Monday, January 26, 2015

Why does the annulment process take so long?

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In my previous article, I wrote about the process of determining a marriage valid or invalid as a means through which the Church demonstrates mercy and justice. Unfortunately, we live in culture with disposable mentality. There seems to be a need to have quick fixes in the form of no-fault divorces (or any divorces in general). The desired celerity of resolutions only results in the same mistakes occurring again and again; it buries the burdens and further damages the spouses. While the slow pace of the case is necessary to determine the invalidity or validity of the marriage, it can also provide time the couples need to grow from the experience and better understand their discernment of marriage.

As a canonist, I seek moral certitude, which is accomplished by instructing the case, that is, by determining motives and gathering evidence about the validity or invalidity of the bond of a marriage.  I investigate the history of each of the spouses and their background as a couple, and most importantly, there is a discernment of the details that led them to pronounce a vow of marriage in the first place.

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I emphasize to couples that the process is lengthy and focuses primarily on the beginning and not the end of their relationship/marriage. Though the ending of the relationship does not often apply to the investigation, the parties tend to be concerned with it, blaming the one another for it. While strong emotions can help me fish out the truth during interviews, my focus is on the beginning and the marriage/relationship itself; it is not a judgment of the persons.

Canonists—or any other tribunal officials—are neither spiritual directors, therapists, nor any sort of healing ministers, but the annulment process unveils elements of the spouses’ characters, psychologies, and personalities, sometimes revealing what has influenced their decision making and resulting mistakes. Every process begins when one of the spouses (the petitioner) requests to have their marriage investigated. In turn, the other spouse (the respondent) shares the same rights as the petitioner. Some petitioners are stuck and can't seem to see past the end of the relationship; they want the annulment process to go by quickly so they can forget their problems. Again, we see evidence here of our quick-fix culture. On the other hand, there are others who see the process as a means to grow and prepare, if called, to marry again. I don’t encourage or recommend how a couple should approach the process, I can only pray to God and His Holy Spirit to lead me to moral certitude as I instruct each case.

As the case nears the end, all the evidence is gathered (the publication of the acts) and both spouses can read the facts of their case. During this stage of the case, the couple is made aware of the evidence that the judge will evaluate and given the opportunity to provide feedback. They may read harsh details that they would rather avoid or simply forget, but this opportunity should also serve as a reminder that God is the healer and He loves us through it all.

When the final decision is reached and a vetitum (condition that needs to be met before the couple can marry in the Church again) given, it provides a level of aid as the spouses discuss their previous relationship with a counselor, psychologist, or cleric as determined by a judge according to the vetitum. For the canonist, the vetitum is placed not to hinder a new marriage but in the hope that next marriage will be according to the teachings of the church.

Some individuals take the decision with a grain of salt and move on to their next marriage quickly (unless a vetitum is required). But from time to time, it is pleasant to witness individuals who go through the lengthy process with some sense of discernment or authentic growth. Yes, the process is slow, but it provides time for discernment and understanding of the mistakes made, in hopes for amendments and a clearer understanding of the fullest sense of a vow—that the couple is no longer two, but one flesh. The annulment process is therefore, no matter what the result, a continuation of the Church upholding what she has always known: that what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” (NABRE Mat. 19:6)

Have a question you’d like answered about canonical law? You can email it directly to askacanonlawyer[at]

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