Trusting tribunals

Once I received a telephone call. A husband and his wife were in the midst of a furious argument, evidently the latest of many, and he wanted a divorce. He also wanted an “annulment” from his local diocesan tribunal. 

He asked me how to contact his bishop. He wanted the bishop to put his case at the top of the list. I knew nothing about the case. I knew nothing about this man. I knew very well, however, that no bishop would give special consideration to this case just to please the man. Doing a favor for someone sounds nice, but someone else’s case would be delayed. 

Bishops are not kings on the mountain. They are subject to Church law and ideals. The Church insists that every tribunal case be treated with equal attention and respect. Impartiality is vital. So are thoroughness and truth. One standard has to apply to all. People’s peace of mind and peace with the Church depend on tribunal decisions. Salvation itself may be at stake. It is very serious. 

Strict procedures are in place to guarantee objectivity. 

Any tribunal official who would twist a case just to please someone would be regarded as despicable under Church practice. He or she would not long have a job, you can be assured, and the judgments would be open to reversal. 

In Catholic terms, the correct phrase is “declaration of nullity,” not “annulment.” “Annulment” means dissolving a marriage. “Declaration of nullity” means that a valid marriage never existed. 

The Church teaches that no earthly authority can end a valid sacramental marriage. Only the death of one spouse can achieve this. It is not a Church rule, like not eating meat on Good Friday, or even priestly celibacy. The teaching about marriage originated with Jesus. 

Since marriage is so fundamental to human life, and the teaching of the Lord so clear and precise, the Church regards marriage very seriously. It requires that no Catholic can enter marriage without consent based on knowledge of what is occurring, or can be forced into marriage or can, in effect, trick the other into marriage even if the motive is well-intentioned or not fully considered. 

Another Church teaching is that everyone has the right to marry — subject to the nature and consequences of marriage as given by Christ. 

These two teachings face each other when a Catholic divorces and wishes to remarry. The Church must honor the indissolubility of marriage, but Catholics have the right to marry. So, was the earlier marriage valid sacramentally? 

Diocesan tribunals exist to answer this question through processes designed to look at all circumstances objectively according to Church teachings about marriage. Underscore “Church teachings” about marriage. Tribunal decisions are based on facts. Everything is about the facts. 

The Holy See oversees tribunals, actually rather closely, and makes the rules. Judges and other officials must be credentialed. (Being a priest is not enough.) Affirmative cases must be reviewed by appellate courts. Diocesan tribunals cannot pick and choose their appellate courts. Usually, in this country, a diocesan tribunal appeals to the tribunal of the archdiocese to which a diocese is attached. Rome can assign other appeals courts, however. Rome names courts of appeal for archdiocesan tribunals. Finally, if indicated or requested, further appeal can, and is, made to the court in Rome. 

Maybe one diocese takes longer for a decision than another diocese. Circumstances differ because circumstances differ. Bottom line: The Church’s system is fair, honest, objective and the Church tribunals familiar to me try very, very hard to meet their standard. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher. 

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