Your divorced spouse has submitted a petition to this Church tribunal requesting that an ecclesiastical declaration of invalidity be made regarding your marriage. This makes you the ‘respondent.’ Experience has shown that the other party (you, in this instance) often has many questions regarding this process and his/her rights during these proceedings. We hope that the information below will clarify some of these issues.
The Catholic Church teaches that the covenant of marriage is a lifelong and exclusive partnership of a man and a woman. Marriage is a holy vocation or calling that by its very nature promotes the good of both spouses and is open to the procreation and education of children. Christ has raised marriage between two baptized persons to the level of a sacrament.
Marriage comes into being by the free and unimpeded act of giving marital consent by both spouses. Church law presumes all marriages valid and thus indissoluble as long as both parties remain alive. While many civil governments have created divorce as a means to end a legally contracted marriage, Catholics believe that the marriage bond, by its very nature, cannot be dissolved by any civil power. Thus the marriage bond remains in place until it can be established that valid marital consent was not exchanged.
THE PETITIONER: The person requesting a Declaration of Invalidity. In the instance where you are named as the respondent, your former spouse is the petitioner.
THE RESPONDENT: Term used to identify the other party in the process.
WITNESSES: Names of the individuals submitted by the petitioner and/or respondent who may be able to offer insights as to why a given marriage has failed. Witnesses are often parents, relatives, or close friends of the couple. Witnesses are asked questions regarding the important elements that should be present in any marriage.
EXPERTS: Counselors or other professionals with whom one or both of the parties of a marriage consulted. Counseling and professional records are not requested without a release of information form signed by the party(s) involved. Professional records are confidential.
The court may also ask a party, usually the petitioner, to consult with one of the Tribunal’s own experts in order to provide more clarity on certain aspects of the marriage.
PROCURATORS: The petitioner and respondent may designate in writing a priest, deacon, or approved lay ecclesial minister to represent and assist them before the tribunal. The tribunal can suggest a procurator if necessary.
Church law recognizes your right to make a statement regarding your former marriage and your right to introduce witnesses. You are allowed a reasonable amount of time to make your statement to the tribunal. You have the right to be assisted by a procurator for advice and pastoral support. You have the right to view and comment upon the evidence gathered. You have the right to appeal against a decision.
All material gathered by the tribunal is treated confidentially as required by Church law. Only those who have a right to the information are permitted to read it (the parties, their procurators, and tribunal officials). You have the right to respond to the allegations of your former spouse, just as your former spouse has a right to review statements which you have made as part of this investigation. All officials of the tribunal, including office personnel, are bound by oath to keep all information confidential.
When the information gathering phase of the process is completed, the parties and their procurators are informed and given a two week period in which they have the right to review the evidence and offer additional data and/or observations regarding the case. The case is then forwarded to the Defender of the Bond who is required to argue for the validity of the marriage, if appropriate, and to guarantee the rights of both parties and the Church. The judge or panel of three judges to whom the case has been assigned will render the decision after a thorough study of all the material.
A decision may be affirmative or negative. An affirmative decision means that the marriage has been declared invalid. A negative decision means that the invalidity of the marriage has not been established; therefore, the marriage still binds in the eyes of the Church.
Church law requires that every affirmative decision which is made by this tribunal be reviewed by an appellate court/tribunal. A new panel of three judges can either ratify/confirm the first decision or admit the case to a process of gathering additional information after which a second decision is made.
Church law recognizes the right to appeal. The petitioner has the right to appeal a negative decision. You, as the respondent, as well as the Defender of the Bond, have the right to appeal an affirmative or negative decision. All appeals are heard by the proper court of second instance, either in Cincinnati or Toledo. An appeal may also be made to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota.
If a marriage is declared invalid (and the decision is confirmed by the appellate tribunal, if applicable), and if there are no restrictions attached , the usual procedure of preparing for marriage in the Catholic Church may be started with the local parish priest or pastoral minister. No plans for future marriages should be made before that time – not least because there is no guarantee that the first marriage will be found invalid.
Church law has always protected the legitimacy of children because they were born into a presumed valid marital relationship.
Furthermore, there are no civil effects to a Church declaration of invalidity in the United States. Therefore a formal ecclesiastical declaration of marital invalidity does not affect the civil legitimacy of children. It cannot be used to question a child’s paternity. It cannot be used to influence a civil court to set or change the terms of a civil divorce, child custody, support or property settlement.
Due to a variety of factors, it is impossible to predict the length of time for processing a petition. No two cases are the same. One case may be completed in several months. Another may take a year or longer. Generally, cases may be completed in around one year.
The Most Rev. Richard G. Lennon, Bishop of Cleveland has decided effective 30 May 2014 that there will no longer be any fees for those individuals who attempt to determine their marital status via the Tribunal of the Diocese of Cleveland.
You are welcome to contact this office and speak with a member of the professional staff. Or you may wish to speak with a Catholic priest, deacon, or lay ecclesial minister of the Diocese of Cleveland.
Jesus taught that marriage is indissoluble. Once people get married, they are married until one of them dies, even if they someday separate, justifiably or otherwise. Since they remain married for life, if one of them goes on to live in the manner of husband and wife with someone else, then he or she is living in an ongoing state of adultery. A married person’s vocation is to lifelong fidelity to the marital covenant, even when (in cases of abandonment or necessary separation) that means living as though celibate. Christ knew our human nature and he knew that this was a hard teaching. He was already challenged and ridiculed for it in his own time, but he did not back down from it one bit.
With that being said, there are certain marriages that are invalid from the start. They have the outward appearance of a marriage and are usually entered into in good faith, but because of some impediment, some defect of consent, or some problem in the form of the marriage celebration, they are never really marriages at all. If there was really no marriage at all, and if that fact is publicly proven, then those two parties are free to marry someone else. The Church and society as a whole have the responsibility to uphold and support couples in their marriage vows even when (especially when) one or both of them no longer want to be married, which is why there has to be proof of nullity before a new marriage could be recognized.
The spouses themselves, let alone one of them, cannot simply decide privately that the marriage is invalid and that they are free to move on. The marriage nullity process is a judicial process developed over the centuries to allow people who believe that their marriage was invalid to attempt to prove that fact, all the while safeguarding the rights of both parties and upholding the dignity and indissolubility of marriage. A declaration of nullity does not and cannot dissolve an existing marriage; rather it is an official declaration by the Church that it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a given marriage was invalid from the start. When a marriage is actually invalid, declaring the nullity of the marriage is a good and just thing.