QUAERITUR: About negative judgments for “annulments”

From a reader:

Archbishop Sheehan’s Pastoral Letter on Couples who are cohabitating was published in my church bulletin, ….  I belong in the third group. My husband, who is not Catholic, was married in the church in Diocese A. After 20 years his wife divorced him and I met and married him a few years later. He applied for an annulment in Diocese B and was denied. He then went to the tribunal in Diocese C who applied to Diocese A. Their reply was that Diocese B denied so they would too. I am 75 and my husband is 69. We have been trying for an annulment for the 9 years we have been married. Please help me.


These are not great questions to work on through the internet. But, this is probably a common enough problem that we could look at it for a bit and offer some points.

To that end, I wanted to engage the help of a good canonist whom I trust who has also exhibited a sound pastoral sense. Here is his answer when I passed the email along for his opinions.

A change in focus might be helpful here. We’re used to using the term “annulment” (which is not found in the Code of Canon Law) and the terminology of “getting an annulment.”

That’s not what happens. An annulment is not a “thing” that is either granted or denied. A declaration of nullity is issued if – and only if – sufficient evidence is produced to overturn the Church’s presumption that when a man and a woman say “I do” to each other, they mean what they say and that act of consent creates a marriage.

Perhaps an analogy might be useful. When one goes to a doctor, complaining of some discomfort, the doctor pokes and prods, does some tests, asks some questions and ultimately comes up with a diagnosis. He doesn’t “grant” a diagnosis, he makes a judgment based on the facts that are available to him. He starts with the presumption that this is a healthy person before him, but tests several hypotheses before concluding, “Yes, it seems that you’re suffering from scrofula.” If all of his tests turn up inconclusive, he may say, “I know you feel discomfort, but I cannot find anything wrong with you. I’m not declaring you to be healthy, but I’m stating that you haven’t been proven to be ill.”

This is similar to what a Tribunal does. A marriage is presented to the Court. At the outset, if this marriage was contracted between a man and a woman, objectively free to marry, of sufficient age, not hindered by any impediment – then the presumption the Tribunal begins with is “this is a valid marriage.”  The parties are asked to present evidence, witnesses are named and provide testimony, sometimes an expert is called in to help the Court assess the situation, the documents are scrutinized. Arguments, rebuttals, counter arguments are heard. The officials of the Court, following a procedure that has evolved over more than a thousand years, review the evidence and ultimately render a judgment. If the evidence presented is either inconclusive or insufficient to provide moral certitude that the marriage, which seemed valid, was, in fact, invalid – then the Court renders a negative decision. The presumption of validity has not been overturned. You may think the marriage is invalid, but you have not provided sufficient evidence to overturn the presumption of validity.

The decision of a Tribunal can sometimes be very hard for people to accept. Those who want a declaration of nullity, and truly believe that their marriage was invalid, can be crushed when they hear that a negative decision has been given. Those who believe their marriage to have been valid can feel betrayed and angered when an affirmative decision is given. Accusations can fly – the Judge is cold and unfeeling, the Judge ignored this set of facts, the Judge just wanted to please the other party, money was involved, or much worse.

A couple things need to be taken into consideration. The Church does not invest the Tribunal system with infallibility. Tribunals can and do make mistakes. It is regrettable, and something that all attempts are made to avoid (there are considerable “checks” placed in the Tribunal process to avoid making rash judgments). But if the Tribunal says your marriage is invalid and you know they’re wrong – you have the right to appeal, and even then, you shouldn’t lose faith in the Church.

Accepting a negative decision, when one wants an affirmative, can be even more difficult. You may firmly and fully believe that your marriage was invalid, but you have not been able to prove it to the Tribunal. It may be that the marriage, despite your belief, was valid. If so, nothing the Church can do can “invalidate” that marriage. Even when one party abandons the other, that does not give the abandoned party the right to have the marriage declared invalid. It can be a difficult and painful thing, but it can also be part of the Cross that God has asked a person to carry in this life.

In this specific case, it sounds like the man has not been able to provide sufficient proof to overturn the presumption that his first marriage was invalid. The fact that that first marriage lasted for 20 years strongly supports that presumption of validity, and the length of time since the marriage in question makes the investigation difficult. The couple may not be able to get the declaration of nullity they desire, and therefore cannot have their current civil marriage recognized in the Church. They should be in conversation with their pastor, who might determine that, if they are willing to live in perfect continence – as brother and sister – they could be readmitted to the reception of the Sacraments. This would only be possible if their situation is not well known in the parish and admitting them to the Sacraments would not cause scandal. Their willingness to live in continence should be sincere – God is not fooled. Even if they are unable to receive the Sacraments, they are still obliged to participate in the Mass.

I frequently refer people to the excellent discourse the Holy Father gave on July 25, 2005, to the clergy of the diocese of Aosta, in part addressing the situation of the divorced and remarried who, thus, are excluded from the Sacraments. In part, he says,

“Even if these people cannot go to sacramental Communion, they are not excluded from the love of the Church or from the love of Christ. A Eucharist without immediate sacramental Communion is not of course complete; it lacks an essential dimension. Nonetheless, it is also true that taking part in the Eucharist without Eucharistic Communion is not the same as nothing; it still means being involved in the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. It is still participating in the great Sacrament in its spiritual and pneumatic dimensions, and also in its ecclesial dimension, although this is not strictly sacramental.”

The discourse is here.

A long-winded response, but hopefully some bits of it might be useful!

Very useful indeed.

Thanks to the guest canonist!

I would like to suggest to people who have questions about “annulments” and about the processes involved, should get Dr. Edward Peters’ comprehensive and easy to follow book which presents questions and answers.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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