Divorced? Remarried? Want to receive the sacraments, but a marriage impediment prevents you?
Linda Edmondson, and 32 other Marriage Tribunal Advocates in the Diocese of Tyler are anxious to help you. “I felt called to help people who wanted to get into communion with the (Catholic) Church,” she said. “Jesus asked us to love one another. I can’t think of a better way to love another person (than to help them through the nullification process),” Edmondson, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Pittsburg, told the Catholic East Texas Magazine.
“It’s a very worthwhile endeavor to help people with this. One of the challenges is to get people to realize this (process) is an instrument to return people to the sacraments,” said Tribunal Advocate Jim Gasper. He is a retired attorney and a member of Holy Family in Lindale, who went through the nullification process himself. “People need to reaffirm their connection to the Church. We should emphasize a return to the sacraments.”
Kelli Nugent has thought about becoming a canon lawyer for many years, but felt called to do the work of a Tribunal Advocate. “This is a logical ministry in search of justice. This is the Church searching for the truth based on witnesses’ testimony. It’s a sacred privilege to be able to help people in the midst of this trial and anguish,” she said. She lives in Texarkana, Texas, and worships at St. Edward’s of Texarkana, Arkansas. Nugent sought to be mandated to serve both the tribunals of the Tyler Diocese and the Diocese of Little Rock, which covers the entire state of Arkansas.
“Bill” and “Mary” are in RCIA, hoping to become Catholic, but Bill was married and divorced 10 years ago. Even if neither party is Catholic, the Code of Canon Law states that marriage consent is indissoluble and excludes infidelity (Canon Law, 1056). A prior bond is an impediment for remarriage by natural and divine positive law (Canon Law, 1085). The Church recognizes the first marriage unless it is discovered that the basis of that long ago marriage was defective when the vows were originally made.
Nugent adds, “A divorced individual who is not civilly remarried or dating can enter the Catholic Church without having to go through the Tribunal process. It is only if they later desire to date or remarry that they must submit their previous marriage to the Tribunal. If their marriage is declared valid, they are not free to either date or remarry.”
“Sometimes, an individual simply wants the clarity of judgment of the Tribunal,” Nugent continued. “It just gives them a certainty that hopefully brings about a peace of mind.”
It’s a matter of justice. A sacramental marriage between a baptized man or woman which has been consummated cannot be dissolved by any human power except by the death of either spouse (Canon Law, 1141). But sometimes, people don’t understand what they are doing when they get married.
“The misconception is rooted in the culture,” according to Tyler Tribunal Judge, Fr. James Rowland. The widespread use of contraception makes children and fidelity seem optional. The traditional grounds for declaring that there never was a sacramental marriage is if the bride or the groom partially or completely excluded the goods of marriage — permanence, fidelity or children—from the moment of giving their consent.
“They didn’t understand that giving consent means they say ‘I will be faithful to death,’” said Marriage Advocate Margaret Oppenheimer, “God created an unbreakable bond.”
“It’s a problem with our culture that half the marriages end up in divorce.” said Fr. Gavin Vaverek, Tyler’s defender of the bond. He fights for the validity of the marriage during the tribunal process.
In every case he points out the things the judge needs to consider. If they grew up in a stable family, and dated a long time, Fr. Vaverek points this out to the judge. “I look for things that point toward freedom of the bond. The marital act can impact their freedom. They may quit choosing, ‘Is this the one to marry?’”
Sometimes the evidence goes the other way. They were raised in a home where there was physical or verbal abuse, or a parent got remarried after a divorce. That is unfortunate groundwork for a future marriage, but another hazard of our culture today.
“The sacredness of relations between man and woman is no longer observed. Man no longer desires to procreate. Sex is often only for pleasure,” Fr. Vaverek said, dismayed at the state of marriage today.
Further he said, “Our culture is no longer committed to permanence in marriage. Hosea marries the prostitute and keeps bringing her back from prostitution. What God has brought together man must not separate.”
Sadly, the weakness of our culture puts us soundly in the time of Hosea: “There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.” (Hosea 4: 1-3) Living virtuously allows God to bless the future family.
Cohabitation before marriage can limit a couple’s freedom to give consent at the time of the wedding. So can being pregnant. “The groom had a shotgun aimed at him when married,” said Fr. Vaverek. “The presence of a shotgun doesn’t itself prove invalidity, it might be that the couple desired marriage despite the shotgun’s presence (as in the 1954 Musical Comedy) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
Instead the tribunal uses testimony, Fr. Vaverek said. One bride told her father on her wedding day when she was about to walk down the aisle that she didn’t want to go through with it. “My father persuaded me to do it.” Her father was able to testify this occurred and agreed he should have stopped the wedding instantly. Fifteen years later she was divorced. It was determined that at the time of the wedding she was coerced, Fr. Vaverek affirmed.
