Diocesan Tribunal Answers Annulment Questions

There is probably more confusion surrounding annulments then any other issue within the Church. The Arlington Tribunal is hoping to clear up some of that confusion in a series of workshops being offered at parishes throughout the diocese on the process of annulments and what is and is not involved. In his presentation on annulments at St. Leo the Great Parish in Fairfax on Sept. 28 Judicial Vicar Father Mark S. Mealey, O.S.F.S., explained that much of the difficulty lies in terminology. He said the best way of avoiding confusion is to refer to the process as a "nullity of marriage." When one speaks of an "annulment" it is often compared to a "divorce." This has probably lent support to the false notion that an annulment, or nullity of marriage, is equivalent to a Catholic divorce which, he said, is not true. "Keep in mind that an annulment is not a Catholic divorce," he said. "Divorce is based on what happened in the common life and what problems arose. What happened during the marriage is really of little consequence to the tribunal. What happened during the marriage led to the divorce. The Church says that what makes a wedding a marriage is the consent at the time of the wedding." In essence, a nullity of marriage declares that there was no marriage present in the first place, only that which appeared to be a marriage. In reality there was some inadequate of knowledge, intention or capacity which made the marriage invalid. Father Mealey recommended several pieces of literature for those who have questions about the annulment process. Foremost among these is a booklet published by the Arlington Tribunal entitled Understanding the Annulment Process and also Marriage Annulment in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Ralph Brown. Father Mealey stressed the importance of gathering all pertinent information to establish marital consent, which is what makes a Catholic marriage valid. How old was each party at the time of the wedding? What was the family situation of each like? Was there abuse involved? Was there pressure on either party to proceed with the wedding? What was the courtship and engagement period like? These are all questions that are asked of anyone filing for a declaration of nullity because their answers help establish the basis of marital consent. It is up to the judge of the case to determine the frame of mind of each party when they said "yes" at the altar. According to Father Mealey, the two major misconceptions surrounding the annulment process are that only the wealthy get annulments because annulments cost a lot of money and that it is a matter of "who you know." He emphasized that money has nothing to do with whether an annulment is granted or not. He pointed out that the judge who makes the decision about the annulment doesn’t know whether the fee was paid or not. Some tribunals cost more than others because each bishop has his own policy. Some dioceses charge enough to cover the whole cost of the procedure. The Arlington tribunal asks $450 for each case. The actual cost per case averages $1200. The diocese, under a policy instituted by Bishop John R. Keating, subsidizes two-thirds of the cost. Dealing with the second misconception, Father Mealey said that the tribunal handles about 400 annulment cases a year and there are not 400 people of notoriety coming through the doors. "In our diocese no case is put ahead of another," said Father Mealey. "It doesn’t matter who you are, unless there is an instance of terminal illness, then that case is rushed to the head. Everybody is the same before God." Father Mealey then took the audience through the annulment process. He made clear at the beginning that just as an annulment is not a divorce, the tribunal is not a Catholic divorce court. The tribunal process is not into badgering people and it is not into making one person the saint and the other person the culprit, he said. The tribunal tries to get a mental snapshot of who the woman and man were when they married. The judge looks at what they knew about marriage and each other when they married; were they capable at the time that they married of assuming and fulfilling those obligations; when they said "yes" to the vows what was their intention about marriage; that is, were they committed to a permanent faithful commitment open to children? The tribunal spends as much time as possible getting to know the family life of each of the parties involved, the courtship, the engagement period and who and why they married. Was there stress, pressure, guilt, extreme loneliness around the time of the wedding? Were there any factors present that could have blinded their judgment or affected their perception of who their intended spouse was? Basically, said Father Mealey, the tribunal seeks to answer the question; was that bond of marriage what the Church said it was? Was that marital consent what the Church says is the minimum required for marriage? "The Church thinks your marriage is a valid marriage," he said. "But you are approaching me to say ‘I know that, but I think it is invalid for this reason,’ and we work to study that question." The annulment process begins when one of the parties approaches a priest or deacon in his or her parish (or one they are comfortable with) and talks to him about the life which led up to who they were at the wedding. Then the application is filed with the priest or deacon, also known as the advocate. The application is a form with four parts — a questionnaire, petition (the canonical criteria by which the process is begun), narrative (family life, engagement, courtship and the decision to marry in two pages), and documents including the final divorce decree, marriage certificate, and baptismal certificate of each spouse. After an average of 12-15 months with each case taking 120 hours of work, the tribunal makes a decision. An affirmative decision means there is adequate evidence to declare the marriage null. A negative decision means there is not sufficient evidence to declare the marriage invalid. Appeals to either decision are allowed by a party but they must be clearly explained and made within 15 canonical days of the decision. Appeals are made to the court of Baltimore or to the Roman Rota. Father Mealey addressed the common criticism that the Church is granting too many annulments these days. He responded by reminding people that Catholics are not immune to the patterns of society. "Remember that Catholics are representative of the culture," he said. "The way American society thinks and acts is the way some Catholics think and act. If we have a society in which there are problems in relationships, obviously that is going to be reflected in the work which comes before the tribunal. Our cases reflect society because we are part of society." He reminded the audience that not every case reaches an affirmative decision. "We try to make sure that justice is served and that every individual is given a fair hearing," he said. The Arlington Tribunal has five judges, including two full-time priests, Father Mealey and Father Lee R. Roos, and three part-time priests, Father Robert C. Brooks, Father Stephen A. Roszel and Father David A. Whitestone. There are also four licensed counselors available to aid in assessing the evaluation of grounds and in helping those involved in the cases who are experiencing difficulties. The remaining marriage nullity presentations will be held from 7:30 -9 p.m. on Oct. 19 at All Saints Parish in Manassas, Nov. 2 at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Arlington and Nov. 16 at St. Joseph Parish in Herndon. Pre-registration is required by calling 703/841-2555. Copyright ?1998 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016