Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?

Q: My daughter stopped practicing her faith when she left home, and was married in a civil ceremony to a non-Catholic man.  The mayor of their city married them.  After a few years, the marriage ended in divorce, no children.

Now I’m happy to say she has returned to the Church… she told the pastor of her parish about her marriage, because she wants to request an annulment.  The pastor told her he could annul it himself, when she wants to get married again!  We were shocked, we know that can’t be right.  My daughter then phoned the Marriage Tribunal and told them she wants to do this properly, but they insisted she can only begin the process through the pastor of her parish.

Now none of us knows what to do.  Is there a way to get to the Tribunal without having to deal with this wacky pastor?  What’s the best way to go about this? –Angelo

A: At first glance, it certainly does seem that something is wrong with the pastor’s assertion that he can annul a marriage himself.  We Catholics all know that annulments are granted only by canonist-judges in diocesan courts, right?  So how could an ordinary parish priest make such a statement?  It sounds like another case of a pastor making up canon law as he pleases, as in the sad case we saw in “Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest.”

And yet as surprising as it may seem, the pastor of the parish where Angelo’s daughter resides is absolutely right!  He can, under the circumstances described here, make a determination that her marriage is null on his own—without any intervention from the Marriage Tribunal.  Here’s why.

As has been discussed at length many times before in this space, Catholics who marry are required by law to observe canonical form.  The marriage of a Catholic is only valid if he is married by either the diocesan bishop or the pastor of the parish, or a priest delegated by either of them (c. 1108.1)  We’ve seen that sometimes looks can be deceiving: even in a Catholic wedding ceremony, if the Catholic priest who marries the couple isn’t the pastor of the parish where the marriage takes place, and doesn’t have the proper delegation to celebrate the wedding, the marriage may look like it’s being done right, but it is nonetheless null because of a defect of form (see “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” for a concrete example of this).

But on other occasions, like that of Angelo’s daughter, the failure to observe canonical form can be more obvious.  If a Catholic marries in a  non-Catholic ceremony—in a Jewish synagogue, say—the wedding is invalid under canon law because canonical form was very clearly not being observed.  Yet looks can sometimes be deceiving here as well: as we’ve seen before, exceptions can be made, and a dispensation granted from the canonical-form requirement, to allow a Catholic to marry in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony (see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” and “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” for a couple of different scenarios).

So if a Catholic has married invalidly outside the Church, and now wants an annulment, what does he need to do?  To the relief of already overworked tribunal officials, there is no need to send such a clear-cut case to the diocesan Marriage Tribunal—because there really isn’t anything here that needs to be “judged.”  All that’s necessary is a determination that the Catholic (a) got married in a ceremony that was not Catholic, and (b) had not obtained a dispensation from canonical form from his bishop in advance.  Establishing that a marriage is invalid doesn’t get any simpler than this.

The code, however, doesn’t spell out what exactly to do procedurally in this sort of situation.  Consequently, when a Catholic who had invalidly married outside the Church now wanted to marry someone else in a Catholic ceremony, and came to his pastor seeking to arrange for the wedding, parish priests were left wondering how they were required to handle the canonical paperwork.

That’s why, just a few months after the current Code of Canon Law took effect in December 1983, a dubium on this matter was submitted to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.  As we’ve seen before in “Can We Receive Holy Communion Twice on Christmas Day?” and “Canon Law and Altar Girls,” this Council has the exclusive right and authority to issue authentic—i.e., official—interpretations of all legal documents promulgated by Rome, including the Code of Canon Law.  Whenever there is a question raised about the correct way to interpret a given canon, this Council has the final say.

The dubium asked whether, in situations where a Catholic had invalidly married before a civil official or a non-Catholic minister, it was necessary to go through the tribunal process to obtain a declaration of nullity of the marriage.  The Council’s response was that the full documentary process (described in canon 1686) is not necessary under such circumstances.  Instead, when the Catholic in question seeks to marry again in the Church, it is sufficient to complete the prenuptial investigation as per canons 1066-1067, and establish conclusively at that time that the previous wedding outside the Church was invalid—because the Catholic had not obtained a dispensation from canonical form.  (The Council’s official response can be read in Latin here, where it is included under canon 1686.)  Consequently, if bishops wish to allow their parish priests to handle these cases as part of the prenuptial investigation, rather than sending them to the diocesan Marriage Tribunal, the law permits this.

What is the “prenuptial investigation” referenced here?  Depending on what country/diocese you’re in, the Church has a set procedure to be followed whenever a Catholic seeks to get married in the Church.  As canon 1066 notes, before a wedding takes place, it must be clear that nothing stands in the way of its valid and licit celebration.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for an in-depth discussion of the terms “valid” and “licit.”)  Let’s invent an example: if Jack and Sharon come to Father Jeff, the pastor of their parish, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and tell him they want to get married there, Father first has to ascertain that (among other things) neither Jack or Sharon is impeded from marrying validly in the Catholic Church.  To cite a few examples, they both have to be old enough (c. 1083.1; see “Can a Catholic Ever Elope?” for more on this), they cannot be too closely related biologically (c. 1091; see “Can Cousins Marry in the Church?”), and, of course, neither of them can be already married to someone else (c. 1085)!

Let’s say that in the course of the conversation(s) between Father Jeff and the prospective spouses, Sharon acknowledges honestly that she had once been involved with another man and had married him in a ceremony at a Buddhist temple—and they were civilly divorced later.  Since Sharon is a Catholic, such a wedding is, absent a dispensation from canonical form obtained in advance, clearly invalid.  In accord with the authentic interpretation discussed above, Sharon doesn’t automatically need to petition the Marriage Tribunal for an annulment of her Buddhist wedding.  Instead, Father Jeff can, if it’s permitted in his diocese, obtain from Sharon the necessary documentation (evidence of the wedding ceremony and the subsequent civil divorce), verify that no dispensation from canonical form was ever sought or obtained by Sharon for the Buddhist wedding, and then conclude on his own—logically—that the marriage was obviously null.  This would mean Sharon is able to marry Jack in a Catholic ceremony at St. Mary’s.

Note that if Sharon had been required to seek an annulment through the regular tribunal process, she would have obtained the same result.  The difference is speed and simplicity.  Father Jeff can make the appropriate notations in the parish files in a matter of minutes; a formal adjudication by the diocesan Tribunal could (depending on their backlog) potentially take months.

And so if we return to our original question, we can see that Angelo’s daughter was given accurate information by the pastor of her parish, who isn’t being “wacky” at all.  If she wants to marry in the Church, she doesn’t have to seek a full, formal adjudication of her civil marriage, which is plainly invalid.  We have here a case where the Church has recognized that there is no need for extensive bureaucratic procedures, and so it’s possible for an ordinary parish priest to make a determination which is canonically sufficient.

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