Frequently Asked Questions
According to the teaching of Christ and the Church, marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life. By its nature, marriage is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. Christ the Lord has raised marriage between two baptized persons to the dignity of a sacrament. This partnership requires that the two truly become one, that they are faithful to one another, and that they maintain their irrevocable union until death.
The dignity and importance of marriage is recognized in all cultures throughout the world. The Church teaches that the well being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.
Marriage comes about by the consent of the parties, which is exchanged in a manner recognized by the state and the Church. Therefore, even though a priest or deacon serves as the official witness at a Catholic wedding, it is really the bride and groom who are the ministers of the sacrament. In this sense they really marry themselves when each one gives his or her consent and receives the consent of the other.
According to Church law, once a man and woman enter marriage by legitimately manifesting their consent, they are presumed by the law itself to be married. Consequently, the validity of a marriage is to be upheld until the contrary is proven.
The term annulment refers to an official declaration by the appropriate Tribunal of the Catholic Church that what appeared to be a marriage was, in fact, not a true marriage that is binding upon the parties for life. An annulment, or declaration of nullity as it is correctly named in Church law, does not deny that a relationship really existed. It would be silly to think (or for the Church to declare) that there was no wedding or that some kind of a marriage never existed. A declaration of nullity means that the relationship fell short of at least one of the essential elements for a binding union.
An annulment is not a Church divorce. A civil divorce decree breaks a marriage bond. In "no-fault" divorces, the parties get divorced by agreeing to revoke their consent. According to the teaching of Christ and the Church, once the parties legitimately and validly exchange their consent, they cannot revoke it later on at their own will. An annulment is a declaration from the Tribunal that the marriage was invalid from the moment of the wedding. The reasons for granting an annulment are reviewed next.
A declaration of nullity can be issued for a number of reasons that are established by Church law.
Anyone who has been previously married, whether baptized or non-baptized, Catholic or non-Catholic, may petition for a declaration of nullity. All previously married persons are eligible to apply because the Church presumes that every marriage, whether it involves Catholics or non-Catholics, is valid and binding once it has been entered into by a man and woman. Thus, even a non-Catholic who was previously married and now wishes to be married to a Catholic must petition for a declaration of nullity.
Before the Tribunal accepts a petition, a person must provide a certified copy of the decree that proves that a civil divorce has already been granted.
The one who applies for the declaration of nullity is referred to as the Petitioner. The other party to the marriage is referred to as the Respondent.
An annulment petition must be submitted to the Tribunal that has jurisdiction over the marriage in question. The Tribunal of the Diocese of Erie has jurisdiction over marriages which were celebrated anywhere within the territory of our diocese, which includes the counties of Erie, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, McKean, Mercer, Potter, Venango, and Warren in northwestern Pennsylvania. The Tribunal also may have jurisdiction if the Petitioner and Respondent live in the territory of our diocese.
The work of the Tribunal is governed by procedures determined in Church law. These procedures are intended to safeguard the integrity of marriage and to protect the rights of all parties involved. Here is a summary of the steps involved in a formal marriage nullity case.
The cooperation of the Petitioner, Respondent, and witnesses, and the quality of their testimony have an effect on the length of time it takes to investigate a case. The number of cases pending also impacts the time each case takes to complete. The Tribunal is required by Church law to give a specified amount of time to various steps in the process.
No two cases are alike. According to Church law a case is supposed to be completed within 18 months. Many cases are completed in less than 18 months. Some may take longer. There is no way that any member of the Tribunal staff can predict when a given case will be finished.
It is important to note that Church law stipulates that no new marriage may be scheduled in any Catholic parish until the annulment process is complete. Those who participate in the annulment process are asked to cooperate fully and to be patient.
No. In accord with Pope Francis’ recent exhortation for tribunals to offer their services free of charge, we no longer charge a fee. However, the costs of operating a tribunal are not insignificant, and we accept donations from those who take advantage of our services to help defray the costs.
In the United States there are no civil effects from a declaration of nullity issued by the Tribunal. It does not affect in any manner the legitimacy or custody of children, property rights, inheritance rights, or names. These issues are under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. The main effect of a declaration of nullity is to determine whether a person is free to enter marriage again in the Church, and thus be admitted to full sacramental participation.
Children born of a marriage that might later be declared invalid are, of course, considered legitimate. Some people think that a declaration of nullity makes the children illegitimate because they think the declaration means the marriage never existed. Both of these views are incorrect. A declaration of nullity does not say that the marriage never existed.
A declaration of nullity has no effect on the status of children. They are regarded as having the same dignity as any person, since all are created in the image and likeness of God.
A packet with instructions and the forms to be completed are available in every parish in the Diocese of Erie. It is a good idea to contact the parish priest, deacon, or pastoral minister who can assist initially. Tribunal Representatives in the various Deaneries can also provide you with materials and initial assistance.
Of course, you may request any materials or information concerning the annulment process from the Office of the Tribunal. Petition forms can be provided by email.
A civil divorce does not prohibit a Catholic from receiving the sacraments. However, a Catholic who remarries after divorce without a declaration of nullity (and a Catholic who is married to someone with a previous marriage that has not been declared null) is not to receive the sacraments. The Church encourages Catholics in such circumstances to continue practicing the faith by remaining members of a parish and by regular attendance at Sunday liturgy and other parish functions. It should be noted that a Catholic who has divorced and remarried is not excommunicated.
Further guidance concerning the reception of the sacraments after divorce can be sought from a parish priest.