Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long does the declaration of nullity process take and why?
Normally, the process will close within a year and a half, but could draw out to two years. There are many steps that the tribunal must follow in order to ensure justice upon the dignity of the sacrament of matrimony. However, in most cases, the majority of the wait in the procedure rests upon the witnesses' diligence on returning their questionnaires. These questionnaires are given to the witnesses for the purpose of gathering correct information on the case. This information allows the judge to make an accurate sentence in the proceedings.
Q: Are annulments simply Catholic divorces?
No. A civil divorce is a dissolution of a civilly valid marriage contract. No human power can dissolve a valid, consummated sacramental marriage. This statement is rooted in the Church's scriptural, theological, and canonical traditions. A declaration of nullity is not a dissolution of marriage. Rather, it is a judicial pronouncement that a valid sacramental marriage had not been brought about on the wedding day, as the community of the faithful had presumed.
Q: May a divorced Catholic who has not re-married in the civil court receive Holy Communion?
Yes. A belief to the contrary is usually rooted in one of two misconceptions: first, that a divorced person is excommunicated and so cannot receive Holy Communion; or second, that divorce negatively affects one's status in the Church, and, without a declaration of nullity, one cannot receive Holy Communion. Both misconceptions are false. The excommunication idea derived from a Church council held in 1884 that imposed a penalty of excommunication on any Catholic who divorced and then remarried. This is no longer the case. The law is perfectly clear: the divorced Catholic, who has not remarried in the civil court, is free to receive communion. A divorce only impacts upon one's status in civil law; it has no impact upon one's status in the Church. The State dissolves the civil contract of marriage with divorce, thus rendering the parties civil-law status as single. However, the Church holds that a marriage is a valid union until proven otherwise in a Church court (tribunal).
Q: Is it true that marriages of long standing, with children, can be declared null?
Yes. The Church affords any divorced person the right to petition for a declaration of nullity. The length of the marriage or presence of children does not prevent the acceptance of a petition. However, the longer the duration of the marriage, the more difficult it is to overturn the presumption. Every case requires witness testimony. The presumption of validity cannot normally be overturned on the testimony of one party. There must be corroborative proof. Thus, the further one moves from the wedding day, the more difficult it is to obtain witnesses who are still alive, able to be contacted, or even remember the day.
Q: Does the Church declare null the marriages of non-Catholics; whether Christian or unbaptized and why?
Yes. If both the bride and groom are baptized non-Catholics, the marriage is a Christian sacramental marriage. If only one or either of the parties is a baptized non-Catholic, the marriage is a good and natural non-sacramental marriage. In either case, the marriage is recognized as valid in Church law. The Church laws that govern the form of marriage for Catholics do not bind Non-Catholics. As long as a man and woman exchange consent before their proper religious leader, their marriage is considered a valid sacrament by the Catholic Church. Once the Catholic Church recognizes a marriage as a valid sacrament, any question of invalidity must come before a Church tribunal if a Catholic is involved in a future marriage.
Q: Do declarations of nullity render the children illegitimate?
No. A judicial sentence that declares the nullity of a marriage does not affect the legitimacy of children born of that union. Any statement or belief to the contrary is simply wrong. Tragically, it is a common misconception that a declaration of nullity makes the children illegitimate in the eyes of the faith community. The beginning of this misconception is rooted in the term 'annulment' when referring to the declaration of nullity of a marriage. The word is inappropriate when discussing proceedings of nullity in a Church tribunal. In fact it is not even used in the law of the Church. The word 'annulment' implies that you are taking something and wiping it away, so as to erase it completely. The relationship between spouses, which brought about the children can never be erased. 'Legitimacy' is a term used by many legal systems throughout the world. The term indicates knowledge of a child's paternity. The maternity of a child is usually obvious. At the time of the birth, the legally presumed relationship between the child's father and mother was indeed that of husband and wife. A declaration of nullity does not deny this, so the legitimacy of the child cannot be affected. The Church promotes the dignity of children in many arenas, including its legal structures. It is imperative to state clearly and unambiguously that children born of a marriage that has been declared null remain legitimate. There is no room for misconceptions.
Q: When it comes to an affirmative decision, is it true that it only matters who you are or who you know?
