The Marriage Tribunal is one part of the Church’s effort to express the mercy of Christ by offering hope and healing for those who suffer the consequences of broken marriages. By investigating cases and causes of marital failure, the Tribunal attempts to determine whether a marriage in question was a true marital union according to the expectations and teachings of the Church and whether the parties are still bound to the vows that they made.
While the Catholic Church upholds the dignity, sacredness, and permanence of marriage, it cannot ignore the reality of separation and divorce in our society. The Marriage Tribunal is one of the many ways through which the Church ministers to those struggling in broken marriages and serves as a means of hope and healing.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria
4044 Nelthorpe Street
To understand what the Catholic Church means when it issues a Declaration of Nullity, it is helpful to look first at the Church’s teaching on marriage.
The Church teaches that marriage is created by God and governed by his laws. Since the institution of marriage is of divine origin, the Church’s teachings concerning the dignity of marriage apply to all marriages, not merely those of Catholics. All people who are capable of giving consent can marry.
The Church teaches that marriage is also a covenant between a man and a woman which establishes an indissoluble and exclusive partnership. It is a vocation which fosters the good of the spouses and naturally leads to the procreation and education of children. A marriage between validly baptized Christians is a sacrament, regardless of the denomination of the spouses.
In addition, the Church’s teaching respects the natural bond of marriage whenever one, or both, of the spouses is unbaptized. This is rooted in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels; the writings of Saint Paul; and centuries of Christian tradition. Therefore, although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage in which both parties are marrying for the first time, is presumed to be valid. This presumption is the case for every marriage, regardless of whether the parties to it are Catholic.
The Church holds that a couple’s spiritual bond is sealed by God and does not end, even if the emotional and physical bond has ended in civil divorce. Moreover, the Catholic Church shares the belief of other faith communities and of society, that a marriage is not just the private affair of a couple, but rather it is a public reality, affecting both the civil and religious sphere of society and serves as their foundation.
For a Catholic, a valid marriage results from four elements:
- both spouses are free to marry (i.e., no canonical impediments exist);
- both freely exchange their consent;
- in consenting to marry they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another, and to be open to children; and,
- their consent is exchanged in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized priest or deacon.
A declaration of nullity (sometimes referred to as an 'annulment') is a decision rendered by a Marriage Tribunal in the Catholic Church, acknowledging that the sacred bond of marriage was never established between a couple. After receiving the request of one of the parties in a former marriage and only after a detailed study of the marriage has been carried out, might a “declaration of nullity” be issued. The process examines the intentions and understanding of both parties at the time of their wedding to see if the necessary elements for the sacred bond were present (e.g., permanence, fidelity, the ability for true companionship and love of the spouses, and an openness to the generation and education of children).
A formal declaration of nullity states that a relationship fell short of at least one of the elements seen as essential for a valid marriage according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The declaration of nullity process seeks to determine whether or not there was anything that prevented these elements from being present in the relationship, even though both individuals may have entered the marriage with the best of intentions. Marriages rarely fail because of ill will or malice present from the beginning, but rather, because one or both of the spouses were unable to create the relationship necessary for a valid marital union due to physical, psychological, or circumstantial causes.
There are things that a declaration of nullity does not do:
- It does not deny that a relationship existed which was recognized as a marriage in civil law.
- It does not necessarily imply that the relationship was entered into with ill will or malice on the part of either party.
- It does not say that children of such a union are illegitimate.
- It is very important that a declaration of nullity not be viewed as a reward or a punishment of either party for conduct during their union. Instead, it is intended to be an objective assessment of the time of consent, i.e., the wedding itself, when the bond either forms or fails to form, based upon the evidence regarding the couple’s intentions and capacities at that time.
If the Church Tribunal declares that a prior bond of marriage was not properly established, it is stating that the original presumption of validity, from the very beginning of that union, has been proven to be incorrect. In such a case, no true marital bond existed between the spouses. Similarly, if the Tribunal upholds the validity of the marriage, both spouses remain bound in their previous marriage.
