Why Do Marriage Annulments Take So Long?

Q: Why does it take so long for people who request marriage annulments to get them? I know a couple of different people who have been waiting for an answer for over a year! They’re not all from the same diocese, either. One of them is really anxious for an answer soon because he wants to get married to somebody else in the Church, and he can’t do that without the annulment.  –Christopher

A:  Unfortunately, the people whom Christopher mentions are not unique. There is no question that when a Catholic petitions the Church for a declaration that his marriage was null, he ordinarily should not expect a quick response. This is not a problem that is particular to the United States, nor is it a brand-new phenomenon. In his very first annual address to the Roman Rota—which is the Church’s highest court that deals with marriage cases, as we’ll see later in this post—Pope Benedict XVI urged marriage tribunals to provide decisions with “speed and efficacy.” Pope John Paul II had likewise made similar comments to those who handle marriage nullity cases in the past.

What exactly is the problem here? Let’s take a very brief, general look at the basic procedure that must be followed whenever anyone petitions for a marriage annulment. It is far more complicated than most Catholics realize.

As was discussed back in “Marriage and Annulment,” annulling a marriage is utterly unlike granting a divorce. A marriage annulment is a declaration by church authorities that while the wedding of two spouses may have been celebrated, in fact no marriage took place. Yes, the spouses went through a wedding ceremony, and externally it appeared that they were married, but in reality, some key element was either missing or wrong, causing the sacrament to be invalid. (The broad issue of sacramental invalidity in general was discussed in greater detail in the same post mentioned above.) In short, either there was (1) a previously existing impediment preventing at least one of the spouses from marrying; or (2) a defect in the form of the wedding ceremony (addressed in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?”); or (3) a defect in the consent exchanged by one or both of the spouses. Any one of these can render invalid the sacrament of matrimony.

It may be undeniable that here in the U.S., annulments seem to be granted quite regularly, which may lead many people to feel that annulling a marriage isn’t a big deal. Nevertheless, the assertion that a Catholic sacrament may appear to have been celebrated but really wasn’t is a very serious matter. When any sacrament is conferred, the presupposition is always that what we Catholics believe is taking place, is really taking place! Therefore the idea that something went wrong at the time the sacrament was celebrated is not to be taken lightly. In the case of a marriage, one could argue that the implications of its possible nullity are even graver than with other sacraments, because marriage involves not just one, but two persons—and if there were any children from the marriage, they naturally are affected by it in some way as well.

This is why every marriage tribunal on earth must have on staff a person known as the “Defender of the Bond” (c. 1432). The job of this person—who may be either a layman or a cleric—is to argue in favor of the validity of the marriages which are presented to the tribunal for annulment. In other words, after a Catholic has presented evidence to support his request for annulment of his marriage, someone employed by the tribunal is obliged to comb through all the evidence submitted, seeking reasons why an annulment should not be granted and the marriage should be declared to be valid!

Offhand, this may sound like some bizarre procedural quirk that is designed to make the experience unduly complicated. But in reality, the purpose of the Defender is to make sure that the opposing side of the argument is always heard, in favor of the marriage (which explains his title, for he is the defender of the marriage bond). As we saw in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” the Church presumes that every Catholic marriage is valid until the contrary is proven (c. 1060). The burden of proof, therefore, lies entirely with the spouse who seeks the annulment. The Defender of the Bond is there to find any available evidence that the Church’s presumption about the validity of a given marriage is in fact correct.

If this means that the process for obtaining an annulment is not smooth sailing, well, it shouldn’t be. Over the years a number of judges in various US marriage tribunals have mentioned to me that sometimes their Defender of the Bond has raised issues that even the judges had failed to notice, and which led them to think twice about granting an annulment. Naturally, their back-and-forth discussion adds time to the process. But which is preferable, getting a quick decision, or getting a correct one?

At the same time, I’ve also met a couple of Defenders who have frankly admitted that occasionally, they are handed evidence about a marriage which is so obviously invalid that they have difficulty finding any argument in support of its validity! Sometimes they more or less end up agreeing that all the evidence indicates that a particular marriage is invalid. True, this causes such obvious cases to take longer than they would if the Defender did not exist, and the result would presumably be the same. But the point of the whole process is that marriage tribunals were not established to automatically hand out annulments to everyone who wants one. Their purpose is to determine objectively, so far as humanly possible, whether a sacrament was administered validly, or not.

