In our world today there are many people who find themselves shattered by the failure of a marriage. Sometimes divorce is the only option to those who have often suffered for many years. In other cases the dream is over almost before it has begun. There are as many scenarios as there are people.
Who can apply for an annulment of such a marriage? Anyone – including non-Catholics – who have had a failed marriage and wish to enter a new marriage in the Catholic Church. Sometimes it is simply to know whether their marriage was or is valid.
Many Catholics are not aware that the Church is here to assist them when they find themselves single once more. Often they believe they are no longer welcome at Mass and that there is no pathway for a happier future, particularly when they have met another person with whom they would like to make a lifetime commitment.
The word ‘Tribunal’ itself is sometimes a barrier to those most needing assistance. Our staff are people familiar with the trauma of divorce, a loss which is akin to grieving the death of a loved one. How can I approach the Tribunal? Where is it? What about my kids? Where do I start?
To begin, the Tribunal is not a group of three severe looking judges waiting to pronounce a verdict on your life. The staff are friendly, well trained and devoted to giving you the information and assistance you may need when considering the next step in your life and your position in living your faith. Each interview, from the beginning, is conducted one-on-one. Everything is confidential and not publicised beyond the Tribunal.
The completion of a case is usually six to eight months from the time of application. This can vary depending on the availability of witnesses and the complexity of the case.
The process can seem daunting at first, but we can break it down for you into simple steps to follow.
We begin by talking with you about your particular circumstances. You will need to provide copies of baptism, marriage and divorce certificates and an outline of your story. We can assist you with writing that story or you may choose to write it yourself, using the guidelines provided.
From the details provided a petition is drawn up which will contain the grounds for nullity on which the case is based. These grounds are varied and contained in the Canon Law of the Church. We will explain the grounds most appropriate to your case and you can ask any questions.
Most people are concerned with ‘raking up’ their past hurts and issues. This is a reality and in our experience, with a listening ear, the result is usually a positive one, because we are not here to judge the person, only the validity of the marriage. It is important to remember it is not a ‘blame game’.
People are also often concerned when we have to contact former spouses. This is a requirement of the law and it is a matter of justice. There were two people involved in the marriage and both have the right to put their point of view forward. We call this the ‘right of defense’ as no one would want to learn of the annulment of their marriage ‘second hand’ as it were.
Often the respondent, that is the person who is not the applicant, chooses not to take part and that is okay too, as long as they are given the opportunity. Sometimes respondents cannot be found due to having moved, relocated and, in the case of some women, having civilly remarried and changed their name. These are issues which the Tribunal staff will deal with after explaining the process to the applicant.
When is a good time to apply? Well, it’s not immediately after the door has slammed, nor is it necessarily immediately after the divorce decree is issued. It may be necessary to give yourself time to grieve, to evaluate what has happened and to settle into new routines with the support of family and friends.
Some people come to us because they are ready for a new relationship, others because they want to clarify their relationship with the Church. Sometimes it is simply because a civil divorce does not acknowledge the time and effort that may have gone into a marriage that finally became unbearable. The Tribunal staff will listen and will guide you through the process. We are not counsellors, but we are fellow travellers on this faith journey.
Finally, do not simply believe the stories or advice which some people are only too willing to relate without any foundation or knowledge of the process for nullity. If you have a question, call the Tribunal and we will answer your questions truthfully. Maybe a well-meaning person has told you that an annulment is not possible for you. The reality is that you have the right to ask for the status of your marriage to be tested by the people who know the law of the Church and are committed to assisting you, enabling you to be at peace with your decision and to be in full communion with the Church.
Sue Rivett is a canon lawyer and director of the Interdiocesan Tribunal of Adelaide (SA & NT)