Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 25, 2000
Insight into marriage annulments
Many annulments result from fact one partner unable to give full consent
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
If you want an annulment in order to remarry, you better be patient. Getting an annulment can be a lengthy, frustrating process, especially for those who have already set a wedding date thinking it would be simple.
While some applicants can get a decision in less than a year, others must wait more than three years for a ruling.
But the wait is worth it because nullity is a requirement for Catholics to remarry in the Catholic Church.
So if you are planning to get married, set the wedding date after obtaining a certificate of nullity to avoid disappointment.
Now, if you are dating someone previously-married in another church, check his or her status before setting the wedding day; he or she may need to nullify a previous union if it was performed by a pastor or minister of another Church.
Unlike a civil divorce, which legally dissolves an existing marriage, an annulment is a judgment from the Catholic Church that what seemed to be a marriage was never in fact a true or valid Christian marriage as the Church defines marriage, explains Father Francis Morrisey, one of Canada's leading canon law authorities.
Because the Church sees marriage as a call to mutual self-giving for the good of the spouses and the nurturing of children, the question of validity addresses whether the spouses were capable of, and open to, entering a permanent commitment.
If it can be proven that something essential was lacking at the time of the exchange of vows, then the Church declares the marriage null, said Morrisey, a professor of canon law at St. Paul's University in Ottawa and a judge of the Canadian Appeal Tribunal.
"An annulment says that there was an obstacle right from the beginning that prevented the union from being a sacramental marriage."
As Father Walter Laliberty, judicial vicar of the Alberta Marriage Tribunal, explains, the Church respects the value of marriage and won't let people get out of the vows they made before God easily.
"However, we do recognize that not all unions out there have the proper ingredients necessary to make it a community of life and love and if those ingredients were missing right from the very beginning, we look into the case to see the possibility of a future marriage."
More than 3,000 annulment applications are processed every year in Canada and the vast majority are approved.
Among the Church's grounds for nullity are "impediments" to a sacramental marriage, such as incest or lack of Church dispensation. Another ground is the impediment of the bond, which is when one of the partners has a marriage that is "still on the books," said Morrisey.
Another ground deals with the improper form of the wedding ceremony. A couple must be wed by someone authorized by the Church to perform weddings, the professor said.
Another reason is lack of due discretion, which includes the marriages of people who are "grossly immature" or who are unable to love, he said. Other grounds include personality dysfunctions, alcoholism and situations where one of the parties is not baptized.
One of the most common grounds for granting nullity is when one of the parties was unable to give full consent. This could happen for a number of reasons, including insanity or temporary loss of reason at the time of the wedding, perhaps through drunkenness or drug abuse.
A declaration of nullity is almost assured if it can be shown that a couple "entered into a marriage with undue pressure upon them, that they lacked freedom and did not know or realized what the commitment was, that when they said 'I do' they didn't know what they were saying 'I do' to," explained Laliberty.
An annulment could also be granted on the grounds that one or both partners were too immature at the time "to really assume or fulfill the obligations of marriage as a community of life and love," he said.
Many are young people who married because of pregnancy or to escape a bad home situation.
But while a declaration of nullity means the previous union was not valid in the eyes of the Church, it does not deny that a union existed and does not affect the legitimacy of the children of such a marriage, Morrisey said.
The Alberta Marriage Tribunal, with a staff of seven, processes about 200 applications a year, out of which it grants about 140 annulments.
Witnesses must be provided by the applicant and they should be people who can give insight into the couple's life even while they were courting, Laliberty said.
A "good percentage" of the annulment cases handled at the Alberta Tribunal "deal with people who want to remarry someone that was not a Catholic who was previously married," he said.
"And there is the misperception out there that because that they are not Catholics and they were not married in the (Catholic) Church that they don't need an annulment. But they do because we recognize marriage, not just our marriages."
Another percentage of cases are people who are entering into the RCIA program and have a past that includes a previous marriage, the priest noted.
Annulments are often denied when applicants are not able to reveal or give insight into their previous marriage. "The judges cannot grant annulments just because somebody has applied," commented Laliberty. "We must truly be able to see the picture of the courtship and of the problems in married life."
Sometimes tribunal staff talk applicants out of annulments when they realize the separation is too recent and it's not really clear whether there is going to be a reconciliation.
"So we'll encourage them to go and have a reconciliation," the priest explained. "Go home and think about this. It's too recent."
People seeking annulments usually approach the tribunal through the parish. The priest or pastoral assistant submit information about the courtship, early marriage and subsequent break-up so that the tribunal staff can decide whether there is a case or not and whether the tribunal is competent to process the case.
A staff member interviews witnesses and gathers all evidence to ready it for judgment. The tribunal attempts to contact the other spouse but will go ahead with annulment procedures without his or her consent.
The case is then reviewed by a defender of the bond, an appointed member of the tribunal who argues for the marriage bond and ensures Church laws are followed. The defender of the bond then releases the case to a panel of three judges, usually priests, who review the testimony and statements before making their decision.
Every case is referred to the National Appeal Board in Ottawa and its verdict must concur with the local one for the decision to be final. But if it doesn't, then the case can be appealed to Rome.
Annulment costs vary from province to province, with Alberta charging $500. But as Laliberty explains, an annulment application is never attached to a cost.
"So if someone says 'I would like to apply for annulment but I have no money to pay for it' we'll say 'fine' and we will process it anyway. If they need this service, they will get this service."
Reliving the marriage through the annulment process can be painful but it is also a "healing experience" because it allows the person to look back to what went wrong, Laliberty said.
Through the interviews people also realize "they did fun things together but that they never shared life together, they never told each other what they were feeling and what they were thinking. And sometimes they didn't even share what their goals were with each other."
Once a declaration of nullity is granted, the applicant is free to remarry. Those who remarry without nullifying their previous union won't be excommunicated, "but can't receive Communion because they are (perceived to be) living in a sinful state," Morrisey said.