No. The name or position of the petitioner, respondent or any witness does not matter. Everyone is treated with the same procedural rights in law. No one is penalized for being well known and no one is penalized for being unknown. Everyone is treated fairly and in accord with the norm of law. In fact, no officer of the court is allowed to take part in a case in which there is a family relationship, close friendship, animosity or the desire to profit or avoid a loss. This law exists to protect the integrity of the process and to avoid any glimpse of scandal.
Q: Does the declaration of nullity give the freedom to both parties to remarry in the Church?
Yes. The decision in the affirmative, renders both parties involved, 'free status' to marry within the Catholic Church. In most cases, the grounds are set on the part of one of the involved parties, but this does not signify that the individuals are being judged. It is the validity of the sacrament that is in question.
Q: Does the financial status of an individual factor into the processing of the case?
No. The Catholic Church gives equal opportunity to all of Her children. Money does not affect the speed of the procedure or its successful completion. Nor does the inability of a petitioner to share part of the costs of the process interfere with the possibility of obtaining a declaration of nullity. The Diocese of Corpus Christi makes special arrangements for the needs of the people. There are obviously extensive costs involved in maintaining the tribunal. The annual budget of the tribunal exceeds $110,000 and covers items such as salaries, office equipment, and other supplies. Income from the nullity procedure fees subsidizes most, but not all of these expenses.
Q: Why does the Respondent have to be notified?
The Tribunal must notify the former spouse, who is called the "Respondent" or at least make the effort to do so. Church law and, indeed, basic justice require that you have the opportunity to know about the nullity petition and to defend the validity of the marriage. For this reason the Tribunal asks for the contact information of both spouses involved. While the Tribunal does ask that the Petitioner notify the Respondent to expect to receive a letter from the Tribunal, it does not require that the spouses have face-to-face contact in the Tribunal. But the Tribunal must make the effort to extend to both parties, the right to be heard. This right to be heard includes the opportunity to know about the marriage, to name witnesses to be contacted, to be informed as to the progress of the case and to challenge the final decision. One may choose not to exercise this right to be heard. However, that choice will not prevent the Tribunal from completing its investigation. On the other hand, if one of the parties is denied the opportunity to be heard, he can challenge the final decision at any time in the future.
Q: What is a "Canonical Lack of Form?"
Only Catholics are bound to the form of marriage-a man and a woman exchange their consent before a legitimate priest or deacon and two witnesses. The law stipulates that a baptized Catholic, who has not left the Church by a formal act must exchange consent according to the proper form. So, for example, if two Catholics or one Catholic and one non-Catholic marry in front of a justice of the peace or another minister (without permission), this is not a valid marriage in the Church.
Q: What is a "Canonical Defect of Form?"
The law states that marriage is brought about through (1) the consent of the bride and groom, (2) legitimately manifested (3) by those qualified according to the law. The form may be present, but defective in either of two ways: First, the ceremony was celebrated without at least two witnesses. Second, the priest, deacon or delegated layperson that asked for and received the consent of the parties was not duly qualified to do so.
Q: What is "Determining Grounds?"
In a formal case, the tribunal investigates the validity of the marriage in question. "Determining the grounds" is the second step in the process after the formal petition of the Petitioner. In order for the tribunal to establish the basis of the decision, a judge is obligated to determine on what grounds the declaration of nullity will be founded upon. There are numerous grounds which the judge may find acceptable in the petitioning of a case.
Q: What is a "Formal Case?"
A formal case is that which investigates the validity of a presumed valid marriage that is recognized as such by the Catholic Church. In a word, these are those cases where the parties exchanged consent in the proper form.
Q: What is a dispensation?
There are twelve main impediments in the Catholic Church that prohibits an individual from entering into a valid marriage. A dispensation is a relaxation of one or more of these particular ecclesiastical laws (two of these are never dispensed). The Catholic Church, for various reasons, grants the dispensations. In general, dispensations are requested for Catholic marriages involving an unbaptized person, blood relations, or legal relations.
Q: What is a Sanatio in Radice?
This is a process that renders an invalid marriage valid. The Catholic Church for serious reasons grants this. The legal theory behind this concept is more intricate than simple convalidation. In this instance there is not a need for the parties to renew their consent because the consent is not what is being called into question. Yet, even though the consent was not defective, the legal manifestation of consent on the wedding day was defective, thus rendering the marriage invalid. The parties may or may not be aware of the legal defect. Such defects occurring on the wedding day include an undispensed impediment that rendered the parties unqualified by law to place consent; the parties did not observe the proper form of canonical form of marriage, or a defect of form.