The Role of the Marriage Tribunal
The Marriage Tribunal provides service to those who have been previously married and are seeking a Declaration of Nullity, either for their own peace of mind or in order to enter into another marriage in the Catholic Church. To some, the failure of a marriage is seen as an unforgiveable sin in the Catholic Church and the process itself is viewed as lengthy and replete with “red tape”. Neither of these statements is true. The Tribunal approaches persons with compassion and understanding. When a case is completed, participants often experience a sense of closure, gratitude, and peace.
The Code of Canon Law dictates the protocols to be followed in issuing a Declaration of Nullity. For “formal” cases, this procedure is both labour intensive and costly. Most cases are examined by a least four canon lawyers (three Judges and a Defender of the Bond). Other personnel such as notaries, auditors, transcribers and advocates are also on staff. The time it takes to complete a case varies but most files are completed in a year or less.
Petitioners are asked to contribute towards the expenses incurred by the Tribunal. In Winnipeg, the fee is set by the Regina Regional Tribunal and currently stands at $500.00. The Tribunal recognizes that there are situations in which persons have limited resources and is open to reducing or waiving the fee depending on the situation. Cases are never refused because of an inability to pay. The Marriage Tribunal is an important pastoral service which is heavily subsidized by the Archdiocese of Winnipeg.
How does a marriage investigation proceed?
- The first step is to contact the Tribunal office either through a referral from your parish or directly by telephone or email. You will be asked for some preliminary information (to determine if the Winnipeg Tribunal has “competence” to hear the case) before being given an application form to complete. Once the forms have been completed, they are returned to the Tribunal together with a copy of your Certificate of Divorce. An incomplete application will cause a delay in accepting your case.
- Your application will be reviewed. If the Director of the Tribunal determines there are reasonable grounds for invalidity, the case will be accepted. The Director prepares the initial paperwork and advises both you (the Petitioner) and your former spouse (the Respondent) by letter that a case has been started. You will be asked to sign a Petition (Libellus) which briefly outlines your request.
- A Registered Letter to the Respondent will serve as notification of the proceedings and an invitation to participate. The Respondent also has the right to name witnesses. A period of fifteen days (thirty if resident in another country) is given as a deadline for a response. If nothing is received from the Respondent at the expiration of this time limit, the Tribunal will declare the party absent from the process and the case will move ahead.
- Arrangements will be made for separate personal interviews under oath for the principal parties and the witnesses. If a Respondent or witness resides in another province, arrangements will be made to have that individual interviewed by another Tribunal.
- After the recorded testimonies are transcribed and all pertinent material is added to the file, Tribunal personnel review the case to ascertain if there is sufficient evidence to proceed. If so, the Director sets a date for judging and publishes the “Acts”. At this time both the Petitioner and Respondent have the right to review any portion of the testimony which is unknown to them. In most cases, the right to view is waived by the parties and the case is put on the docket for judging.
- Prior to the judging date, the case is sent to the Defender of the Bond who makes any and all arguments for the validity of the marriage. The Defender submits a “brief” for consideration by the judges.
- Three Judges will evaluate the case according to the applicable grounds in Canon Law and a decision will be reached as to the validity or non-validity of the marriage in question. A majority decision stands.
- The Petitioner and the Respondent are notified of the decision and given a period of fifteen days in which to request to read the Sentence or to formally appeal the decision. The Defender of the Bond receives a copy of the Sentence and also has the right to appeal the decision.
- If there is no appeal, the decision is ratified and both parties to the marriage receive a letter to this effect. This letter should be kept with other important documents as it will be needed if there is to be a second marriage in the Church.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is Canon Law?
Canon Law is the oldest system of law still in use in the world. It is a system of law which regulates the Church and its members. Canonists study for either a license (3 years) or a doctorate (2-6 additional years) at a university with a faculty of Canon Law, such as St. Paul University in Ottawa.
- What is a Tribunal?
Tribunals are overseen by a Judicial Vicar who exercises the judicial power which belongs to the Diocesan Bishop. Church law requires every Diocese to have or participate in a Tribunal. Marriage cases are only one type of many different kinds of cases handled by Church Tribunals.
- What is the difference between a divorce and a Declaration of Nullity?
A divorce is a statement issued by civil authority which states that a marriage has irreparably broken down.
