The staff of the Nashville Diocesan Tribunal offers this information to the faithful of the Diocese whose marriages have ended, and who feel that those marriages were never true and valid unions in the eyes of God. It is our hope that this information will dispel many of the common misconceptions about annulments and the nullity process.
What is marriage?
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is, by God's plan, a covenant between a man and a woman, which establishes an exclusive and lifelong partnership for the giving and receiving of love and the procreation and nurturing of children.
A marriage comes into being when the bride and the groom exchange their consent to marriage through the wedding vows.
For those who have been baptized, a valid marriage is also considered to be a sacrament. Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage, including a marriage between two non-Catholics, whether baptized or not, is presumed to be a valid and binding union.
What is a declaration of nullity?
A declaration of nullity (also referred to as an “annulment” or a “declaration of invalidity”) is a statement of the Catholic Church that despite the good intentions of both parties, on the day of the wedding, when the couple exchanged their vows, one or more of the elements which the Church considers essential for a valid marriage was lacking.
The Catholic Church considers a marriage to be valid when:
If sufficient proof is brought forward to show that one or more of these requirements was lacking from the beginning of the marriage, there is a possibility that the Church will declare the marriage invalid.
What a declaration of nullity is not?
A declaration of nullity is not a moral judgment of the parties themselves. It is not a continuation of the divorce proceedings, nor should it be seen as an approval or condemnation of the marital behavior of one or both parties. The tribunal seeks to determine whether or not the elements necessary for a valid marriage were present on the day of the wedding. A declaration of nullity is a factual statement that according to Catholic Church law, one or more of the elements which the Church considers to be essential for a valid marriage was lacking at the time the couple exchanged their wedding vows. Through-out the nullity process, it is the bond of marriage that is being judged, not the parties to the marriage.
A declaration of nullity is not a statement of the Catholic Church that the previous relationship between the spouses never existed. They were married according to the laws of the state, they shared a life with each other, and perhaps had children together. A declaration of nullity cannot change these facts.
A declaration of nullity has absolutely no effect upon the legitimacy of any children born of the marriage. It does not change the legal stipulations of the divorce, such as child support and visitation. A declaration of nullity does not relieve one of his or her moral obligations as a parent. Both civil law and Church law recognize the important responsibility that one assumes in becoming a parent and expects that parental obligations be fulfilled.
Who might need a declaration of nullity?
Anyone (Catholic, non-Catholic, baptized, or non-baptized) who is divorced, and whose former spouse is still living, may require a declaration of nullity before he or she will be permitted to marry in the Catholic Church.
Those who are currently participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and are divorced and re-married, may also require a declaration of nullity in order that their current marriage may be recognized by the Catholic Church.
It is a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church that any marriage which contains those elements that the Church considers to be essential for a valid union cannot be ended by anything other than death. When those necessary elements are present, not even divorce can end the unbreakable promise that the spouses have made to each other through their wedding vows.
Because no person can have more than one valid marriage at a time, before anyone is permitted to marry in the Catholic Church, his or her freedom to marry must be established. Church law requires that any prior marriage(s) be investigated to determine whether or not the essential elements required for a valid marriage were present at the time that the previous marriage occurred.
How does one begin the nullity process?
Either spouse may initiate the nullity process by first contacting a local Catholic priest, deacon, or designated lay person, who will provide a petition for a declaration of nullity and a brief questionnaire regarding the former marriage. A separate petition and questionnaire must be completed for each prior marriage.
A copy of the marriage certificate, final divorce decree, and a baptismal certificate for any Catholic party will also be required.
Within thirty days of receiving the request for a declaration of nullity, it will be reviewed by members of the tribunal staff. If there is no indication of the possibility of invalidity, the petitioner will be so advised. If the petition for a declaration of nullity indicates the possibility that the marriage may have been invalid, the petitioner will be advised that the case has been accepted for investigation.
Why must the former spouse be contacted?
Catholic Church law requires that both parties to the marriage be afforded the same rights throughout the process. The former spouse has the right to know that the tribunal has received a petition for a declaration of nullity, the grounds upon which the petition is based, and the names of the witnesses that have been proposed. Church law requires that the former spouse be given the opportunity to fully participate in the nullity process. He or she has the right to provide testimony in the case and to name other witnesses that may be knowledgeable about
When the petitioner is notified that the petition has been accepted for investigation, the former spouse must also be notified that the process has been initiated. Thus, the tribunal must have an accurate and current address for both parties before it can begin to process a petition for a declaration of nullity.
