Church Declarations of Marriage Nullity
A Statement of Policy and Procedure for the Respondent
Diocese of Scranton
As the Respondent in a formal case, you may have already been informed that your former spouse submitted a petition to the Tribunal of the Diocese of Scranton challenging the validity of your marriage. The petition initiates a judicial investigation to determine whether or not there is proof of some ground upon which the invalidity of marital consent rests. This process, therefore, involves the search for and demonstration of the truth. An affirmative decision indicates that a person’s petition for a declaration of nullity has been proven according to the laws and teachings of the Catholic Church; a negative decision would indicate that the invalidity of the marriage was not established by way of the facts presented in view of the law.
Your initial response to our notification may be that you need further information about this process. You may want to cooperate in this investigation because the possibility of an affirmative decision would be to your own benefit. You may want to cooperate in order to insure that your perception of the marriage is fully understood by the Scranton Tribunal and thoroughly considered in its decision. You may have some concerns about a possible declaration of marriage nullity and want to exercise your rights in the process. You may want to challenge the process or the possibility of an affirmative decision.
The information contained here is designed to help you better understand the judicial process pertaining to the nullity of marriage. It also explains your rights according to the norms of canon law. We encourage your participation in the case by providing testimony. You may opt to sign the petition submitted by your former spouse and complete the same questionnaire the petitioner completed to introduce the case. You may also simply consent to the process and participate accordingly. Indeed, your participation will enable us to come to a balanced understanding of the factors surrounding your marriage.
Please be aware that your former spouse has a right to petition the Scranton Tribunal for a declaration of marriage nullity. This is true even if neither of you are members of the Catholic Church or if the marriage was not celebrated in a Catholic ceremony. If you and your former spouse are not Catholic, you can presume that the only reason we have agreed to examine this marriage is to determine whether your former spouse can be considered free to marry now in the Catholic Church.
If, through these proceedings a declaration of nullity (annulment) is granted, it will not affect any natural or civil obligations (i.e., child support, visitation rights, property settlement, alimony, etc.) created by this marriage. Moreover, according to the Catholic Church, a declaration of invalidity of the marriage does not affect the legitimacy of any children born to this marriage. Please remember that this process is conducted exclusively for religious purposes in order to determine the validity of your marriage in the view of the Catholic Church.
The Result of this Process
For some people, the outcome of this process can include a healing of memories or simply peace of mind. For a divorced and remarried Catholic, a declaration of nullity will allow you to resume a full sacramental life in the Church. For a non-Catholic, a declaration of nullity will enable your present or intended Catholic spouse to have your marriage validated by the Church. With regard to any previous marriage, a non-Catholic should be aware that the Catholic Church presumes that any marriage entered into by a man and woman is considered valid until the contrary can be proven. Therefore, a subsequent marriage cannot be recognized by the Catholic Church until any former marriage has been declared null.
The Rights of the Parties
The declaration of marriage nullity process is governed by specific laws of the Church which protect various rights of the parties, the Church, and the Sacrament of Marriage. The Petitioner has a right to question the validity of your marriage and to expect a definitive response for the Scranton Tribunal in a timely manner.
Clearly, the Scranton Tribunal is under a most serious obligation to ensure and protect the following rights of the Respondent:
- To be notified about your former spouse’s request for a declaration of marriage nullity;
- To be allowed to participate by giving testimony and/or offering the names of witnesses.
- To know the basis for the petition, the names of the witnesses, and the grounds on which the nullity of the marriage is alleged;
- To know the content of the case by reading the testimony at a tribunal office;
- To challenge or refute the Petitioner’s testimony or that of the witnesses;
- To know the content and reasons for the decision;
- To challenge the decision by a complaint of nullity or an appeal to a higher Church tribunal.
It should be noted that the Petitioner has rights similar to the above. Therefore, know that the information provided to us may be reviewed by the Petitioner and Respondent, if they so choose and if the Scranton Tribunal concurs.
An ancient principal, evident even in the scriptures, states that two witnesses are required in any question or dispute brought before the church community. Anyone who has known you well during the courtship and at the time of your marrying can serve as a witness. It is most helpful if the person knew your former spouse at the time of courtship and marrying as well. The best witnesses are those who have known you both since your courtship. Usually, parents, brothers or sisters, or other relatives make good witnesses. We prefer, however, that you not involve your children in the proceedings.
At times, there may be someone you presume would not be an acceptable or knowledgeable witness. Certainly there are some things about a marriage that no one would know about except the former spouse. Nevertheless, please allow us to evaluate the suitability of a witness. It is not always necessary that someone know the intimate details of your life; that they have known you well and were at least acquainted with your former spouse is often more than enough.
The witnesses whose names and addresses you provide will be sent a questionnaire similar to (but shorter than) the one you have received. This will be sent when we receive your paperwork and establish potential grounds. You should encourage their prompt response.
The Scranton Tribunal functions as the official judicial forum by which a person can resolve a problem or regularize his or her status in the Church. This is considered to be the external forum: it is a public, official, and juridical way to address certain situations in the Church. In terms of the divorced, it is the public, external and juridical way that a person can have a subsequent marriage validated by the Catholic Church. Therefore, there are certain features which make this a “public” process.