A Declaration of Nullity states that an element essential to the requirements and understanding of the Church was missing and that a canonical Church marriage never came into existence.
- Do I need a divorce before seeking a Declaration of Nullity in the Church?
Yes. Church law requires a Tribunal to be certain that a reconciliation is not possible. One way of determining this is through the evidence of a civil divorce.
- Does a Declaration of Nullity mean my children are illegitimate?
No. A Declaration of Nullity does not make children illegitimate because the children were born at a time when the marriage was presumed to be valid. A Declaration of Nullity in no way retroactively changes this fact.
- If I apply for a Declaration of Nullity, does my former spouse have to be notified?
Yes. Both parties have the right to challenge or defend the marital bond.
- What if I don't want my former spouse to be involved?
Your former spouse has rights which must be respected. A former spouse is cited and given the opportunity to participate. If he or she fails to respond to the citation, then he or she can be declared absent and the case can proceed. If your former spouse's rights are not respected, the process would be liable for a complaint of invalidity.
- Will everything I tell the Marriage Tribunal remain confidential?
Confidentiality is integral to the process and all Tribunal personnel take oaths of secrecy. The principals in the case (Petitioner and Respondent) do have the right to view certain testimony, but there is no obligation to do so.
- Can family members act as witnesses?
Yes. The Tribunal officials will assess the credibility and objectivity of any witness testimony according to the norm of Canon Law.
- What happens if there are no witnesses available?
Without witnesses it is almost impossible for a case to proceed because there would be too little evidence for Judges to reach moral certitude. It might be possible to judge a case without witnesses if there is documentary evidence of an exceptionally strong nature.
- What if someone doesn't speak English?
In some situations, it is possible to have an interpreter present during the interview.
- Are there any civil effects to a Declaration of Nullity?
In British common-law countries such as Canada there are no civil effects to Tribunal proceedings.
- Is adultery a recognized grounds for nullity?
The Church recognizes the pain and suffering that occurs in marital breakdown, especially in cases of adultery. However, in the case of adultery, a Declaration of Nullity is not viewed in the same way as it is in a divorce. While adultery may indicate a level of immaturity or an intention against fidelity, it is not in and of itself a grounds for nullity. A Declaration of Nullity must not be seen as either a reward for good behaviour or a punishment for immoral behaviour. A Declaration of Nullity is a statement that there was a fundamental problem in the marital relationship.
- How long will the process take?
It depends on the nature of the case. Delays can occur when witnesses are not cooperative or forthcoming. As a rule, Petitioners should allow one year from the time of acceptance until a decision becomes final. Extensions to this timeline would occur if the case is appealed to a higher Tribunal, either by the parties or by the Defender of the Bond. If such a situation occurs, the case would be referred to the Canadian Appeal Tribunal in Ottawa and would add to the length of the case.
- What about the new proposals from Pope Francis where annulments are done in two months?
This new processus brevior has stringent requirements. Firstly, it must be manifestly a case of invalidity (An extreme example is someone forced to marry at gunpoint.). Secondly, both parties must agree to and participate in the Petition. If a Respondent does not respond to the citation, disagrees with the Petitioner, or is not locatable, the briefer process cannot be used. Proofs for a processus brevior must also be readily available.
- What if I already have a new wedding booked and need an annulment in a hurry?
All cases are processed following the order in which they are accepted. Priority can only be given when there is a situation of terminal illness. No dates should be set for a marriage until a final decision is made.
- How much does it cost?
The marriage tribunal is a ministry of the Archdiocese and, as such, is subsidized by the Archdiocesan budget. However, those who benefit from this ministry are asked to contribute to the costs. Current fees are indicated on the application form. However, no members of the faithful will be turned away due to lack of funds.
- I've never been married. My fiancé was previously married but isn't Catholic. Do we need to do anything?
All marriages (whether civil or in another religion) are presumed valid by the Church until proven otherwise. The Church would consider your fiancé to be validly married and therefore not free to marry you. An investigation would need to be undertaken with a view to granting a Declaration of Nullity.
- If I am not planning to remarry, do I still need a Declaration of Nullity?
A Declaration of Nullity can provide a sense of closure to a divorced Catholic. In addition, the future may hold an unanticipated new relationship which might lead to the desire for a second marriage.