Even when a declaration of nullity is granted, there is no automatic permission for either party to enter another marriage in the Catholic Church. Since the Church is entrusted with upholding and protecting the dignity of marriage, the Tribunal must be reasonably certain that each party is currently capable of entering a valid union or has the proper attitudes toward the essential obligations of marriage prior to any future marriage in the Church. In some cases the decision of the Tribunal will recommend that one or both of the parties engage in a program of counseling before attempting a new marriage.
Any person, regardless of their baptismal status, who seeks to marry in the Catholic Church, but has been previously married, must have a declaration of nullity from a Church Tribunal for every prior union where the spouse of that union is still living.
In addition, if a person wishes to be baptized or received into the Catholic Church and is in an invalid marriage (e.g., a second marriage contracted during the life of the first spouse), a declaration of nullity is necessary before baptism or reception.
Finally, some people who petition for a declaration of nullity are motivated only by a desire to seek peace. Those who seek to heal the wound of a failed marriage often find comfort by submitting themselves to the intensive type of personal reflection that the process demands.
The Tribunal process is threefold:
A civil divorce must first be finalized before this process can begin.
All material relative to the nullity process is treated confidentially as required by the Church's law. All information, including civil and/or church documents, gathered during this process is the exclusive and permanent property of the Victoria Ecclesiastical Tribunal. Only those who have a right to the information (the parties, their Advocates, and the Tribunal officials) are permitted to review it for the purposes expressly stated in canon law. All are bound by oath to keep all information confidential and to use it only for the express purpose of resolving the case.
The one who initiates the study of the marriage is the Petitioner; the other party is referred to as the Respondent.
The initial step for the Petitioner is to complete an application, sometimes referred to as a Preliminary Application Form. This form is available at all parishes in the Diocese of Victoria. However, we advise that before you pick up an Application Form, you have a discussion with someone knowledgeable about the Tribunal process. Therefore, we strongly encourage you to contact the Tribunal Office.
All questions on the Application Form should be carefully answered. An incomplete application can delay the process. It is very important to supply a current address for contacting the former spouse.
The application is submitted to the Tribunal Office along with the necessary civil and Church documents. These requirements are outlined in the application form.
At this point there may be different possible ways to proceed. The information provided in the Preliminary Application Form allows Tribunal personnel to determine which nullity process is appropriate for the specific circumstances of each case. Whenever possible, the most abbreviated process is chosen and the Petitioner is advised at that time. The information in the application also allows Tribunal personnel to ensure that the Victoria Ecclesiastical Tribunal is competent to hear the case.
For the Victoria Ecclesiastical Tribunal to accept a case, one or more of the following must be true:
- The marriage took place in the territory of the Victoria Ecclesiastical Tribunal.
- The Petitioner and Respondent (former spouse) have a domicile or quasi domicile in the territory of Victoria Ecclesiastical Tribunal.
- Most of the proofs to be collected are in the territory of the Victoria Ecclesiastical Tribunal.
After it has been determined that a formal declaration of nullity is required, and the case is accepted, the Tribunal begins to gather its evidence by first completing a personal interview with the Petitioner.
The main goal of the interview is to have the person tell the story of their relationship with their former spouse from beginning to end; to tell their own life story, and to tell what they know of their former spouse’s family history. Through this process, Tribunal personnel gain a better understanding of the two people who entered the marriage being studied: the families, early life experiences, when and how the relationship began to develop, the factors that determined their decision to marry, how each spouse lived out the marital commitment, and the factors that caused the breakdown of the union.
The Respondent in the case, or former spouse, is also contacted by the Tribunal and offered an opportunity to participate in this process. Their participation would include a personal interview based on the same questions which were asked of the Petitioner, and an opportunity to submit the names of witnesses.