When a man has a mistress booked into the same hotel with his bride on the wedding night, that is very strong proof he had no intention to remain faithful, Fr. Vaverek said. That is another reason for a declaration of nullity because of defective consent on the day of the wedding.
Fr. Vaverek trains the marriage advocates. “We train them to seek the truth and there has to be an orderly process to reach the truth.”
“There is paperwork — like the priest preparing people for marriage — but mostly it is a ministry of listening,” Nugent said about the Advocate’s work. “We try to clarify for the petitioner (the spouse who filed for the declaration of nullity) or the respondent what kind of case they do have.”
There is nullity due to defects of the will. They may want a green card, but not a marriage. They may have no intention of having children, or being faithful. There is nullity due to defects of the intellect. Believe it or not, one can have a misunderstanding about the quality of one’s intended partner, or one can be deceived by one’s future spouse as to his or her character. Or one can be missing knowledge of something essential to marriage regarding indissolubility, fidelity or its sacramental character.
Then there is nullity due to psychological incapacity. This involves poor judgment, lack of internal freedom, immaturity or incapacity to live the obligations of marriage perhaps due to a physic disorder.
Often the respondent does not respond to a request for testimony in the tribunal process. They may passionately believe the marriage was valid, or they are not Catholic and don’t understand what is the big deal. But in Tyler, they try to make sure the respondent is actually located. It’s an act of charity for the respondent to positively react when the Advocate contacts them. But it’s not required.
Also sometimes people fear that they will have to speak to their former spouse if they involve themselves in the process. “People should not worry! The tribunal handles all the information exchanges,” Gasper said. There is a separate advocate for the petitioner and a separate one for the respondent. Petitioner and respondent never have any contact. Secrecy is strictly maintained.
“That’s one of the challenges — getting the correct information for the respondent,” Fr. Rowland said. “It’s a blessing when they do respond. We have to examine both parties as to the truth of the matter.” If they don’t respond, “we declare them absent from the proceedings.”
“It’s a difficult thing to be going through,” Nugent said, “reliving the demise of your marriage. All we ask them to do is to testify to the truth. It can take a lot of courage for an individual to make that first step to contact a priest or advocate to even begin the process of petitioning for a Decree of Nullity.”
Sometimes, the Advocate must coax the petitioner or respondent and their witnesses to give more than a one word answer to the questions about their marriage. “If they supply only one or two word answers, we can’t proceed,” Fr. Rowland said. The case goes into abatement. No decision is made.
“One lady (respondent) didn’t want to participate, but after encouragement from the advocate she did offer testimony,” Oppenheimer said. “She had a lot of information to share, which was helpful. All the parties need to give the judges something to chew on. They have to paint a clear picture — the family dynamics, problems early on, etc.”
For those opposed to a declaration of nullity, Oppenheimer has this to say: “They sometimes describe how terrible it was. I ask them, ‘Do you want to be bound to that?’” Actually finding out that it wasn’t a valid marriage can lift the blame of its failure from both parties, which is a very healing process.
“When they say it’s overwhelming, I encourage them to write a little bit each day. You can cry a bucket of tears if you have to, but go through it thoroughly. You got to put it on paper, face it, write it down, and you can let it go. It’s like therapy,” Oppenheimer said.
But in many cases, the couple doesn’t need much help from the Advocate because “it’s straightforward,” said Fr. Vaverek.
The good news is that the Tyler Diocese has a good track record. Last year, the Diocese of Tyler only had one abatement. But they handled 46 traditional cases with mixed results. In some cases they granted a declaration of nullity; in some they upheld the validity of the marriage. The number of traditional cases can range between 40 and 60 a year, according to Dyana Noriega, the Tyler Tribunal Secretary. There were also 35 cases last year, involving lack of form. Except in special pre-approved situations, Catholics are bound to be married in a Catholic Church..
“Showing up at a park with a minister— without the Bishop’s special permission — will be invalid and will not be an authentic marriage,” Fr. Vaverek said.
“We are hugely efficient. The slowest part of the process is getting witnesses to respond,” Fr. Rowland said. But most cases are decided in a matter of months. “It hardly goes to one year,” he said, but the fixed timeline for a traditional case is one year.