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. The Church can examine the presumed valid marriage bond to see if the bond really existed. A Declaration of Nullity is declared by the Church if the marriage in question is judged to have been null and void from the very beginning, thus, enabling the persons to marry in the Catholic Church. The Tribunal, through the annulment process, exists to help people participate more fully in the sacramental life of the Catholic 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 civil 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 Archdiocese of Philadelphia is where the Petitioner or Respondent lives or where the wedding took place. 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 during the marriage.
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 Petitioner is required to provide the Tribunal with the address of the Respondent, or the other party to the marriage. If an address cannot be acquired then an explanation must be provided to the Tribunal as to why that is so and what steps were taken to locate the Petitioner’s former spouse. The Tribunal will cite the Respondent directly regarding this process so no contact is necessary between the Petitioner and the Respondent.
The Respondent is notified by the Tribunal 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 testimony, written or oral, in the case. If the Respondent chooses not to participate in the process after two notifications the case may continue to proceed.
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 testimonies of the parties and the witnesses have been assembled it is not uncommon for the Tribunal 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 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.