Nevertheless, any information gathered by the Scranton Tribunal is for the exclusive use of the Catholic Church in determining the validity of a marriage according to its teachings and laws. Because such information is personal and sensitive, the Church is concerned that no one is harmed in any way as a result of this process. Therefore, the Scranton Tribunal may request an oath of secrecy from the parties in the case in order to protect a person’s privacy, good name or reputation. Such an assurance of confidentiality from the parties is also necessary in order that the Church may conduct its internal affairs freely in our society.
Be assured, however, that only those persons who have lawful standing before the Court have access to this information. Obviously, in the first place, this right applies to the parties themselves (you and your former spouse). The need to know applies to the officials and employees of the Tribunal who are bound by a strict obligation of secrecy. Others who may need to be informed about the details of a case are officers of other Church tribunals or professionals whom we engage for their expert opinion.
Often, after a decree of nullity is issued, certain issues need further clarification before permission to marry will be given by the Church. In those situations, a professional counselor will need to be informed about the background of those areas needing clarification.
Bishop Joseph Bambera has decided that there will be no fees associated with any process associated with the nullity of marriage in the Diocese of Scranton. That being said, the policy of Bishop Bambera and the Diocese of Scranton does not prevent fees being incurred in other tribunals.
The Release of Counseling Records
Often the professional opinion of a counselor helps the Scranton Tribunal in understanding the dynamics of a marriage. Any information provided by a counselor to the Scranton Tribunal is confidential. Although you or your former spouse must authorize the release of such information, it is understood that any report released by a counselor or agency will be for the exclusive use of the Tribunal.
If you engaged the services of a professional for individual or marital counseling, we ask that you request that counselor or agency to provide the Scranton Tribunal with a report. To make such a request, please read carefully and complete fully the form provided at the end of the questionnaire. The Tribunal will send your release(s) to the appropriate address. If you were counseled by more than one professional, you must complete a release for each one. You may duplicate the form for this purpose.
Length of the Process
When you complete the petition information and submit it with the required evidentiary documents, you are beginning a process which naturally takes time to evolve with due regard for justice for all the parties. Ideally, the Code of Canon Law asks that such cases at the diocesan level be finished in twelve months. With the availability of qualified personnel to work in the Scranton Tribunal, we hope to come to a decision in these cases well within the time frame established by Canon Law.
Some cases are delayed by insufficient information or by a lack of cooperation from the Petitioner or witnesses. In the event that the Petitioner abandons the case, you may assume the role (and obligations) of the Petitioner in order to see the process through to a conclusion.
Preparing for Another Marriage
In evaluating the testimony in a declaration of nullity case, the Scranton Tribunal learns a great deal about the parties and their marriage. In most cases, some of this information can be used to help either party prepare more thoroughly or realistically for a future marriage. Moreover, there may be some lingering questions about what led to the problems in the former marriage.
The Church is very concerned that a future marriage be as happy and healthy as possible. In many cases, special marriage preparation will be required for one or both parties and a future spouse before another marriage will be permitted in the Church.
Such special preparation can include one of the following requirements:
- Informing the priest or deacon preparing a future marriage about specific pastoral questions or concerns which arose from the testimony in the case;
- A series of three sessions with a marriage and family therapist at a local office of Catholic Social Services to discuss specific concerns or questions and to evaluate the future marriage;
- Referral to a qualified professional (i.e. an alcohol or drug counselor, psychologist, other mental health professional) to assess and/or discuss certain specific areas of concern.
Any of these types of post-declaration of nullity referrals are meant not as a penalty, but as a help to you and a future spouse. Often many couples see such an experience as a benefit to their marriage. In the event that the second or third possibility is required, it is understood that you will be responsible for any professional fees involved.
Because a declaration of nullity involves a legal process which resolves the question of a person’s marital status in the Catholic Church, it must be completed definitively (one way or the other) before any preparations can be made for another marriage in the Church. To avoid confusion, anger, embarrassment and hurt, no date can be set for another marriage (or for the convalidation of an existing marriage) before a final and favorable decision is rendered in the case. If you are a catechumen or a candidate for reception into full communion with the Church, your reception into the Church may also be delayed until your marital status is clarified. If you have questions about this, please speak to your parish priest.
Since the Church mourns the loss and pain which accompany any divorce, and hopes to avoid questions and any possibility of scandal, a future marriage should be cerebrated or validated simply and with little or no publicity.
The Tribunal as a Ministry of Service
The Scranton Tribunal exists to help people participate more fully in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. Within the limits set by the Church’s law, we will do all that we can to assist both the petitioner and respondent in exercising their rights in this process.
As the case progresses, there may be times when you would like to communicate with the Scranton Tribunal. All contacts with regard to your case should be made in writing in order to safeguard confidentiality and to provide a written record for your file.
If you need further information, you may wish to speak to a parish priest. However, please do not hesitate to contact the Scranton Tribunal directly with any specific questions you may have about the process or its requirements. You may refer further inquiries to:
Coordinator of the Tribunal
300 Wyoming Avenue
Scranton, PA 18503-1279