The Catholic Church understands marriage to be an exclusive and permanent partnership of life and love, whereby spouses, through an irrevocable personal consent, mutually bestow and accept ezch other for their own good and for the procreation and education of children. Marriage is more than a legal contract; it is a sacred bond whereby the parties truly and totally commit themselves to each other. For the baptized followers of Christ, marriage is also a sacrament.
The Church also teaches that a marriage can be called "genuine and valid" only when it is founded on the kind of relationship that Christ intended when He raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. Not every marital relationship meets that standard established by Christ. Certain intentions and capabilities must be brought to this relationship by the parties involved. Without these intentions and capabilities, there can be no true marriage, regadless of external appearances.
The term "annulment" refers to an official declaration by the appropriate Tribunal of the Catholic Church that what appeared to be a marriage was, in fact, not a true marriage. Such declarations are made after an extensive investigation of the marriage by judges in the Tribunal (a court which is under the direction of the Bishop and his delegate, the Judicial Vicar). The investigation must focus on grounds of nullity which are recognized by the Church and which can be proven as existing from the very beginning of the marriage. Only for certain grave reasons will the Tribunal declare that a marriage was never truly a marriage as understood in the Church's teachings.
An annulment does not deny that a real relationship existed, nor does it imply that the relationship was entered into with ill will or moral fault. It means that the relationship fell short of at least one of the essential elements for a binding union. Whereas a divorce breaks the true, legal bond existing in marriage, an annulment is merely the recognition that a valid bond never existed in the first place.
In the United States, a Church Declaration of Nullity of Marriage has NO civil effect whatsoever. Church law specifically states that children born of a marriage that has been declared null ARE legitimate. An annulment does not affect in any manner the legitimacy or custody of children, property rights, inheritance rights or names. These issues are under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. The purpose of the annulment procedure is to serve one's conscience and to reconcile persons to full sacramental participation in the Catholic Church.
Any person, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, who considers his or her own previous marriage to be irretrievably broken and who has reasons to question its validity according to the norms of the Church, may petition for an annulment. The Tribunal does not accept an annulment petition until a civil divorce has been granted.
The initial step is for the PETITIONER (the person seeking the annulment) to contact his or her parish priest or pastoral associate (the SPONSOR). Since there are a number of distinct types of annulment procedures in Church law, the Sponsor will assist in determining the appropriate annulment process. He will then offer the person a packet with instructions and forms which are to be completed and returned to the Sponsor.
The packet for all cases consists of: A PETITION; DATA PAGES (names, addresses, etc.); and a LIST OF REQUIRED DOCUMENTS (copies of marriage licenses, divorce decrees, baptismal certificates, etc.). Some cases also requre: WITNESSES (people who knew both parties prior to and throughout the marriage and who would be willing to testify); and a MARRIAGE HISTORY (a narrative from the perspective of the Petitioner) of both parties' lives before marriage, their courtship, engagement, and marriage).
When the forms have been completed, the Sponsor will review them (making sure they are complete) and present them to the Tribunal.
The work of the Tribunal staff is governed by the laws of the Catholic Church. These are intended to protect the rights of all the parties involved and to safeguard the integrity and sanctity of marriage. The major steps of the process include the following:
After two affirmative decisions and if there are no restrictions placed on the parties involved, both spouses are free to marry or have a civil marriage convalidated, after completing the necessary marriage preparation. This is normally conducted by the parish priest. Please note that Church law stipulates that no preparation for another marriage can begin or wedding date be scheduled in any Catholic parish until the annulment process is complete.
Statements made by the two parties may be revealed to each other according to the directions issued by the Judge. The testimony of witnesses is safeguarded with anonymity. Only the Petitioner, Respondent and the Tribunal staff have access to the case material. Otherwise, the information is strictly confidential.
Since no two cases are alike, the time can vary from case to case. The cooperation of the Petitioner, Respondent, and witnesses and the quality of their testimony, as well as the caseload of the Tribunal, have a significant effect on the length of time. The Tribunal is required by law to give a specified amount of time to various steps in the process. Cooperation and patience are important. There is no way that nay member of the Tribunal staff can predict when a case will be finished. With the timely cooperation of all involved in the case, a case is normally completed in one year.
As mentioned above, there are several types of annulment procedures. A fee, which varies depending on the type of case, is asked with each case. The total fee for a formal annulment case (the most common procedure) is $250.00. This fee covers only a portion of the actual cost per case. The fee of $200.00 for the Belleville Tribunal, is requested when this Tribunal renders a decision. The fee of $50.00 for the higher Tribunal (the Court of Appeals in Chicago) is requested at the conclusion of the case. Both fees can be paid in a single payment or installments. Only if this is ever a serious burden to the Petitioner will the requested fee be reduced. It is important to know that the progress of one's case or the eventual decision is never effected by one's inability to pay the full fee.