By Msgr. Steven Aguggia
When a Catholic who is bound to observe the law of the Church regarding marriage does not do so, that marriage is obviously not valid. Here we can envision Catholics in civil marriages, for example. Such marriages can be declared null through evidence presented to the Tribunal by documents: baptismal certificates proving the party was Catholic and a marriage certificate proving that the marriage was not a Catholic ceremony.
In cases where a ceremony took place in a Catholic Church, however, the possible invalidity is not obvious and there must be an investigation and process. A person asks the Tribunal to investigate a marriage to see whether or not nullity can be declared. Any person has a right to petition a Church court to examine his or her marriage if that person suspects it may be invalid. A marriage is presumed to be valid unless it is proven otherwise.
A declaration that a marriage was invalid is not automatic. No one “applies” for an annulment and no one pays for an annulment. The process can take some time because the Tribunal must be certain that there was something that invalidated the marriage from the start.
It does not matter how long a couple might be together or even if they were in love for a while because the examination is to determine whether the consent (the vows), through which a marriage comes into being, is valid or not. An annulment is not a declaration of the invalidity of a relationship; it’s the declaration of the invalidity of consent.
This is why it does not affect any children the couple may have had. The relationship between the parents was there and the civil marriage (which ended by civil divorce which the Church cannot recognize) was there. Children born within the context of civil marriage are considered “legitimate” by civil standards. This is an important point since many people misunderstand this fact. A declaration of nullity has no effect on the status of children at all.
Is the process painful? Are old wounds reopened? Perhaps, they are. It would be dishonest to say that the process is not difficult. It takes some work and can be emotionally trying. The end result, however, is a new start. Since an annulment is a declaration that there was no marriage to begin with (remember, we are not speaking about relationships), the persons are free to begin again.
During the process, caring people in the Tribunal assist you, walking you through the difficult parts. The Tribunal’s personnel understand their work to be a ministry – a ministry of healing and reconciliation – and a work of mercy.
So often our suffering and difficulties lead us to greater strength and trust in the Lord. The process described here is a way to do that. By allowing the Lord into the process and by asking Him to walk with us through the difficult parts, people can emerge with a renewed sense of communion with the community of the Church.
The work of the Tribunal is the work of mercy and reconciliation. Those who are in this ministry do it with these goals in mind. The supreme law is the salvation of souls and it is the desire and hope of the bishop that through the ministry of his Tribunal, the people of God are brought closer to the experience of salvation, that they grow in holiness by being able to pursue their vocation to marriage in a Christian way, faithful to the ideals of Christ Himself.
Msgr. Aguggia is the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Brooklyn.