Why do we need a Tribunal?
The Tribunal is the Church’s court with expertise on judging the validity or authenticity of a marriage. The Tribunal process is important because “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6). But, how do we know what in reality God did join together?
We can recognize the beauty of a man and a woman on their wedding day when they express their free and unconditional commitment to love no matter what unfolds in their lives. God blesses the free human choice to give themselves in marriage, but God’s blessing doesn’t mean the couple necessarily enjoys happily ever after. Sometimes couples suffer many challenges along their path of growing in love of one another and of God. Sometimes their relationship collapses, which can be a very heavy cross to bear. What we know is that if God has joined them together, the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage will help sustain them, as it has sustained saints and martyrs in incredibly difficult circumstances throughout history.
Sometimes, however, we suspect that something was amiss at the time of the wedding and the man and woman were not free, capable and intentional in giving themselves to each other in Holy Matrimony. The parties in a failed marriage have a right to know the truth about their marital union: Was it in fact a valid bond that God had joined together or was there objectively speaking a fundamental issue such that the bond was null from the beginning? Feeling that their failed union was not a valid marital bond, either party can submit a petition to the Tribunal for a Declaration of Nullity.
Why is divorce and remarriage a big deal?
Jesus shocked everyone when he said, “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” (Mt 19:9). Not only were the Jewish leaders shocked, so were the Apostles. In the days of Jesus, Jews and Romans accepted divorce and remarriage. Jewish leaders debated whether a person could divorce and remarry for only a few particular reasons, or for any reason at all. Jesus reminded the people that “in the beginning” God established marriage as a permanent union open to children. St. Paul recognizes the union of man and woman to be a great mystery that foreshadows Christ’s love for the Church (Eph 5:31-32).
The early Christians took this hard saying of Jesus to heart. They understood that it was an important part of the teaching of Jesus. Sts. Luke and Mark both recount it in their Gospels, and for emphasis St. Matthew presents it twice in his (Mt 5:31, 32; Mt 19:1-9; Mk 10:1-12; Lk 16:18). Christians embraced this reality and until the 20th century, divorce and remarriage was not accepted by Christian communities. This vision of marriage was nearly universal in our culture until the 1960s. In countless movies we saw the beautiful wedding image of a man and a woman expressing their commitment “until death do us part.” And many times that commitment was followed with a pronouncement, “What God has joined together, men must not divide.”
In the third millennium, our culture has embraced a very secular view of the human person and of marriage. Indeed, marriage is no longer considered permanent, necessarily open to children, nor necessarily even between a man and a woman. Many Christians have abandoned the teaching of Jesus that “one who divorces and marries another commits adultery.” The Catholic Church is still amongst the Christian communities that hold to marriage as God established it.
How is a Declaration of Nullity different from a divorce?
A divorce legally ends the legal reality of a marriage. Very literally this is man dividing what was joined together in marriage. The Church presumes that every wedding results in a couple being joined together by God. There may be problems that justify separation, but the commitment to remain faithful until death remains.
The Church recognizes the sad reality that not every wedding is in fact a free human commitment to lifelong unconditional love, and that sometimes a wedding does not result in an authentic marital bond as God intends. If a person who has had a failed marriage feels there was a problem that justifies their separation and their freedom to enter a new marriage, they can petition the Tribunal for a Declaration of Nullity. The Tribunal provides a forum for an unbiased assessment of the facts of a failed union.
A Declaration of Nullity determines that at the time of the wedding there was some fundamental problem such that an authentic marriage bond was never established. The civil legal effects of the wedding are recognized, but the union was not in fact joined together by God. Hence the parties are not bound to each other until death, and so they are free to enter into an authentic marriage.
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