Marriage Tribunal

St. Raymond of Pennafort, Patron saint of canon lawyers
St. Raymond of Pennafort, Patron saint of canon lawyers

In St. Mathew's Gospel, Jesus instructs his followers on the procedure to follow when one Christian has a complaint against another - private reconciliation, adding witnesses, and lastly presenting the case to the church if these steps fail. Jesus then adds, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Mt. 18:15-17). As the number of the faithful increased, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and Disciples of Jesus continued to build on this foundation, believing that Jesus had given his church the power of loosening and binding.

As the church's temporal power grew in the ensuing centuries, the distinction between the church's temporal and spiritual power was often blurred. However, in spite of the difficulties this caused, the Church, as a society of believers, has consistently maintained the exclusive right to answer questions that involve spiritual matters - sacraments, members' rights, and violations of church law. In a more formal way, this is done through the church's own court or legal system, usually referred to as tribunals. At its most basic level, this court system exists in every diocese as the Diocesan Tribunal. Winnipeg's Diocesan Tribunal is the first level or 'First Instance' in a multi-tiered court system in the Roman Catholic Church. Second and Third Instance Tribunals are located in Ottawa and Rome.

Today, the most common function of the church's tribunals is for deciding marriage questions, although this is not its exclusive purpose. An ecclesiastical tribunal functions in a manner similar to civil trials in that it is conducted in order to discover the truth, to vindicate or establish rights, or to impose or declare a penalty. However, ecclesiastical tribunals differ from civil courts in several important ways. The proceedings are not public; only those persons directly involved in the question are permitted to participate, and their right to know the contents of the proceedings is a sacred right fully protected by church law. The canon or church lawyers who process the cases are mandated to seek the truth, not just to 'win their case' as often happens in civil trials.

When dealing with a marriage question, the Winnipeg Tribunal first requires that the Petitioner obtain a civil divorce. Many persons consider this an unusual request, but the church acknowledges that the civil effects of marriage, namely property rights and the custody of children, are the domain of the civil law. There was a civil marriage, and a Declaration of Nullity from a church tribunal has no effect on these civil effects of marriage. The question the tribunal seeks to answer is whether a true spiritual or 'marital bond' ever existed between the couple. The tribunal initiates an investigation of the facts, conducts interviews, contacts witnesses, and obtains any documents that may assist in the uncovering of the truth. After careful study, the tribunal may issue a Declaration of Nullity, a statement that confirms that there never was a true spiritual marital bond between these parties.

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Marriage Tribunal
Addresses of Tribunal Offices in Manitoba
Annulments
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Due Process of Annulment