Marriage Tribunal

Due Process of Annulment

Last week, Robin Richards spoke from experience about the pain of annulment: "The memories of the procedure are almost more painful than anything that happened or did not happen in the marriage." Below, a priest involved in his own diocesan marriage tribunal defends the process against such criticisms.

The present openness about marital breakdown is a blessing. Whatever the trauma for the people concerned, there is far less guilt and shame about the fact of a broken marriage than in the past, and much more awareness of the existence of diocesan marriage tribunals. Tribunals themselves have also changed. In spite of their old image as impersonal dispensers of canon law, tribunal staff see their works as essentially pastoral.

A broken marriage is similar to a bereavement. Whether the loss is through death or marital breakdown, those concerned suffer a great deal of pain which has to be expunged not simply by time but by being articulated. Bereavement and broken marriages are isolating experiences: people often shrink from embarrassing others by talking about their grief. For many whose marriages have broken down, the tribunal process does not mean being exposed to the rigours of a legal process so much as their first and only opportunity to come to terms with the pain of loss.

This can be essential for the success of a second marriage. Someone who has not been able to talk through the problems of a first marriage often carries the psychological effects of them into the second, with disastrous results. The process of seeking a declaration of nullity is therapeutic. But the tribunal process also benefits those who have no intention of making a second marriage when their first marriage is declared null; they seek simply peace of mind.

Tribunals depend on confidentiality (no reasonable person would co-operate with a tribunal on any other basis), and so shun publicity. There are a few excellent books on the meaning and grounds of nullity, but even when a marriage is being examined, a tribunal will always avoid raising expectations which may not be fulfilled. Most broken marriages began as fruitful sacramental relationships: "what God has joined together, let no one put asunder." Only a small proportion of broken marriages can usefully be examined by tribunals, and of those only some will be declared invalid: non-marriages, where two people are bound by vows that were empty from the beginning, It would be unjust and possibly destructive to encourage false hopes of annulment in people whose sacramental marriages have collapsed.

Confidentiality, however, should not prevent people knowing something of how the tribunals work. For some people, a tribunal's failure to explain the practicalities of the process can cause distress. Most experience some degree of anxiety about a tribunal interview. They are talking to a total stranger, with much at stake.

The word "tribunal" suggests court proceedings. In fact, the interview is one-to-one with an "auditor". The title is significant. The auditor does not make any sort of judgement on the validity of the marriage, but simply helps people to describe what they can remember of the relationship, and records it as accurately as possible.

A Gentle Interview

The nature of the interview itself, its length, its tension or lack of it, its emotional charge -- all these and the other hidden factors that are present in any conversation between two people are unpredictable. There are no formulas which guarantee that special mix of rapport and detachment, patience and sense of urgency, which is needed. The vital element is that the auditor and the person giving evidence should be aware that both are taking part in an awesome task. They are providing the raw matter which may lead to a decree of nullity -- a statement that it is morally certain that a marriage which appeared to exist (the couple, both baptized, having made vows to each other in the proper way) was invalid, not a true marriage in the eyes of God.

The interview is usually based on a simple questionnaire which enables the interviewee to describe the relationship chronologically: the backgrounds of the couple, the courtship, the married life and the break-down of the marriage. Often these are standard questions: but no marriage, successful, muddling, or disastrous, can be called standard. The questions are merely starting-points or guides for the interviewee and the auditor.

Guides, that is, to the areas of the marriage that the tribunal needs to know about. It is preferable that people should come for an interview without preconceptions of what they should say. Whey they arrive with a briefcase full of notes, letters, documents from the divorce, anything that they imagine may be useful to the tribunal, they can be disappointed to find that much of it is unnecessary. It is the simple answer rather than the deep analysis that is most revealing.

Second thoughts during the evidence is easy to record. The last question in some questionnaires is whether the interviewee wishes to add, omit or change any of the answers. But it is salutary not to dwell afterwards on what was recorded. A scrupulous person will be tempted endlessly to assess, edit, refine or even change the evidence. If he or she wakes at three o'clock in the morning with something which was unrecorded in the evidence and seems powerfully pertinent to the case on question, then the answer would be to contact the tribunal. As a rule, the best policy is to trust the tribunal and switch off.

In recounting his own interview, Rob Richards last week quoted a canon lawyer who told him, to his surprise, that unconsummated marriages are not necessarily invalid. That advice was strictly correct. For example, a couple may be separated by circumstances immediately after exchanging the vows of marriage. That is a true marriage, even if it is not consummated. If that situation continues without any chance of being remedied (assuming that the husband or wife would want the marriage to be consummated), one of them can apply for a dispensation from the marriage even though it is valid.

It is an area of the sacramental life of the Church which is so fraught that only the pope can grant these dispensations. According to the 1989 statistics for England and Wales, only four applications were introduced for dispensation from a non-consummated marriage, whereas there were 2,006 for marriages to be annulled.

Applications for dispensations from valid but unconsummated marriages are rare both because the facts are extremely difficult to prove -- most commonly a marriage is unconsummated because of sexual problems -- and because other factors may mean that an unconsummated marriage is not valid. For example, one spouse may deny the other the right to parenthood, or consciously intend to end the relationship after a certain time.

But tribunals work mainly on annulments. The procedures are much the same as with dispensations -- obtaining the acta consisting of the written evidence and the various reports and recommendations -- but the dispensation inevitably takes longer, as the acta are sent to Rome for the final decision.

"It takes so long"; the great complaint against the tribunals cannot be side-stepped by pointing to the bad old days, when all annulments from every part of the universal Church had to be decided by Rome, and a very simple case could take many years. An annulment does indeed take a long time before a decision can be made. Often the delay comes not from the number of cases that a tribunal has to deal with but for trivial reasons. Unanswered correspondence or missed appointments are common. Occasionally a person will stop communicating with the tribunal without any explanation.

Read More
Marriage Tribunal
Addresses of Tribunal Offices in Manitoba
A Process for Healing : Questions and Answers on Annulments
Due Process of Annulment