Some people believe divorce and annulment are synonymous, or view annulment as the “Catholic version” of a civil divorce. But these ideas are far from the truth, according to Father Louis Sirianni, judicial vicar of the tribunal for the Diocese of Rochester.
Most people who come into contact with the tribunal are divorced Catholics who wish to remarry in the church, Father Sirianni said. Some applicants believe it is a simple matter to have their first marriage annulled so they will once again be free to marry in the church, but neither is that necessarily true, he noted.
In an annulment process, the person bringing the case hopes that his or her marriage will be proven invalid. However, the church cannot declare a marriage invalid simply because it was difficult or went sour; such declarations are only made when the church finds that a problem existed at the time of the wedding that made the marriage invalid from the start, Father Sirianni said.
“The presumption is the marriage is valid if it’s been celebrated properly,” Father Sirianni said. “We’re looking at what made the marriage not valid in the moment it took place.”
A marriage can be declared invalid on the basis of several grounds. The grounds most commonly presented at the diocesan tribunal is a lack of consent, meaning one or both parties to the marriage was incapable of giving proper consent to the marriage at the time of the wedding, according to Emmett Wells, the tribunal’s director.
In order to enter into a valid marriage, a person must be able to understand what he or she is doing, the rights and obligations of marriage, and whom he or she is marrying. If such knowledge and understanding is not present, the marriage is not valid, Wells said. A marriage is also invalid if one of the spouses deceives the other to gain consent, if one of the parties felt compelled to marry out of fear or if the marriage was based on a stipulation about the future, Father Sirianni added. All of such situations would fall under the grounds of a lack of consent, as defined in Canons 1095-1107 of the Revised Code of Canon Law.
A marriage might also be declared invalid on the basis of several other grounds, called impediments to marriage. These impediments might include getting married although one or both parties is already bound by a previous valid marriage, one is a member of the Catholic clergy or the parties are close blood relatives.
A marriage also can be declared invalid if canonical form was not observed at the time of the wedding and the parties had not previously received a dispensation from canonical form. Canonical form requires the marriage to take place in the presence of the appropriate bishop, vicar general or pastor plus two witnesses. If canonical form has not been observed, no annulment is needed and both parties are free to marry because the marriage was never recognized by the church, Father Sirianni said.
Another type of case handled by the tribunal relates to divorced and remarried non-Catholics who wish to join the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Such a person must have his or her previous marriage reviewed by the Catholic Church to determine current marital status before admission to the church, Father Sirianni said.
One common misconception is that divorced Catholics can not receive Communion.
“If a person is divorced but has not remarried, they are not prevented from receiving the sacraments,” Father Sirianni said.
Only when divorced Catholics remarry without having had their first marriages annulled do they become ineligible to receive Communion, Wells said, noting that such people can continue to attend Mass.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on the diocesan tribunal, visit the Diocese of Rochester’s Web site at www.dor.org/tribunal.