As a party interested in determining your marital status in the Catholic Church, you may submit a petition to the Church to initiate that process. As a result you, the petitioning party, become the petitioner. By default, your divorced spouse becomes the respondent in the proceedings before the tribunal. Below is just some of the information you should know about the process before submitting your case.
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 Tribunal of the Diocese of Cleveland assists the Bishop of Cleveland in accord with church law in carrying out his responsibility as the shepherd of the local Catholic community. Overseeing the ministry of the tribunal is a priest appointed by the bishop to be his judicial vicar. Qualified lay persons and clerics trained in church law are appointed by the bishop to serve on the tribunal. Individuals with a degree in canon law serve as judges who decide each case after evaluating the merits of the petition for a declaration of invalidity, and defenders of the bond whose responsibility is to safeguard the presumed validity of each marriage examined. Various other court officials contribute to the process at appropriate times.
Divorced Catholics who have not attempted remarriage outside of the Church are full members of the Church with the same rights and obligations as those of any other Catholic.
Catholics who are divorced and have attempted remarriage without a declaration of invalidity of their previous marriage are not free to receive the sacraments but are encouraged to practice their faith to the extent that they are able. Although, because of their present situation, they cannot receive Holy Communion, they are not currently ‘excommunicated’ as that term is properly understood in canon law. Like all other Catholics, those who have attempted (re)marriage outside of the Church are still obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and other Holy Days of Obligation.
Some individuals whose marital status in the Church needs to be clarified may not be Catholics. The Catholic Church presumes the validity of all marriages celebrated according to the rites of all religions, Christian and non-Christian, or even celebrated only civilly. Thus those of another religion (or no religion at all) who are divorced from their spouse must submit a petition for a declaration of invalidity to a church tribunal and receive an affirmative decision if they wish to marry a Catholic in a Catholic Church. The Church respects the marriages of non-Catholics and Catholics equally. The validity of every marriage is presumed until the contrary has been established.
A declaration of invalidity by a tribunal of the Catholic Church is a pronouncement based on church law and Catholic doctrine that the act of consent of a particular man and woman was lacking in qualities essential for a true and valid marriage to come into existence. To make such a pronouncement, church law is applied to the facts surrounding the marriage in question. After both parties are heard, witnesses have testified, and the defender of the bond has offered comments, the decision is made by a panel of three judges or in some cases a single judge. If the decision is reached that the act of consent in question was lacking or defective in some essential way, the tribunal acknowledges that fact by issuing a declaration of invalidity.
A declaration of invalidity is a declaration that a true marriage (as understood by the Catholic Church) never existed between the two parties. A side-effect of this declaration is that both parties are therefore free to marry. In the United States, no civil effects are connected to a declaration of invalidity issued by a ecclesiastical tribunal. Children born of a marriage that is later declared invalid are legitimate. Civil matters regarding child custody, child support and alimony, as well as the divorce itself, must be resolved before the petition for invalidity is submitted to the church tribunal.
Any person (petitioner) may submit a petition alleging the invalidity of his or her marriage to a church tribunal. The petition must contain the reason(s) why the marriage believed to be invalid. The other party (respondent) has a right to be notified of the petition and has a right to address the allegations made by the petitioner. Each of the parties has a right to name witnesses. The tribunal contacts the respondent as well as the witnesses submitted by each party. If a decision is given by the tribunal that is opposed by either or both parties, both the petitioner and the respondent have the right to appeal the decision to the usual appellate tribunal or to the Roman Rota.
A petitioner may approach a parish priest, deacon, or pastoral minister to begin the process. The parish minister serves as the petitioner’s representative (procurator) and assists the petitioner in preparing the initial statement to the tribunal that includes information regarding biographical data of both individuals, a history of the relationship, and an explanation of the difficulties experienced. The petitioner is asked to include the names and addresses of several witnesses, individuals who are familiar with the difficulties present in the courtship and marriage. The testimony of credible witnesses is essential in resolving the issue of an alleged invalid marriage.
The completed statement of the petitioning spouse is submitted to the tribunal by the petitioner’s procurator. Correspondence will follow from the tribunal to the respondent in which he or she will be asked to answer a series of questions. Witnesses are contacted and asked to respond to questions sent to them in the form of a questionnaire. The petitioner and the respondent are informed of each phase of the case. Once the information needed has been gathered, the parties and their procurators have the right to review the materials at the tribunal office. The defender of the bond then studies the case and offers to the assigned judge(s) observations as to the merit of the case. The judge(s) must evaluate the case and pronounce the decision. Both parties and their procurators have the right to read the decision of the judge(s) at the tribunal office. All affirmative decisions are sent for mandatory review to the appellate tribunal.
The validity of a marriage may be challenged if an individual questions whether a quality essential to marriage was absent from consent at the time of the wedding ceremony. Behavior during the courtship and, to a lesser extent, during the time of married life may give some indication that grounds of invalidity exist. Some forms of behavior such as physical abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, deviant sexual behavior, criminal activity, grave irresponsibility, mental illness, and persistent infidelity may indicate that valid marital consent was not exchanged by one or both parties. Beliefs about marriage contrary to Catholic doctrine may also indicate invalid consent. An intention to exclude children or contrary views of the permanence and fidelity inherent to marriage may also indicate that consent was not validly exchanged. Any infringement of a person’s free choice to marry, fraud, error regarding the identity of the spouse, or extreme internal or external pressure to marry may also indicate that consent was not exchanged validly.
Testimony gathered by the church tribunal is available only to the tribunal officials assigned to the case, the petitioner, the respondent, and their procurators. All materials relative to the trial are treated with the solemnity required by church law.
Due to the variety of cases submitted and the requirements of canon law, it is not possible to indicate a precise time within which a petition will be decided. The petitioner is advised that most cases take at least one year for a final decision to be made. The policy of the Diocese of Cleveland is that a parish or priest must not assign a date for a potential future wedding without notification that an affirmative decision has been ratified by the appellate tribunal. The parties are always free to contact their procurator regarding the status of a case.
Effective May 30, 2014, Bishop Richard Lennon, Bishop of Cleveland, has eliminated all fees for persons who are seeking a Declaration of Invalidity through the Diocese of Cleveland Tribunal. There are no costs or fees to be charged in the Diocese of Cleveland. This decision includes those cases where a petitioner may be referred to a court-appointed expert.
Persons who initially submit a case to the Diocese of Cleveland but who find their case must be heard by another diocese will fall under the billing policies of that tribunal which ultimately hears the case.
For additional information, please consult a priest, deacon, or lay ecclesial minister at any Catholic parish in the Diocese of Cleveland.
You may also contact the Tribunal of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland directly if necessary.
There are a few reasons why you might not have been contacted immediately by the Tribunal. Nevertheless, if you handed in your completed paperwork to your pastor (or other procurator) more than a month ago and have not received any communication from the Tribunal, please call us directly to check that your petition arrived safely.
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.
Understanding the above information, 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.
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