, in some marriage cases, certain conditions or restrictions may be placed on one or both parties before they can marry in the Church, especially if serious psychological or relational difficulties were evident in the former marriage.
- Who decides that declaration of invalidity should be granted?
Either a panel of judges or a single judge of the diocese issues the first decision in a formal marriage case. If the decision is affirmative, the case must be reviewed by an appellate court to ensure that the case was proven and properly prepared as directed by Church law. If the appellate court also issues an affirmative decision, then a decree for a declaration of nullity is issued and the parties are notified.
- Can anyone be a witness?
Witnesses should be chosen who knew one or both of the spouses before or at the time of the wedding, or during the early years of their former marriage, and who are willing to complete a questionnaire. If possible, it would be better to include a mixture of family, friends, and even counselors.
- Are witnesses necessary in a formal marriage case?
Yes. Witnesses assist the Marriage Tribunal to gain a better understanding of the marriage in question and the parties involved.
- How do I start a marriage case?
You would contact your parish advocate (pastor) who will assist you with information about preparing a marriage case and explain the Church process involved. You may contact a member of the Marriage Tribunal staff. In the diocese of Lafayette, you should contact the Moderator of the Tribunal at 337.261.5623 or fax them at 337.261.5646. You may also contact the secretary of the Vicar General in the Tribunal, Linda Savoy, at firstname.lastname@example.org.