The Tribunal is required to let the other party know that we have undertaken a study of the marriage. Both parties had rights in the marriage, and both parties now have rights in the nullity process. It is left up to that person as to whether or not they actually participate. The non-participation of the former spouse usually does not hinder the progress of the case. However, the cooperation of the former spouse is invariably helpful to the process. If, for some reason, it is deemed necessary by the Petitioner that the former spouse not be contacted, a discussion must take place with the Judicial Vicar prior to acceptance of the case.
The next step is to interview the witnesses named by the parties. Unlike a witness in a civil trial who often testifies for one person against another, the witnesses in a marriage nullity case are asked to describe the marriage as they saw it. Since the Tribunal focuses on the time of consent, the best witnesses are those people, family members or others, who are knowledgeable about the courtship, engagement, the early years of married life. In some cases, a person may be asked to sign a release form allowing the Tribunal to request reports from medical doctors, psychologists or counsellors. If counselling was undertaken as a couple, both parties are required to sign the release form.
Once all of the proofs being used to adjudicate the case have been collected, the parties are notified. At this point they have the right to read the evidence collected. This step is referred to as the Publication of the Acts. It gives each party an opportunity to decide if they wish to add anything else prior to the case being put forward. Once this has been done, the case is referred to any Advocates appointed to assist the parties in the process, and to the Defender Bond, who offers all reasonable arguments in favor of legally presumed validity of the marriage. The case is then sent to the Judges.
After weighing the evidence and considering the observations of all concerned, the Judges issue a decision by means of a written sentence, setting forth both the conclusions and the basis for the decision in the law and the facts of the case. The sentence is subject to review by the parties, if they so desire.
In formal nullity trials, where there is an affirmative decision the declaration of Nullity becomes effective 15 days after the Petitioner and Respondent have received notification of the sentence. If a negative decision is reached, the Petitioner is entitled to appeal the sentence to the Canadian Appeal Tribunal in Ottawa.
Annulment is the commonly used term for a decision of a Catholic marriage tribunal which finds that an apparent sacramental marriage was null from its beginning. The Church does not 'annul' a valid marriage. Therefore, the correct term for the tribunal's decision is Declaration of Nullity. This is the term that is used through this website.
No. Obviously the couple was wed according to civil law and lived together, and possibly had children. They have a "history" from being together. It is presumed that both parties entered the marriage with good intentions. No one can deny that a relationship existed in some fashion, at least for a time, with its own joys and sorrows, its own hopes and disappointments. Good and bad memories will always remain. In almost all cases, a civilly recognized union was at least certainly present.
The validity of a marriage contract, in civil terms, is based on the observance of provincial law. A decree of civil divorce ends the civil recognition of the union. In short, civil authorities have come to understand that marriage can be cancelled. A divorce declares that the contract has been terminated as of a certain date.
The Church, on the other hand, regards marriage as a sacred covenant of life and love. The fidelity and permanence of marriage is a symbol of the fidelity and permanence of God's love for all people. The freely given consent of a man and a woman establishes a marriage covenant. This consent is an act of the whole human person and it involves psychological, physical, and spiritual dynamics. A wedding always has the potential to establish a true marriage covenant, but unfortunately not all do.
A declaration of nullity affirms the fact that the sacred bond of marriage was not validly established at the wedding, according to Church teaching and Church law. A civil union existed, but the sacred bond of marriage was not validly established. In order for a marriage to be properly established, there must be certain requirements present in the individual who consents to marriage at the time of the wedding. If any of these requirements are absent or seriously distorted, the tribunal judges can declare that the act of consenting to marriage was made in an invalid way, therein indicating that no marriage bond exists. Church law determines what these requirements are. In summary, a declaration of nullity does not break the marriage bond. A declaration of nullity declares that the marriage bond was never validly established at the time of consent according to Church teaching and Church law.
Catholics who are divorced, but have not entered into another civil union are encouraged to practice their faith fully, including participating in the Sacramental life of the Church. Merely being separated or divorced does not change one’s status in the Church. Divorced Catholics are full members of the Church with all of the same rights as any other member.
