Within the Catholic Church there exists a series of tribunals. Among the activities of the different tribunals is the work of assisting those who have experienced a marriage breakdown.
Marriage breakdown is usually a traumatic experience for all those concerned. Many separated and divorced people wonder about their status within the Church.
The Church reaches out in support of those whose marriage has broken down, while upholding the permanence of a true Christian marriage. These two aspects of the Church’s position are especially evident in the sensitive work of the Tribunal of the Catholic Church (NSW & ACT).
The questions and answers on this site only address the concerns of baptised persons whose marriage, presumed valid according to the laws of the Catholic Church, have definitively broken down. Further information regarding other types of marriage can be obtained by contacting the Tribunal.
ANNULMENTS – QUESTIONS AND ANSWERs
Where to begin?
There are many views as to the nature of marriage, including the popular notion that marriage is simply an agreement, terminable at the will of either party. The Bible-based view of the Catholic Church is that marriage is the intimate union of life and love between a man and a woman, which is permanent, faithful and open to new life.
The Catholic Church also maintains that the marriage of two baptised people, free according to law, is presumed to be valid and binding, and no human power can dissolve their union. For this reason, the Catholic Church cannot accept that a civil divorce alone frees the parties to enter a marriage according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Such freedom is only established if there is also a church annulment of the previous union.
How does an annulment differ from a divorce?
A divorce dissolves the bond recognised in civil law. An annulment declares that even though the correct wedding formalities were observed, and even though children may have resulted from the union, the bond of marriage, as understood by the Catholic Church, did not come into being. Thus the parties are free to marry according to the rites of the Catholic Church; once all other requirements of law have been fulfilled.
An annulment does not claim that there was no love between the parties, or that they were lacking in sincerity, effort or commitment.
In Australia an annulment has no effect on civil law.
Who can approach the Tribunal?
Anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic, who wants to clarify their marital status in terms of the law of the Catholic Church, may do so.
What is the basis for an annulment?
To answer this question it must be remembered that Catholic Church law presumes that on their wedding day a couple had the capacity to marry. Therefore, the basis for an annulment is the finding by the Tribunal that one or both parties in fact lacked the capacity to make marriage, as understood by the Catholic Church.
To see whether there was an incapacity, the Tribunal investigates many matters. These include the intentions of the parties, their maturity, their freedom to act responsibly, their freedom from undue influence and pressures and their capacity to undertake the essential obligations of marriage.
How does the Tribunal establish the facts of the matter?
The facts of the matter are established through the documents presented and the evidence gathered. The Tribunal needs to be informed about the background and upbringing of each of the parties, their courtship, the story of their marriage and the story since their marriage.
The party seeking the annulment (the Plaintiff) gives evidence in private and under oath.
Every reasonable effort is made to contact the other party (the Respondent) who will be asked to give evidence in private and under oath.
The Plaintiff is required to nominate witnesses who are willing and able to speak to the facts of the case. The Respondent is given the opportunity to nominate witnesses. Witnesses are interviewed in private and under oath.
Everyone giving evidence does so on the understanding that they will not discuss their evidence with anyone else.
Must the Respondent be contacted by the Tribunal?
Yes. Clearly, justice demands that the Respondent know of the proceedings and be offered the opportunity to give evidence.
How is a decision reached?
When there is sufficient evidence for a decision to be reached, the formal (and private) judgment of the Tribunal Court is made. The Plaintiff and the Respondent are not required to attend. The Defender of the Bond submits his observations on the case in the light of the teachings of the Church on marriage.
The decision is made by Judges of the Tribunal, who are sometimes assisted by skilled Assessors. The First Instance Judgment will declare either that the marriage is certainly null (an affirmative decision) or that the evidence does not allow such a decision to be made (a negative decision).
Is everyone who seeks an annulment successful?
No. The fact that evidence is taken must not be construed as an indication of a favourable result. The decision rests entirely with the Judges after they have reviewed all the evidence.
Isn’t an annulment praising one party and blaming the other?
No. The Tribunal is concerned with establishing whether or not there is basis for nullity, not with apportioning praise or blame.
Are children of a marriage declared null considered illegitimate?
No. Church law states that such children are legitimate.
What if the person has been married more than once?
Each of the unions would have to be considered separately.
Is it all worthwhile?
In seeking an annulment there are sometimes painful and anxious moments. Nonetheless, most find the process and the sensitive approach of the Tribunal staff an experience of healing and wholeness.
A decree of nullity clears the way to enter a marriage with the full blessing of the Catholic Church, if the proposed spouse is also free to marry according to Catholic Church law. For those who have already entered another union, a decree of nullity offers the possibility of having that union recognised by the Catholic Church, if the other party is also free to marry according to Catholic Church law.
Before marrying or having a union recognised by the Catholic Church, counselling is often required.
Where can I contact the Tribunal?
All Catholic dioceses have access to a Tribunal office. For Catholics of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, the Tribunal can be contacted at:
Address: GPO Box 89 Canberra City, ACT, 2601
Ph: 6201 9802
Tribunal Enquiry Form:
Should you wish to meet with tribunal staff, please complete and submit this form and the office will be in contact with you to make a time for an initial meeting.