ASK FATHER: Petrine Privilege or usual “annulment” procedure? Help!

From a reader…


Is it a better option for us to seek a Petrine Privilege rather than go through the usual annulment procedure if my husband was not baptized for his 1st marriage or his marriage to me? His 1st wife was baptized but not religious or monogamous. I have recently converted to Catholicism, and he will allow me to practice my faith without hindrance. We have been “married” for 31 years & have been living as brother/sister for 14 months. The pressure on our relationship is extraordinary. Please help! My priest suggested I contact you with this question.

Your question brings up a difficult pastoral point that comes up with some regularity.

Reverend Fathers: Before baptizing someone, or receiving them into the Church, make sure their marital status is clear!  If you have questions, call the local tribunal or a trusted canonist.  We mustn’t guide people into difficult situations, and we shouldn’t baptize or receive an adult into the Church and then, later, try to straighten out a problematic marriage situation. Get the marriage situation regularized FIRST!  Then proceed with the baptism/profession of faith/confirmation/reception.

Now to the question.

A Petrine privilege, or privilege of the faith, is an indult whereby the Holy Father intervenes, using his authority as Vicar of Christ, to dissolve a non-sacramental marriage so that one of the parties can marry in the Church.

Most Tribunals recommend that people in situations like this pursue a declaration of nullity first. There are both practical and theological reasons for this.

Practically, the process of determining whether a marriage could be declared null takes place locally. Usually, this can be done in about 18 months. A privilege of the faith case, on the other hand, can be more complex.  It involves sending the documentation over to the Holy See.  It can take longer.

Theologically, it is best before asking the Holy Father if he is willing to wield the awesome Power of the Keys (remember that this is a privilege we’re asking for not a right – the Holy Father can, for various reasons, deny the request), to see if the marriage can be proven to be null. If it’s a null marriage, then the Pope need not dissolve it: it was never established in the first place.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    In my opinion, it is a good idea to consult the Tribunal with this question. In some (arch)dioceses, it is faster to get a petrine privilege than it is to go through the full nullity process. In one Tribunal I worked at, there was a mini department dedicated to Petrine Privileges precisely because it was easier and faster to process and receive back from Rome. The chancery processing the Petrine Privileges should be familiar with the process and have everything completely prepared otherwise the back and forth with Rome can be very time consuming.

  2. madisoncanonist says:

    From a practical standpoint, I think you’re right: if the marriage is capable of dissolution but there is also a strong likelihood that it is null, it will normally make the most sense to pursue a declaration of nullity first.
    On the other hand, there’s canon 1681, which is elaborated in article 153 of Dignitas Connubii, and which addresses the similar question of what should be done if, during the course of a marriage nullity process, it comes out that the marriage might be unconsummated and therefore (even though valid) capable of dissolution. It says that whenever “a very probable doubt emerges that consummation of the marriage did not occur” then with the parties’ consent the tribunal can suspend the marriage nullity process and carry out the process to request a dispensation super rato. While the canon only speaks about what *can* be done and not what *should* be done, it seems to imply a preference for pursuing a dissolution.

  3. lampada says:

    Also, come to think of it, the Pauline Privilege is likewise a privilege and not a right. Yet this is a privilege routinely granted by the local ordinaries. I would say that just because something is a privilege is not a reason to make it rare. Think of all the privileges we need to have a functioning Church. Ordinations, profession of vows, and consecration of virgins come to mind as necessary privileges for the Church. If we have a right to request either an examination of our marital state via Tribunal or we have a right to petition for a privilege, who are we to say people should do it one way versus another?

  4. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Canon 1681 is an odd one. It has but shallow roots in canon law and reflects, perhaps, an assumption that decrees of nullity are all but impossible to obtain. I am not sure how appropriate it is today. Anyway, to Pater’s points, he is correct and it lets me add one more reason to consider a nullity petition first: the judicial process might identify others issues and factors that can lead to matrimonial problems (even if not nullity, but maybe them too) which, if left unaddressed, could impact a future marriage. The administrative Petrine route is less likely to consider these factors.

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “Also, come to think of it, the Pauline Privilege is likewise a privilege and not a right. Yet this is a privilege routinely granted by the local ordinaries.” Careful, lampada. The conditions for invoking the Pauline P are verified by local ordinaries, but it is not granted by them.

  6. J.M.C. says:

    My thought is that the question of whether to try for a Petrine or Pauline privileged before petitioning for a declaration of nullity would depend on which grounds you intended to base the petition of nullity.

    Some grounds (like the infamous “grave defect of discretion of judgment” mentioned in can. 1095) are very hard to prove juridically, especially if the marriage in question occurred many years ago. If a marriage fit the criteria for a Petrine or Pauline privilege, but didn’t have a very clear and easily provable ground for a declaration of nullity, asking Rome for a Petrine privilege might actually be the faster and easier process.

  7. dans0622 says:

    It’s always beneficial to ask Fr. Z for input but the person should approach the local tribunal ASAP. The “Favor of the Faith” process is straightforward but does have absolutely essential steps and requirements. Some diocesan personnel have little to no experience with the process: they might struggle mightily to get everything in order so that the Holy See will not send the file back to fix errors or supply missing evidence. They are probably more comfortable and competent (at least regarding procedure) with the nullity process and won’t seriously consider a dissolution.

  8. Hidden One says:

    If the questioner’s husband’s previous wife was baptized Catholic, there would seem to be a good chance that that wedding was not celebrated in a Catholic church… the paperwork for declaring that null is very swift indeed.

  9. ediehills says:

    Thank you everyone for your responses and helpful insights.

  10. Markus says:

    Hire a good, highly recommended Canon lawyer. It will 15 years next month that my wife and I did. It has been the happiest and most blessed years of our lives.

  11. dwengerpriest says:

    I would just point out that, barring any complications, the PF cases run through our Tribunal take 1 year like clockwork. 6 months of instruction locally and 6 months for the CDF to return an answer.

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