Catholics who have divorced and remarried, without a declaration of nullity, are not free to receive the Sacraments, but are still encouraged to practice the other aspects of their faith, pending a decision by a tribunal regarding their previous marriage.
The Church considers the marriage bond between non-Catholics to be as equally binding as those of Catholics. Like marriages in the Catholic Church, whenever there has been a public exchange of consent, the validity of these marriages is presumed until the contrary is proven. Therefore, the marriage of two non-baptized people; the marriage of two baptized non-Catholics; or the marriage of a baptized non-Catholic and a non-baptized person, are all presumed to be valid, whether they are celebrated before a civil official or a non-Catholic minister.
The Catholic Church is committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ concerning marriage. It is also committed to manifesting the compassion of Jesus to those people whose marriages have failed. So the Catholic Church and its ministers are committed to be both "prophetic" (to teach what Jesus taught) and to be “pastoral" (to minister to those people whose marriages have ended in a civil divorce). Marriage courts are established to respond to requests that are made by those who have received a divorce to investigate whether or not their marriage was validly established according to the Catholic understanding of sacramental marriage.
The people who work in the marriage tribunal look upon their effort as a healing ministry, an expression of the Church's compassion and concern for those whose marriages have ended. The Church has a system of courts to handle marriage nullity cases. Those who believe that their marriage was not validly established, have the right to petition a tribunal to look into their claim. The work of the Marriage Tribunal, for the most part, involves a process of reviewing and discerning the basis of such petitions.
Any person (i.e., Christian or non-Christian, Catholic or Protestant) who wishes to enter marriage in the Catholic Church, and who has a former spouse who is living, needs to look at the possibility of a declaration of nullity in order to determine that they are free to marry in the Catholic Church. The fact that a couple was married before a Catholic priest and two witnesses does not necessarily guarantee that all the requirements were present to establish a valid marriage. As part of its fundamental teaching on marriage, the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce as ending the bond established in marriage, believing that marriage is binding until death. While the presumption always exists that a marriage is valid, either of the spouses has the right to ask the Church to examine this presumption after common life has ceased, there is no hope of reconciliation, and a civil divorce has been obtained.
In order to expedite your case, the following documents should accompany your preliminary application.
- A Certificate of Baptism or Affidavit of Non-Baptism (for both parties, if possible)
- A certified copy of the Civil Registration of Marriage is required. This document is available from the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the Province of the place of marriage. If the marriage was celebrated in a Catholic Church in any country other than Canada, a copy of the marriage certificate issued by the parish is required.
- A copy of the Divorce Decree Absolute.
Each case is unique. It is impossible to predict even the approximate time that it takes to process a case because of a number of variable factors. Normally a case in the first instance should be adjudicated within 6 – 12 months. Although the Tribunal strives to meet these expectations of the law, the number of cases to be examined, the availability of Tribunal personnel, and possible obstacles peculiar to a given case can prolong the process. The preliminary stage of the process does not have a timetable. A case can move along rapidly if all documents are presented as requested and if the parties and witnesses reply in a timely and informative fashion. If a sentence is appealed to a second instance Tribunal by one of the parties, then an additional six months should be contemplated.
The Victoria Ecclesiastical Tribunal does not assess charges for the processing of annulment cases. However, please note that if the Victoria Tribunal has no jurisdiction over the case and if the case must be assigned to a different Tribunal, there may be costs involved and the Petitioner may be assessed costs by that Tribunal.
If the Victoria Tribunal accepts to hear the case, donations are always welcome and tax receipts can be offered.
Permission to remarry or validate a civil marriage in the Catholic Church cannot be guaranteed by anyone before this process is completed. Sometimes, as a condition of remarriage, counselling will be required and a report provided to the parish minister preparing a couple for the new marriage. No plans for a future marriage, not even a tentative date, may be made with the priest or deacon until such time as a Final Declaration of Nullity is given and any conditions are satisfied. The Tribunal bears no responsibility for any promises or guarantees made for any wedding date that is scheduled before the completion of a case.