What is An Annulment?
We better describe an annulment as a Declaration of Invalidity. It does not deny that a real relationship existed, nor does it imply that the parties entered the relationship with ill will or moral fault. The Church is saying that the relationship fell short of at least one element necccesary to bring about what the Catholic Church understands as a true marriage.
If the evidence shows that a particular marriage is invalid (i.e., from the beginning it suffered from a radical defect), the original presumption no longer holds. To render a marriage invalid, the radical defect must be present from the beginning, i.e., at the time of the wedding ceremony. No defect that might arise during the marriage would have the power of turning a valid marriage into an invalid one. When we can prove that a particular marriage was never valid in the first place, then the Church may declare it invalid.
What Elements are Essential for a Binding, Lifelong Union?
For a wedding to bring about a true marriage it is necessary that the parties intend to have permanent, faithful and exclusive union. Both parties need to have a certain degree of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties being exchanged, the psychic capacity of assuming the essential obligations of matrimony. These essential rights and duties include the partnership of the whole of life and the good of the spouses. They also include the procreation and education of the children and the good of the sacrament and specifically include self revelation, understanding and caring.
Are There Any Civil Effects to a Church Declaration of Invalidity?
A Declaration of Invalidity has no civil effect in the United States. It does not affect in any manner the legitimacy of children, property rights, inheritance rights, names, etc. The Catholic Church simply declares that a particular union, perhaps begun in good faith and thought to be a marriage, lacked some essential element necessary for an indissoluble covenant.
What is the Purpose of the Tribunal?
Church law calls for the existence of a tribunal in every diocese of the world. The Fargo Tribunal has a staff of specially trained and experienced clerics and lay persons who offer assistance to those who request that the Church investigate their marriage to find if there is any possibility of a Declaration of Invalidity. The Tribunal then investigates the marriage and on completion of the investigation, declares whether invalidity has been proven. The purpose of the procedure is reconciliation and peace of conscience and spirit as well as to determine the freedom of the parties to marry, get ordained, or enter religious life within the Catholic Church.
How is the Tribunal a Ministry of Reconciliation?
Divorce is an emotionally painful experience. Dreams are ended. Persons feel hurt and alienated from one another, their community, the Church and God. Often a person holds the pain of rejection inside.
This process is an opportunity for reflection. One recalls and tells the story of the marriage as a whole. In recalling and telling one's story the person looks at the cumulative effects of their experiences on this relationship. As one writes or speaks about the marriage relationship, a person learns more about the former spouse and the self. As the parties come to recognize the root of the failure of their marriage, they can more easily forgive and move on.
The Declaration of Invalidity provides an official statement that the former marriage is not an obstacle to a future marriage within the Church.
How Does One Request a Declaration of Invalidity?
A person, known as the Petitioner, begins by completing an application form and sending it to the Tribunal. This form is available from a parish priest or from the Tribunal. The application includes an outline for the Petitioner to provide the history of the marriage. It asks for information concerning the background of the Petitioner and the former spouse, known as the Respondent, and for significant information about the courtship and married life. The application and history serves as the libellus, the first step in seeking a Declaration of Invalidity. It will have to be signed by the parish priest or a pastoral minister delegated to work with annulments. As part of this libellus the Petitioner must provide the Tribunal with the names and addresses of several witnesses and also the address of the Respondent.
The witnesses should be people knowledgeable about the parties and the history of the marriage. Key witnesses are those who knew both parties before and during the marriage. These are often parents, brothers or sisters. Ideally the Petitioner will provide the names of a witness who would be from the side of the Respondent. The Tribunal will contact the Respondent and the witnesses. They may come into the office for an interview, write their testimony or call and tell us what they know about the marriage especially its beginnings.
The Petitioner then makes an appointment with a staff member of the Tribunal for a personal interview to clarify the description of the marital history. We will then explain the process in more detail and answer any questions.
What Documents Are Needed?
The Petitioner will supply the Tribunal with records of the baptisms of both spouses and of the marriage and divorce. The divorce decree serves as juridical proof that a reconciliation between the parties is unlikely.
What About the Former Spouse?
