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The Catholic Church understands marriage to be an enduring and exclusive partnership for the mutual giving and receiving of love and the procreation and education of children. For the baptized, a marriage is, at the same time, a sacrament. Since marriage has its origins in Divine Law, every marriage (Protestant, Jewish, nonbeliever, etc.) is presumed by the Church to be a true marriage unless the opposite is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Because it entails a lifelong commitment, the decision to marry is one the most serious decisions a person makes. So much of the person (time, energy, emotion, resources) is invested in a marriage that when a person marries, divorce is unthinkable. Sadly, the unthinkable does occur in too many marriages. The Church in her pastoral mission is greatly concerned for couples undergoing the trauma of divorce. It is important to remember a Catholic is not excommunicated when he or she is divorced. A divorced person who has not remarried is fully and completely a member of the Church.
One avenue of help and healing for the divorced person is the Tribunal. The Tribunal is a Church court under the direction of the Bishop and supervised by his delegate, the Judicial Vicar. He, together with a specially trained staff of priests, religious and laity, offers assistance to persons who request that the Church investigate a marriage to determine if there are possible grounds for an ecclesiastical annulment.
An annulment is a declaration by the Tribunal that a marital union lacked from the beginning some element essential to marriage as ordained by God our Creator and taught by Jesus Christ. This decision follows a thorough investigation according to the laws and procedures of the Church. An ecclesiastical annulment seeks only the spiritual welfare of the parties involved. There is no attempt to assign blame for the breakup of the marriage. A Church annulment has no civil or legal ramifications. It does not affect the legitimacy of any children of the marriage; their status remains unchanged. It must always be remembered that simply because a marriage case is accepted for investigation by the Tribunal, there is no guarantee that an annulment will be granted. Both grounds for nullity and positive proof must be produced.
Role of the Presenting Priest or Deacon
As an ordained cleric, the priest or deacon who helps divorced persons begin the process of applying for annulment welcomes them and assures them of the Church's concern for them. He informs them that they may begin the process either in the parish with him or go to the website of the Diocese of Metuchen and find the necessary forms there. If the person decides to file through the parish, the cleric goes over the forms with him/her, explaining what is needed to begin the process and most particularly what Church documents need to be secured in order to complete the requirements prior to submission to the Tribunal.
Any person who wishes to do so may seek a Church annulment. Ordinarily, this is done through the local parish. The forms may also be obtained from the Diocesan Web site. In order to process an annulment in the Diocese of Metuchen, it must first be ascertained if the Tribunal is competent to handle the case. Competency is determined by where the marriage took place or where the former spouse now lives. This is one of the reasons why it is mandatory to provide the Tribunal with a current address of the former spouse when the petition is filed.
The following information must be presented to the Tribunal:
A member of the Tribunal staff will be assigned to assist the petitioner once the application is processed.
Marriage is never totally a private relationship. It has a profound effect on the family, society and the Church. Witnesses are required by Church law to aid the Tribunal in a deeper understanding of the parties, the marriage and the reasons for its failure. The person applying for an annulment must be aware of the need for knowledgeable witnesses who knew the couple prior to the wedding day who can provide information that is crucial to the annulment process. Witnesses may be relatives, friends and acquaintances. They will be asked to submit written statements directly to the Tribunal in support of the petitioner’s petition. Any evidence of, or reason to suspect, collusion will render a witness’s statement inadmissible. Each witness will write or type his/her own statement, giving his/her own observations and knowledge without any input whatsoever from the parties. The statements should be signed and dated and mailed directly to the Tribunal.
Often doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, professional counselors or clergy have been consulted before or during a marriage. The Tribunal asks the petitioner to provide the complete names, addresses and dates of consultations with a professional, along with a signed release form. These professionals may then confidentially supply the Tribunal with valuable insights regarding the party (ies) and the marriage.
Church law and basic human justice require the Tribunal to notify the former spouse who must be given an opportunity to present a history of the marriage and introduce witnesses. The Tribunal most have an accurate address of the former spouse. An address of a family member through whom the former spouse may be contacted may satisfy this requirement. When a current address is unattainable, proofs of attempts to secure same may be submitted instead. The Tribunal does not require the spouses to have any contact with each other. The former spouse may choose not to exercise the right to participate, and that choice would not prevent the Tribunal from completing the study. However, unless a serious effort to contact the former spouse is made, the Tribunal cannot process the petition.
It is impossible to predict the length of time because of a number of variable factors. No two cases are the same. In many dioceses, under ideal circumstances, a case takes about a year. However, this is not a guarantee. No plans for future marriage in the Church should be made until and if an affirmative decision is communicated by the Tribunal. What Happens When a Decision is Reached? Church law requires that every affirmative decision be appealed. The appeal consists of a review by a panel of judges who will either ratify the decision of the Tribunal or seek additional instruction of the case. If an affirmative decision is not rendered, either party has the right to appeal this decision. Since the annulment is a declaration concerning the marriage in question, it applies equally to both parties.
Yes, there is, and it is requested solely of the petitioning party. It is only fair that those who request the services of the Tribunal assist in bearing this financial burden. The fee does not cover all the expenses involved in processing a case; these are subsidized from other diocesan funds. It should be noted, however, that if a person has serious financial difficulties affordable monthly payments can be arranged. At no time should financial considerations discourage or prevent any person from introducing a case. One’s ability or inability to pay a fee in no way affects the progress or outcome of the petition.