A Guide for Those Involved in Marriage Nullity Trials

INTRODUCTION

From the beginning of creation, God declared: “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make a partner for him (Gen 2:18).” With these words, God established marriage as a holy institution for all people and for all time. Christ the Lord confirmed the sanctity of marriage and raised it to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized. Moreover, our Lord added another dimension to marriage when he taught that this union between a man and a woman was indissoluble; that is, once a man and a woman agree to enter marriage, they cannot later agree to end it: “They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, let no one divide what God has joined together (Mk 10:8-9).” Later, Saint Paul reiterated this solemn teaching: “To those who are already married, it is not I, but the Lord, who commands: a woman must not divorce her husband… and a man must not dismiss his wife (1 Cor 7:10-11).”

Until Death Do US Part

For 2000 years, the Catholic Church has held fast to this teaching of Jesus Christ. Once two people exchange consent to marry, the Church presumes that the marriage is valid. And as long as a person is considered to be in a valid marriage, he or she cannot marry again. This teaching, too, comes from Jesus: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another person commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12). In other words, a valid union between a man and a woman is a marriage that must last “until death do us part.”

However, there are some circumstances under which a marriage might not have been valid to begin with. When a man and a woman say “I do” at the altar, each is entering an agreement with the other person who also agrees to marriage. This is called exchanging consent. Two people give and accept each other in a union involving the whole of their lives, a partnership that is directed at the good of both spouses and the procreation and education of children.

Free and Informed Decision

Now, when two people exchange consent, they must be able to make a free and informed decision to do so. Moreover, they have to choose marriage as it was fundamentally intended by God the Creator. If either of these conditions is not met, a valid marriage cannot arise out of that exchange of consent. The principle is simple: If consent makes a marriage, when that consent is defective or lacking altogether, no valid marriage bond results. And if there is no marriage bond, the Church considers a person free to marry. This is precisely what the marriage nullity process seeks to determine: whether or not, based on specific reasons, a valid marriage bond arose when two people exchanged consent.

One thing must be clear: The marriage nullity process does not declare that a marriage once existed, but now is ended. In other words, a declaration of nullity is not a Catholic form of divorce. Rather, a declaration of nullity states that, insofar as an ecclesiastical court is able to determine, there was never a valid marriage bond to begin with.

To determine whether or not a marriage was invalid at the time of consent is a tremendously serious and weighty decision. Because of this, and since marriage itself is a public reality, the Church requires that the decision be made by an ecclesiastical court. Judges appointed by the bishop of a diocese are given authority by the Church to decide these matters. These judges direct the process by which information about the marriage is gathered and a decision is arrived at as to whether or not a marriage was invalid. This process is referred to as a marriage nullity trial.

Presumed Valid Until Proven Otherwise

There are two additional points to keep in mind. First, the Church always presumes that a marriage is valid. Proof to the contrary must be demonstrated during the process by the one who claims the marriage was invalid. Second, all parties in the nullity trial have rights and obligations (listed below). When all concerned make use of these rights, and fulfill the obligations, it assists considerably in bringing the process to a just and timely conclusion.

There is no doubt that the marriage nullity process can appear complex and confusing. Nevertheless, it is essential for those who wish to clarify their marital status in the eyes of the Catholic Church. This article is intended to make the process more understandable to those involved in it. (next section: The Process Step by Step)