There are quite a few painful things we experience in life. The ending of a relationship is probably the most hurtful, especially if you thought it was going to be ”forever, and ever. Amen.”
God designed marriage to be permanent. But, what happens when your marriage, doesn’t live up to this design and ends prematurely?
The Church, in her care, wants to walk with you in these challenging moments. Especially to help you answer the difficult question, “What happened?”
The Marriage Nullity Process
Many think annulments, more appropriately termed, “declarations of nullity,” are Catholic divorces. That’s a big misunderstanding. I want to be as transparent as possible on this point: annulments are not Catholic divorces. If they were, I would not be in this line of work. Annulments have a specific purpose: the salvation of our souls. And the salvation of souls is something I am passionate about.
A declaration of nullity does not end a valid marriage. Instead, it is a judgment that, due to some defect, the conditions required for a valid marriage were never present, and therefore no valid marriage ever existed. Thus, the annulment process’s goal is only to determine an objective fact: whether the indissoluble bond of marriage ever came into being in the first place.
You see, no one has the power to end a valid marriage. As I said, marriage is a lifelong union, and you can’t end something validly consented to before God. Only he can do that, and well, he doesn’t; “til death do us part,” remember?
What You and I Will Talk About
If you, or someone you know, has been contemplating approaching the Church about an annulment, here are the steps I will take with you if you want to begin the process:
- We have an initial Zoom or telephone call. First and foremost, we pray together. We talk through what an annulment is and its purpose. The petitioner (you) and I need to understand: why you are seeking an annulment now. Are you looking to heal? Do you want to marry validly in the Church?
- During that same call, I introduce you to the application, also known as a “libellus.” The application is a petition you submit saying, I have reason to believe my marriage was never valid. This is the petition you will submit to the Tribunal (the official court of the Catholic Church, which is established in each diocese by the bishop).
The Tribunal officials will study your application when they consider accepting or rejecting your petition. As we fill out the application, we discuss sacramental history. Were you and your spouse baptized? If so, into what faith traditions? This helps me know what direction to take in the process.
- I will invite you to share with me the history of your relationship. We will identify together what may or may not have impacted you or your spouse, giving valid consent. This is important because consent is what makes a marriage. Some people cannot truly give consent because of psychological obstacles, error, or lack of freedom.
However, some individuals can provide consent, but they intentionally withhold something essential from their consent or attach their consent to a condition of some sort.
If we identify there was a defect of consent (incapacity, ignorance, error about the person, fraud, error about marriage, simulation, a condition placed, or force of fear involved), I will help you submit a petition to the Tribunal with such defect-of-consent stated.
- The Church believes some impediments make it impossible for a person to consent to marriage validly. I will explain the impediments that could have rendered the petitioner (you) and/or your spouse incapable of contracting marriage validly. These impediments to marriage include: age, impotence, prior bond, disparity of cult, sacred orders, vow of chastity, abduction, coniugicide, consanguinity, affinity, public propriety, and adoption.
Some of these can be dispensed (a relaxation of an ecclesiastical law). I will inquire about that, but others are conditions of divine law that cannot be dispensed by the Church and therefore would render the marriage invalid if present. We will discuss these in light of your relationship. If we identify an impediment that existed at the time of consent, I will also include it in your petition/application to the Tribunal.
- We will walk through the petition/application together. If we are on a Zoom call, I will share my screen and discuss each question and line with you. We will complete it together, talking through who would be your witnesses.
The story of the union is told by the spouses, witnesses, and even by other types of evidence, such as emails, letters, text messages, voicemails, counseling records, police reports, etc. I will take notes on these items and provide you a summary, so you know how to proceed until our next Zoom or phone call.
- I will give you a timeframe as to when to mail your petition/application. We will schedule our next Zoom video call or telephone call.
- Once you’ve decided to submit your application/petition to have your marriage studied, you will mail it to the Tribunal. We will then wait to hear whether or not the Tribunal has accepted or rejected your application/petition. It usually does not take more than one month to hear back from the Tribunal. This differs for each Tribunal.
If your application/petition is admitted, we will follow a procedure that I will explain in detail to you. As you enter into the process, I will emphasize that there is no definite time frame for a completion date (it can take up to two years) of the study of your marriage, and no certainty that you will receive a declaration of nullity. This is why it’s so important not to plan a wedding prior to the completion of the process.
What Are Your Questions?
If you have questions about the steps above or other questions like, When should I apply for a declaration of nullity? (After my divorce is complete? While it’s happening?) Why would I apply? Who can challenge the validity of a marriage? Does a declaration of nullity make children illegitimate? How much does a declaration of nullity cost? May I receive Holy Communion if I don’t have a declaration of nullity? let’s talk through them.
When it comes to the marriage nullity process, you do not need to do it alone. You do not need to feel like the Church is your enemy or that you have failed. You deserve accompaniment, and I can guide you every step of the way. The purpose of the marriage nullity process is to clarify your marital status, that is, to determine whether your marriage was valid or invalid. This involves your vocation, and our vocations are the paths that Christ has given us to salvation. That’s all. And how amazing the Church provides this process for the journey. Let’s jump in.