Workshops planned to debunk
myths about marriage nullity process
By JOANNE FOX, Globe editor
No doubt the Catholic Church takes the sacrament of matrimony seriously.
Think of the time and effort spent by the couple, the pastor, the official witness, the families and friends to insure a marriage will be successful.
However, sometimes because of immaturity, lack of proper intention, or other significant challenges that might not have been anticipated, a couple will choose to end their marriage with a civil divorce.
That is no sin, emphasized Father Michael Erpelding, a judge with the Tribunal of the Diocese of Sioux City.
“The challenge surfaces when one seeks to remarry without first going through the marriage nullity process,” he said. “That must take place for one to be able to receive the sacraments.”
Father Erpelding will lead a series of sessions on the marriage nullity process at three sites in the diocese. Each session will begin at 6:30 p.m.
– May 27 at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, West Bend
– June 30 at Blessed Sacrament Church, Sioux City
– July 7 at St. Mary Church, Storm Lake
The workshops will cover what documentation is needed, the different steps in the nullity process, the fees and the grounds used to investigate a petition.
Father Erpelding said the main goal of the workshops is for people to walk away with the correct information, rather than the misconceptions they might have.
Here are 20 Frequently Asked Questions and Answers.
Q. What’s a tribunal?
A. A tribunal is a church court made up of canon lawyers to review church law, but a good amount of their work concerns marriage cases, those seeking to have their marriage declared null in order to be free to marry following a civil divorce.
Q. Isn’t marriage forever?
A. The Catholic Church believes that every valid, sacramental and consummated marriage is absolutely indissoluable.
Q. Then, how is it possible to have it declared null?
A. A marriage is presumed to be valid until one or more essential elements are absent.
Q. What are those elements?
A. Typically, they include faithfulness to the marriage, offering one’s life for the good of a spouse, being open to children, intending the relationship to be permanent and conjugal rights.
Q. My wedding didn’t take place in a Catholic church. Is it invalid?
A. Possibly, but not necessarily. If one of the spouses was a Catholic and received a dispensation from form to be married in another church, the ceremony could be valid.
Q. We eloped and were married by a justice of the peace. Is my marriage invalid?
A. It would be. Marriage for a Catholic must be witnessed by a priest or deacon or have the dispensation from form to be valid.
Q. My spouse cheated on me. To me, that was grounds for divorce. Wouldn’t that be enough grounds for a declaration of nullity?
A. Possibly, but being unfaithful does not always invalidate the consent that was given at the time of the marriage. There is a big difference between never intending to be faithful from the beginning of the marriage and an affair.
Q. Does getting a declaration of nullity mean I was never married?
A. No. Civilly, you were married. The church does not recognize divorce as the end of the marriage bond. A declaration of nullity means the marriage was not valid in the eyes of the church.
Q. So, if the marriage is declared null, are the children from the marriage legitimate?
A. They would be. The church believes each child is a gift from God; therefore, children born of a marriage that is later declared invalid are legitimate.
Q. What about couples who have been granted a declaration of nullity after years of marriage?
A. We meet couples who have stayed together for decades for the sake of the children, social appearances, business status or family pressure. Merely “staying together” does not equal the bond or the wholeness of life that is shared in a marriage. Some of those cases warrant a declaration of nullity.
Q. I’m not sure I see the need for a declaration of nullity following my civil divorce.
A. You may not need one if your intention is to never marry. But our experience is an individual may fall in love again and want to remarry. A declaration of nullity would allow them to be part of the full life of the church, while being in an invalid marriage separates one from receiving the sacraments.
Q. Am I excommunicated following my divorce?
A. No, and that is a common myth. There is nothing in “divorce” that prevents a Catholic from receiving the sacraments unless they enter into another marriage without getting a declaration of nullity.
Q. What’s the nullity process involve?
A. There are many forms to fill out and documents to gather, such as the marriage certificate and divorce decree. You will have to find individuals who will testify to impediments to the marriage that might make it invalid and that would include the former spouse.
Q. What if my former spouse won’t cooperate?
A. The process goes on. It is imperative that the tribunal attempt to contact your former spouse. It is the respondent’s choice whether or not to participate.
Q. How long does the process for a formal case take?
A. The average formal case is 12-18 months. A documentary case, which involves a baptized Catholic, married in a civil ceremony, divorced, but now wanting to be married in a Catholic ceremony to someone else is a shorter process.
Q. What does the process cost?
A. No one is turned away for inability to pay. Case fees differ by the type of case. A typical formal case is about $350 and people can make payments. The price is low because the Diocesan Annual Appeal financially supports the tribunal.
Q. How do I begin the process?
A. First, you cannot begin until you are civilly divorced. You should start with the parish priest, who can guide you through the initial paperwork. When that is completed, it is sent to the tribunal. Once a petition is accepted and you and the respondent have provided input, the witnesses are contacted. When all of the testimony is gathered and reviewed, a decision is made by a tribunal judge.
Q. Do all cases receive an affirmative decision?
A. No. In about 10 percent of the cases submitted, invalidity cannot be proved.
Q. What if that’s me?
A. The case may be resubmitted, but new grounds or evidence would need to be presented. The original case could also be appealed to the Appellate Tribunal in Dubuque or the Roman Rota in Rome.
Q. If I don’t plan to ever remarry, what’s the point of going through the nullity process?
A. We have discovered that this process can be a healing experience for petitioners, a healing with his/her church, with family and/or friends and certainly with God.
If you go:
What: Marriage Nullity Workshops
Who: Free and open to the public
When: 6:30 p.m.
Dates/Places May 27 at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, West Bend; June 30 at Blessed Sacrament Church, Sioux City; July 7 at St. Mary Church, Storm Lake
Reservations: Terri at the Tribunal, (712) 233-7533, or firstname.lastname@example.org so that adequate supplies are available the evening of the workshop. If you reach the Tribunal voicemail, please leave your name, phone number and the session you plan to attend.