Canon law on dissolution of a marriage

Friday, Feb. 14, 2020
Canon law on dissolution of a marriage + Enlarge
By Linda Petersen
Intermountain Catholic

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Catholics are divorced and would like to remarry in the Church, and/or to be able to receive the sacraments again. Others are partners in a civil marriage or common-law marriage and wish for the Church to convalidate their relationship. While Catholics in these circumstances are encouraged to participate in Mass, they are prohibited from receiving the sacraments, including the Eucharist and Reconciliation. (In imminent danger of death they can receive the Anointing of the Sick and would not be denied the rite of Christian burial). Both groups often have many questions about what is involved with having their marriage blessed by the Church.

While most Catholics understand the canonical process of declaration on invalidity of marriage, commonly known as annulment, “Not everyone has to go through the annulment process,” said the Very Rev. Langes J. Silva, JCD, STL, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Salt Lake City. “Some of the cases can be decided by administrative processes because they are not marriages that have created a bond between people.” In those cases, petitioners are encouraged to apply to have a declaration of nullity of marriage by the Church. (See sidebar, right).

The primary grounds for annulment are lack of due discretion (immaturity on the part of a spouse) or an incapacity to assume the essential obligations of marriage due to psychological reasons. Other grounds include when a spouse cannot be faithful, where one of the spouses refuses to have children; or he/she is not fully committed to the marriage.  Another example may be where a person enters a marriage unaware of a personal characteristic of the spouse, such as alcoholism, which they would never normally support.

Regardless of how long it has been since the marriage dissolved, the process can be very painful but nevertheless healing, said Mary Reade, a member of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Tribunal.

Reade is a licensed clinical social worker who meets with petitioners when they are seeking an annulment based on their or their former spouse’s inability to fulfill the obligations of marriage because of psychological reasons.

“The reason it’s so painful is because they’ve put all of it behind them but not everyone has done emotional work around it,” Reade said. “People are shocked and amazed at the painful feelings they still have over what happened.”

Meeting with Reade can give the petitioner the chance to work through the emotional pain.

“It’s like reopening a wound that has healed,” she said. Participants often also get a better understanding of why they made the choices they did, she said.

The opportunity to discuss what happened and to process it with the guidance of a professional can help a petitioner make amends, if needed, or work through the pain, she said. Reade said she often sees a spiritual change in the petitioners she meets with, something that comes after the disillusionment born after the failed relationship is resolved.

“I think people often feel a sense of relief and peace after talking about it,” she said.

Annulment is an entirely written process. The petitioner should work through his/her parish. Then, with the help of what is known as a canonical advocate (priest, deacon or religious), they prepare their formal petition. He/she will need to provide baptism certificates, marriage certificate, the divorce decree and the last known address of his/her former spouse, because the tribunal is required by Church law to inform that person of this proceeding.

The application should also include testimony about the relationship, its history and what led to the breakdown of the marriage, along with a contact list of preferably at least four persons who are familiar with the marriage. (Just one substantial witness is required).

The judicial vicar then reviews the case and establishes if there are canonical grounds for the annulment. The tribunal then notifies the two parties, who have 30 days to respond and, if they choose, contest the proceedings in writing. Then the judicial vicar proposes the canonical laws on which the case will be adjudicated.  

The petitioner and witnesses may receive additional questionnaires asking more detailed information. If the annulment petition is based on psychological grounds, the petitioner will be evaluated by experts in that field. Once this information is received, the judge closes the case for submittal of proof and opens the case for publication to the parties.

Each party may read the documentation but is encouraged not to, Fr. Silva said.

The case is then sent to a representative for the Church, called the defender of the bond, who will present a written argument for the validity of the marriage to the judge who reviews all the material and issues a decision.

The majority of cases take six to eight months to adjudicate. Petitioners are asked to pay $225 toward covering the cost of the annulment process. Fees may be waived if there is economic hardship.

“I believe this is a healing process through which the person can have the opportunity to assess their life and establish responsibility for things that have been done in the past, that were not properly done,” Fr. Silva said. “So it is an opportunity for the person to open their life to that healing process. At the same time, it is a moment for the Church to have compassion and mercy for people.”

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