Divorce is a reality for all people, even for Roman Catholics. The Catholic Church respects the validity of all marriages, not just Catholic marriages. There are divorced persons who seek to remarry in the Catholic Church. In such cases, the Church will consider the divorced marriage to see if someone entered the marriage with an understanding, ability or intention contrary to the Church’s teaching on marriage. This process, called a Declaration of Nullity, enables people to marry in the Catholic Church and enables Catholics to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church.
Before anyone can initiate a Process for a Declaration of Nullity, civil divorce for the marriage in question must be obtained and finalized. This completed civil document demonstrates for the Church that the marriage in fact has been definitively broken and is unable to be reconciled.
Preliminary Questionnaire and Documents
The Petitioner (the one who is beginning the process) is asked to complete a questionnaire about basic facts of the marriage in question. Documents such as recent baptismal certificates for Roman Catholics and certified marriage and divorce decrees are required for everyone at this time.
Acceptance of Petition
The Tribunal will accept the petition if jurisdiction and potential grounds exist. The Tribunal has jurisdiction if, for example, the person petitioning the Tribunal lives within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Potential grounds for a case center upon the intentions a couple has when they enter into marriage concerning fidelity, permanence and openness to children. Grounds also exist concerning the knowledge parties have concerning the Church’s teaching and understanding of marriage as well as one’s ability to enter into and to fulfill the unique interpersonal relationship of marriage. These canonical grounds find concrete expression in the family and formative experiences of the parties to the marriage, their dating and engagement relationships as well as the cohabitation relationship.
Hearing for Petitioner
The Petitioner is scheduled to give testimony at the Tribunal offices in the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center with the assistance of a trained auditor. This process takes the format of an interview, based on the preliminary information already supplied to the Tribunal. This necessary interview exists to assist the Petitioner in making his or her petition to the Tribunal. The determination of whether grounds exist is generally made at this time.
Notification of the Respondent
The Respondent, or the other party to the marriage, is notified of the existence of this process, as well as the grounds, that is, the basis upon which the Tribunal is considering the request for a Declaration of Nullity. The Respondent is also informed of the officers of the court, as is the Petitioner. The Respondent is given the option of providing written testimony or oral testimony in the case. If the Respondent chooses not to participate in the process after two citations or notifications, the case may continue to proceed. If the Respondent agrees with the grounds and the reasons for the Petition and if the Respondent’s testimony is similar to the Petitioner’s testimony, then it is possible that the case can be heard in a shorter process called the “Brief Process,” or the “Bishop’s Process” given by Pope Francis. With this process, the testimony in the case, the advice of a Tribunal assessor and the comments of the Defender of the Bond (whose job is to uphold the validity of the marriage) go to the Bishop for a decision. If the Bishop judges the case to be proven, he then issues a brief decision for a Declaration of Nullity. If the Bishop judges the case not to be proven to him, the Bishop does not deny the petition. Instead, the Bishop sends the petition back to be judged in the normal process.
Testimony of Witnesses
After providing his or her testimony, the Petitioner is requested to provide the names of three or four witnesses who can complete a written questionnaire. These witnesses are asked to provide information regarding the parties’ family backgrounds, their dating and engagement relationships and their marital history. The witnesses can be family members or friends—ideally a combination of both is helpful.
Compilation of Testimony
When the testimony is assembled, the parties may inspect the testimony pertinent to the grounds in the case. This is known as the Publication of the Acts of the case.
After the testimony of the parties and the witnesses has been assembled it is not uncommon to schedule an appointment for the Petitioner with a court-appointed expert such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. The independent assessment of these consultants is beneficial in developing and evaluating potential grounds for individual cases.
Defender of the Bond
After all of the testimony has been compiled, the case is presented to the Defender of the Bond. The ministry or the work of the Defender is to present to the judges arguments in favor of upholding the validity of the marriage in question.
The case is then presented to a three-Judge panel (Tribunal) for a final decision. When the judges have reviewed the case, discussed it and arrived at a final decision, a sentence, or the results of their deliberations, is written. This sentence includes the basic facts and information of the marriage in question provided by the assembled testimony, a pertinent law section concerning the canonical grounds of the case and the judges’ decision, based upon the law of the Church and its application to the marriage in question.
If either party is opposed to the decision of the Philadelphia Tribunal, that is, if a Declaration of Nullity is granted or not granted, a formal appeal of this decision of the court of First Instance (Philadelphia) may be made to the Tribunal of Second Instance (Baltimore). Alternatively, an appeal can also be made to the highest Tribunal of the Church, the Roman Rota. There are costs involved for these actions. If there is no appeal of the Tribunal decision, that decision becomes effective immediately and documentation is sent to the parties.