While the tribunal is obligated to inform the former spouse of his or her rights in the nullity process, whether or not the former spouse wishes to exercise those rights is a personal choice. If the former spouse has not responded within thirty days of being notified by the tribunal, the case will proceed.
Please note that it is not necessary for the petitioner to contact the former spouse. The tribunal will make the formal contact with both parties throughout the nullity process.
Why are witnesses required?
Church law requires that the facts upon which the petition for a declaration of nullity is based be corroborated by knowledgeable witnesses. Witness testimony, as well as the testimony of both spouses, provides the tribunal with a more complete under-standing of the spouses, the marriage, and the problems in the relationship.
Knowledgeable witnesses are people who knew the spouses well. They are knowledgeable about the backgrounds of the couple and how the relationship began and developed. Good witnesses are people who knew the couple during the courtship and the early years of the marriage.
Is the information submitted to the tribunal confidential?
The information gathered during the marriage nullity process is never made available or released to any person except as required by Catholic Church law. The tribunal staff will not discuss a marriage nullity case with any persons other than the spouses and the appropriate tribunal representatives.
Is a declaration of nullity granted to everyone who petitions?
Not everyone who petitions for a declaration of nullity receives one. The acceptance of a petition should not be interpreted or understood as a guarantee that a declaration of nullity will be granted.
A declaration of nullity is only granted when the evidence provided to the tribunal clearly shows
that despite the good intentions of both parties, on the day of the wedding, when the two parties exchanged their vows, one or more of the elements which the Church considers essential for a valid marriage was lacking.
A negative decision is possible if there is not sufficient evidence to prove that on the day of the wedding, an essential element of marriage was lacking.
Is the decision of the tribunal final?
The decision of the tribunal is not final. Either spouse has the right to appeal the decision of the tribunal.
Church law requires that every affirmative decision, that is a decision in favor of the nullity of the marriage, must be reviewed by an Appellate Court. The affirmative decision becomes final when the Appellate Court issues a second affirmative decision.
The Appellate Court is not obligated to issue a second affirmative decision in any case. It is possible that the Appellate Court will not agree with the first decision.
How long does the nullity process take?
The tribunal is dedicated to processing cases as quickly as possible. However, it is impossible to accurately predict the exact length of time required to process a particular case.
Church law requires that cases be processed according to the order in which they are received. Current experience indicates that when the required information is readily available, ten to twelve months from the time the case is accepted is the average length of time required to process a case. This is simply an average, it is not a guarantee. Some cases require more or less time to be processed.
Is there a charge for the tribunal services?
There is no charge for the services rendered by the tribunal. Together, the Bishop of Knoxville and the Bishop of Nashville, have agreed to provide tribunal services to the faithful of both dioceses completely free of charge.
When is one permitted to remarry in the Catholic Church?
Arrangements for a future marriage in the Catholic Church may not be made until the nullity process has been completed. If a declaration of nullity is granted, and there are no restrictions attached, preparation for marriage in the Catholic Church may begin at the local parish.
Please note that the tribunal will not advance or expedite any case due to wedding plans being made before a final decision of the tribunal has been reached.
Is a divorced Catholic excommunicated from the Church?
The Church does not teach that divorce is cause for excommunication. Being divorced does not affect one's status in the Church. Catholics who happen to be divorced remain full members of the Church with the same rights and obligations as any other Catholic. The Church encourages those who are divorced to continue the practice of their Faith.
Can divorced Catholics receive the sacraments ?
Catholics who are divorced may continue to receive the Sacraments of the Church so long as they have not entered another marriage before receiving a declaration of nullity for the previous marriage(s).
Catholics who are divorced and have remarried without a declaration of nullity are not free to receive the Sacraments until the current marriage can be validated in the Church. However, Catholics in this situation are not excommunicated, and are encouraged to attend Mass and practice the other aspects of their Faith.
If a Catholic marries a divorced non-Catholic, may the Catholic party continue to receive the Sacraments?
Should a Catholic choose to marry one who is not free to marry according to Church law, the Catholic may not continue to receive the Sacraments. In order for the Catholic to return to the Sacraments, it will be necessary for the non-Catholic party to receive a declaration of nullity regarding his or her previous marriage(s).
A Catholic in this situation is not excommunicated, and is encouraged to attend Mass and practice other aspects of the Catholic Faith.
For more informantion, contact:
Diocesan Tribunal of Nashville/Knoxville
Catholic Pastoral Center
2800 McGavock Pike
Nashville, TN 37214-1402