The process may sound complex and drawn-out already, but we’re actually just getting started. For even if the tribunal rules that a marriage is invalid, the Church will never accept as sufficient a finding of nullity made by just one annulment process. It will probably surprise most of our readers that in accord with canon 1682.1, whenever a marriage is found to be null, the case is automatically appealed.

Every Catholic diocese in the world either has its own marriage tribunal, or (in the case of very small, understaffed, and/or poor dioceses) has a permanent arrangement with another diocese that handles all the marriage cases that are brought by the faithful in its territory. If, at the end of a process, a marriage is found to be valid, nothing else needs to be done and the matter may end there, unless the petitioning spouse wants to try to press the matter further. But if a marriage tribunal finds that a particular marriage was null, the entire dossier of the proceedings is sent to the marriage tribunal of another diocese. In canonical parlance, this appellate tribunal is referred to as the tribunal of second instance.

Few Catholics realize it, but each diocese has a standing arrangement with another diocese that will take all its marriage cases on appeal. For example, the second-instance tribunal for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC is Cleveland, Ohio; that of my own diocese of Arlington, Virginia is Baltimore, Maryland. This means that every single time the Arlington marriage tribunal finds a marriage to be invalid, the appellate tribunal in Baltimore automatically gets the same case and they review the entire process all over again from top to bottom.  If they agree with the findings of the Arlington tribunal (the tribunal of first instance), they issue a decision to that effect—and only then is the case considered to be finished (c. 1682.2). The marriage is “officially” considered to be invalid only after the second-instance tribunal asserts that it is in agreement with the decision of the first-instance tribunal; and only then does the Church hold that the spouses are free to marry in the Church, since they were never married in the first place (c. 1684.1).

This explains in part why so many people seeking annulments find that the process seems to take forever. For a marriage to be annulled, it actually has to be judged twice.

And the process will take even longer if the second-instance tribunal does not agree with the decision made in first instance. There are any number of reasons why the two tribunals may disagree: perhaps evidence for a finding of nullity is insufficient; perhaps the legal arguments were unsound; perhaps the legal grounds for nullity were not formulated properly. It is important to keep in mind that in cases where the appellate decision conflicts with the original finding, this does not automatically imply that the first-instance tribunal was wrong about the nullity of the marriage. Sometimes the decision may ultimately be the correct one, but the second-instance tribunal might consider that it was made for the wrong reasons, or worded in an unclear way. Yes, it is always desirable that a case be completed as quickly as possible; but at the same time, it has to be done right.

If the two decisions are in blatant conflict, the case may—assuming that one or both of the spouses still wish at that point to pursue it—be sent to yet another tribunal: the Roman Rota (c. 1444.1 n. 2). This Vatican court is similar in some aspects to our U.S. Supreme Court, although the parallel is very inadequate. The Rota is staffed by some of the finest canonists on earth, and when its decisions are published (which only happens selectively), canon lawyers all over the world take notice. Sadly, when a case is sent to the Rota, the petitioner should expect a wait of many years before a decision is issued. After all, this one court is handling cases from all four corners of the globe! Additionally, the Rota frequently deals with new and/or unusual situations for which there is no precedent, and in such cases its judges may very well discuss the theological implications of their possible rulings for months before they issue a final decision. Again, the judges want to be sure that the decision they reach is the correct one.

When we consider everything that has to be done before a marriage can be declared invalid, it may actually be surprising that marriage cases don’t take even longer to decide than they already do! But it should be clear that the lengthy process is not deliberately designed to discourage or frustrate people who seek—and in many cases, deserve—an annulment. The fact that one might wait many months for a decision does not mean that tribunal staff are lazy or irresponsible, still less that they are deliberately seeking to drag out the process. Instead, the Church’s concern is always that the decision reached in such a serious matter be accurate and just, as befits any decision regarding a sacrament.

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