The Tribunal must contact the Respondent. The Respondent can complete a marital history and offer names of witnesses. The universal law of the Catholic Church requires this contact. Hearing from the Respondent is very helpful to the study. If there is sufficient evidence, we may give a decision even when the Respondent chooses not to participate in the process.
The Tribunal needs an accurate, current address of the Respondent. If this is not available, evidence must be provided that every reasonable attempt to obtain the address has been exhausted. Reasonable attempts include obtaining address of a family member, the last known address of the Respondent, internet searches, or VA records. If the Social Security number of the Respondent is known, there are services that will do a search. The Petitioner does not have to contact the Respondent directly. The Tribunal will try to contact the Respondent. Frequently the Respondent is willing to offer testimony.
What About Confidentiality?
In view of the nature of the information, we promise a limited degree of confidentiality. Only certain Church officals and the Petitioner and the Respondent have the right to view all of the information provided. The Petitioner and the Respondent do have a right to know what was said about them so that they can defend themselves. For a grave reason the judge can reserve specific pieces of information. The parties also have the right to the final decision with its explanation of the reasoning. Our policy is that the decision ordinarily must be received either through our office or through the local pastor. A signed release form must accompany any requests for release of a person’s own testimony to a third party (such as a counselor). As the Tribunal is a Mandated Reporter by North Dakota State child abuse reporting laws, in some limited circumstances testimony may be reported to civil authorities.
How is the Case Decided?
When the libellus is presented to the Tribunal, an official will assist the Petitioner in determining appropriate grounds. The Respondent will be notified of the grounds. After compiling all the testimony an Advocate will write a brief applying the entire history of the marriage as seen by the parties and witnesses (sometimes they include the reflections of a psychological expert) to the jurisprudence of the Church regarding the set grounds. Then the Defender of the Bond reviews and points out the elements of the case that favor the validity of the marriage. After reviewing the arguments of the Advocate and the Defender of the Bond, a college of Judges will come to a decision.
Is the Tribunal's Decision Final?
Yes, a sentence becomes "actionable" after one panel of judges has issued it's ruling. However, the Petitioner, Respondent, and certain court officials may appeal the case to a higher court for a second examination if sufficient reasons exist, and the higher court accepts the appeal.
Is Remarriage in the Catholic Church Allowed?
If a marriage is proven invalid and there are no restrictions concerning remarriage, one may start the usual procedure to prepare for marriage in the Catholic Church with the local parish priest.
If a marriage is proven invalid due to a possibly ongoing cause, we cannot permit a second marriage until the court is satisfied that the cause which invalidated the first marriage is no longer an issue. In these cases, counseling or other requirements may be imposed before a marriage will be allowed.
No new marriage may be scheduled in any Catholic parish until the procedure has been completed and tribunals requirements have been fulfilled.
Can the Fargo Tribunal hear my case?
The Tribunal of the Diocese of Fargo only has competency to hear your case if (1) The marriage occurred in the Fargo Diocese, (2) your domicile (residence) is in the Fargo Diocese, (3) your former spouse is domiciled in the Fargo Diocese, or (4) the majority of the evidence is in the Fargo Diocese. If your case does not meet any of these requirements, please visit with your local diocese.
Is There a Fee for Tribunal Services?
The annulment process can be a painful experience involving difficult memories, but can also bring about deep personal healing. The Catholic Church is committed to helping people find healing and reconciliation following a divorce; hence, the Diocese of Fargo charges no fees for the annulment process. Counseling or psychological consulting is at the expense of the individual. We appeal to the generosity of people who have participated in the annulment process to offset the costs to the Diocese of Fargo, so that we can be as helpful and efficient as possible.
After your case has been completed, the Tribunal will send you a contribution request letter. The annulment process costs the diocese an average of $1,900 per case, and we ask that you prayerfully consider making a contribution of $975 if possible, payable to the Catholic Development Foundation--Tribunal. If you would like to make a larger contribution to help someone less fortunate, we welcome that generosity. We request contributions be made to the Catholic Development Foundation to fund an endowment for the Tribunal ministry. In this way, all contributions go toward helping others in the same way you are being helped. If you would like to make a contribution, please send it to the following address. (Please include a note indicating that it is for the "Tribunal Endowment").
Catholic Development Foundation
5201 Bishops Blvd. S., Suite A
Fargo, ND 58104-7605