ASK FATHER: Date for 2nd marriage set at parish before Tribunal decision

From a reader…


My in laws divorced one year ago. My father in law is remarrying one month from now. He filed the annulment paperwork late last year and was told by the deacon handling it that it would “come through” last month. Nothing yet. My husband and I are disturbed by the fact that his parish (not in our diocese) allowed him to set the wedding date and complete marriage preparation courses even though he is already married in the eyes of the church. Now we’re concerned about what may occur if the annulment is not granted in time. We are considering writing to the bishop of that diocese to express our concern about this situation. It really doesn’t make sense in light of the church’s teaching on marriage and annulment. Do you agree that a letter to the bishop is warranted? Or are we being too nitpicky since no sacraments have been given falsely?

First, allow me to nitpick.  Some people, even informed people working in the Church who ought to know better,  use phrases like “granting an annulment” (or not “granting one”, as the case may be).  This is imprecise terminology which leads to confusion. The Church does not “grant” an annulment as though an annulment were some sort of a prize, or honor, or distinction… or a divorce.  Rather, the Church, through Her tribunal system of educated professionals, examines the facts presented in an orderly way and then makes a declaration based on those facts. It’s similar to a doctor making a diagnosis. We don’t say, “Doctor Bombay granted me a diagnosis of rickets.”

If we stop using unhelpful terminology, we might stem the tide of looking at a declaration of nullity as some sort of reward that the Church either kindly bestows or stingily withholds, or indulgently squanders or righteously refuses to grant. Rather, if we use more precise terminology, such as “The Tribunal determined the marriage was null,” or even better “The Tribunal was able to find sufficient proof of nullity,” or “The Tribunal was not convinced the marriage was null”, then we demonstrate a better grasp of reality.

Anyway, it is a Really Bad Idea™ for a parish (priest or staff) to set a date for a marriage until it is certain that both parties are free to marry.

In this case, no date should have been set until and unless the Tribunal issued a declaration of freedom to marry, stating not only that the previous marriage had been declared null, but also that no restrictions were placed on the party.  In some cases, even if the marriage is proven null, the Tribunal has the ability to place a restriction on one or both parties, stating certain conditions which need to be met (e.g., psychological counseling) before a subsequent marriage can take place.

Ideally, Catholics should not consider moving towards a prospective marriage until their freedom to marry has been established. That said, we do not live in an ideal world.  “Kind” pastors who ignore these norms in order to give people what they think they want end up creating more problems than they solve.

The question you ask is whether a letter to the bishop is warranted in this case.

Perhaps, but there are a lot of variables that come into play.

On the one hand, the bishop should know what is going on in his parishes.  Was this, for example, a one time stupid mistake? Or is this part of a larger pattern of imprudence or disobedience?  Some bishops might act swiftly and mete out the appropriate discipline. Some bishops, themselves of the mistakenly “pastoral” school of thought, might react by putting a fire under the tribunal to grind out a decision more quickly, thinking that will eliminate the scandal. Yet other bishops might just shrug and ignore the matter.

I think a more helpful course of action would, first, to have a conversation with your father-in-law. Ask what his plans are should the declaration of nullity either not be issued, or be issued after the date of the proposed wedding, or be issued with a restriction.  Perhaps a phone call to the pastor asking why a date was set without the freedom of both parties to marry being established is warranted. The response you receive from your father-in-law and from the pastor in question might help answer your question of whether a letter to the bishop is appropriate.

Whatever course of action you take, do it prayerfully, with patience, and without acrimony or an accusatory tone.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    It used to be before any marriage ceremony, the pastor was required to publish the Marriage Banns so that anyone who had information regarding ineligibility to marry could go forward to the pastor and state so. If the ceremony is a month away, perhaps going to the pastor (since this is the deacon looking after the marriage prep and date setting) is warranted? As it is right now, the couple is not free to enter into marriage. Is there not some responsibility for those aware of this to step up and say something?

    [At my home parish, the banns were read at Masses on Sundays.]

  2. dans0622 says:

    From beginning to end, a good answer, Father. I’m most impressed by your trademark of “really bad idea.” Tribunal staff are never happy to hear about such wedding plans. That unhappiness might even rise to a level which prompts a notification to the Bishop, especially if there is a pattern for one parish/priest. (Unless, of course, the tribunal is also in the wrong, somehow.) In my own opinion, it is usually difficult for a third party, such as the correspondent, to make much headway in these circumstances. I agree: it would make most sense to start with the father-in-law and, if needed, go from there.

  3. surritter says:

    I don’t think you were tough enough, Fr. Z. Until a declaration of nullity is solidly in hand, a man or woman shouldn’t even date. [I was not asked about “dating”.] Why? Because they are supposed to presume that it’s a true, valid/licit marriage right up until the declaration is made, even though civilly divorced.
    So the pastor should not only have disallowed a wedding day to be set, he should have gently counseled the man on how to observe the proper respect for the sacrament. This would ensure that if/when the declaration of nullity is given, the upcoming marriage will be on a solid Catholic footing.

  4. Volanges says:

    I saw this happen in my parish, with a couple who are my friends.

    All the marriage preparation was done before the decree of nullity was received. The wedding date was set for Dec. 31. The decree from the Tribunal of First Instance was received but the one from the Second Instance didn’t arrive in time.

    The couple married civilly on the planned date. The priest who had done the paperwork for the annulment was present and after the vows were exchanged he got up and expressed his joy at their marriage and gave them his blessing! I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

    Four days later we received the message at the Parish office that the decree had come through from the national Tribunal and that a dispensation for disparity of cult had been granted.

    I’m happy to say that they did regularize their situation a few years later. Then he went through R.C.I.A and was baptized. They are now very involved in their parish. Because the priest didn’t follow canon law and the note on the initial decree not to do anything until the second decree was received, they spent two years in a marriage they knew was invalid but which didn’t seem bad to them because of the priest’s behaviour at the ceremony.

  5. Fr. John says:

    I think things like this happen not infrequently. My wife has a Catholic co-worker who was married previously and is pursuing an annulment. She and her new fiance set a date for the wedding and sent out invitations a long time ago. The annulment process hasn’t yet concluded and the date is approaching, so their priest gave them the number of a Protestant minister who could do the wedding and told them to go ahead, and then said that when the annulment comes through, he’ll privately bless the wedding.

  6. APX says:

    Fr. John,

    That’s abhorrent to read. God forbid anyone would want to do the humble thing and cancel the wedding and tell their guests they eff’d up and will reimburse them any expenses non-refundable they paid to attend the wedding. I should go in to selling wedding insurance.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I think things like this happen not infrequently.”

    I can’t ask this question long enough or loudly enough: why? It would seem to me that an ounce of prevention would be worth a pound of cure – or, perhaps better stated: an hour of catechesis is worth years of doubt and regret.

    Alas, there seems to be so much confusion between the civil concepts of marriage and the Church’s concepts of marriage among many people, these days.

    The Chicken

  8. bookworm says:

    If the “annulment paperwork” was filed “late last year” (guessing that means November or December) and the deacon said it would “come through” by March, that’s an awfully short timeline to promise resolution of a formal annulment case involving testimony to a tribunal, etc. Could this perhaps have been a lack/defect of form case, a prior bond case, or a Pauline or Petrine Privilege case in which one only has to verify certain documents or facts? If it were, then a 6-month or less timeline for resolution might make sense, and perhaps there has simply been a glitch or unexpected delay in processing the necessary documents. I know the OP says that her father in law is “already married in the eyes of the Church”, which would seem to indicate that one or both of her in-laws were Catholic and were married in the Church, but we don’t know this for sure.

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