Information for the Respondent
A canonical investigation of the validity of a marriage begins when one of the spouses to the marriage presents a petition to a Diocesan Tribunal requesting that an ecclesiastical declaration of invalidity be made regarding the marriage. Experience has shown that the other party, the respondent, often has many questions regarding this process and his/her rights during the proceedings. We hope that the information below will answer some of these questions.
What is marriage?
The Catholic Church teaches that the covenant of marriage is a lifelong and exclusive partnership of a man and a woman. Marriage is a holy vocation or calling that by its very nature promotes the good of both spouses and is open to the procreation and education of children. Christ has raised marriage between two baptized persons to the level of a sacrament.
Marriage comes into being by the free and unimpeded act of giving marital consent by both spouses. Church law presumes all marriages valid and thus indissoluble as long as both parties remain alive. While many civil governments have created divorce as a means to end a legally contracted marriage, Catholics believe that the marriage bond, by its very nature, cannot be dissolved by any civil power. Thus the marriage bond remains in place until it can be established that valid marital consent was not exchanged.
What is the marriage nullity process and why does it exist?
Jesus taught that marriage is indissoluble. Once people get married, they are married until one of them dies, even if they someday separate, justifiably or otherwise. A married person’s vocation is to lifelong fidelity to the marital covenant, even when (in cases of abandonment or necessary separation) that means living as though celibate. Christ knew our human nature and he knew that this was a hard teaching. He was already challenged and ridiculed for it in his own time, but he did not back down from it one bit.
With that being said, there are certain marriages that are invalid from the start. They have the outward appearance of a marriage and are usually entered into in good faith, but because of some impediment, some defect of consent, or some problem in the form of the marriage celebration, they are never truly valid marriages. If the marriage was truly invalid, and if that fact is proven in an Ecclesiastical Court, then one or both of the parties may be free to marry another.
Neither spouse can simply decide privately that the marriage is invalid and that they are free to move on. The marriage invalidity process is a judicial process developed over the centuries to allow people who believe that their marriage was invalid from the beginning to attempt to prove that fact, all the while safeguarding the rights of both parties and upholding the dignity and indissolubility of marriage. A declaration of invalidity does not and cannot dissolve an existing marriage; rather it is an official declaration by the Church that it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a given marriage was invalid from the start. When a marriage is actually invalid, declaring that fact is a good and just thing.
Those participating in the process
THE PETITIONER: The person requesting a Declaration of Invalidity. In the instance where you are named as the respondent, your former spouse is the petitioner.
THE RESPONDENT: Term used to identify the other party in the process.
WITNESSES: Individuals whose names have been submitted by the petitioner and/or respondent who may be able to offer insights into the backgrounds of the parties, and/or the development of the courtship and marital relationship. Witnesses are often parents, relatives, or close friends of the couple. Witnesses are asked questions regarding the important elements that should be present in any marriage.
EXPERT: Counselor or other professional with whom one or both of the parties of a marriage consulted. Counseling and professional records are not requested without a release of information form signed by the party(s) involved. Professional records are confidential.
ASSESSOR: An expert in a particular field who is consulted by the judges in order to provide more clarity on certain aspects of the marriage being studied.
ADVOCATE: A specially trained individual approved by the bishop and mandated by a party to the marriage to assist them before the Tribunal. The Tribunal can appoint an advocate if necessary to protect the rights of an absent party.
Grounds of Invalidity
The validity of a marriage may be challenged if an individual questions whether a quality essential to marriage was absent from consent at the time of the wedding ceremony. Behavior during the courtship and, to a lesser extent, during the time of married life may give some indication that grounds of invalidity exist. The canonical grounds for invalidity of marriage are described in detail in the Tribunal booklet, The Annulment Process: Pastoral Care to the Divorced.
Your rights as the respondent
Church law recognizes your right to make a statement regarding your former marriage and your right to introduce witnesses. You are allowed a reasonable amount of time to make your statement to the Tribunal. You have the right to be assisted by an advocate for advice and pastoral support. You have the right to view and comment upon the evidence gathered. You have the right to appeal a decision.
Who reviews this information?
All material gathered by the Tribunal is treated confidentially as required by Church law. Only those who have a right to the information are permitted to read it (the parties, their advocates, and Tribunal officials). You have the right to respond to the allegations of your former spouse, just as your former spouse has a right to review statements which you have made as part of this investigation. All officials of the Tribunal, including office personnel, are bound by oath to keep all information confidential.
When is a decision made?
When the information-gathering phase of the process is completed, the parties and their advocates are informed and given a three-week period in which they have the right to review the evidence and offer additional data and/or observations regarding the case. The case is then forwarded to the Defender of the Bond who is required to argue for the validity of the marriage, if appropriate, and to guarantee the rights of both parties and the Church. The judge or panel of three judges to whom the case has been assigned will render the decision after a thorough study of all the material.
A decision may be affirmative or negative. An affirmative decision means that the marriage has been declared invalid. A negative decision means that the invalidity of the marriage has not been established; therefore, the marriage still binds in the eyes of the Church.
Church law recognizes the right to appeal. The petitioner has the right to appeal a negative decision. The respondent, as well as the Defender of the Bond, has the right to appeal an affirmative or negative decision. All appeals are heard by an appellate court of the Boston Province. An appeal may also be made to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota.
Is remarriage allowed?
If a marriage is declared invalid (and the decision is confirmed by the appellate Tribunal, if applicable), and if there are no restrictions attached, the usual procedure of preparing for marriage in the Catholic Church may be started with the local parish priest or pastoral minister. No plans for future marriages are to be made before that time –because there is no guarantee that the first marriage will be found invalid.
What about the legitimacy of children?
There are no civil effects of a Church declaration of invalidity in the United States. Therefore a formal ecclesiastical declaration of marital invalidity does not affect the civil legitimacy of children. It cannot be used to question a child’s paternity. It cannot be used to influence a civil court to set or change the terms of a civil divorce, child custody, support or property settlement. Church law has always protected the legitimacy of children born into a presumed valid marital relationship.
How long does the process take?
Due to a variety of factors, including strict time limits imposed by Canon Law, it is impossible to predict the length of time for processing a petition. No two cases are the same. One case may be completed in several months. Another may take a year or longer. Generally, cases may be completed in about one year to eighteen months.
Is there a fee for Tribunal services?
The respondent is not asked to pay a fee in a canonical investigation of marriage requested by his or her former spouse; however, if the respondent lodges an appeal against the decision of the Tribunal, he or she will be responsible for any fees associated with the appellate process.
If you have any further questions
You are welcome to contact the Tribunal office at 603-669-3101 and speak with a member of the professional staff, or email us at email@example.com. Or you may wish to speak with a Catholic priest, deacon, or lay ecclesial minister of the Diocese of Manchester.