Which Tribunal Has Authority to Annul My Marriage?

Q: I am Catholic and I was married to a Catholic for 20 years. She divorced me and I never expected to marry again.  But then I met a woman who had also recently divorced. We decided to get married.

We both submitted annulment paperwork for our first marriages to an Orthodox Archbishop, and both were granted…  The Orthodox Archbishop later married my current wife and me.  Based on reading your articles, I believed this to be a valid marriage.

My local Catholic parish priest accepted our annulment and marriage as valid and allowed us to continue in good grace in our local Catholic Church… However, my ex-wife is now challenging the legitimacy of my marriage to my current wife.

My parish priest continues to support us but I’m preparing myself for whatever challenge may come as to the validity of my Orthodox marriage. Can you please provide some insight and guidance into my situation? –Clint

A: There’s quite a lot going on in this scenario, and much of it apparently involves making up the rules as you go along.  Needless to say, that’s not how Catholic theology or canon law works!  Let’s take this situation apart and see what conclusions can be drawn about Clint’s marriage and its annulment (or not).  And while we’re on the subject, we can take a general look at which diocesan tribunals have authority to judge the validity of a marriage—and which ones don’t.

For starters, if you want your marriage annulled, the law does not permit you to ask the marriage tribunal of any diocese you please.  Legally, only certain tribunals have competence to examine and rule on the validity of your marriage.  The term competence has a specific legal definition in this context: it means that only certain tribunals legally have the authority to issue a decision in a particular case.  So which tribunals are competent to determine whether your marriage is valid or not?

The 1983 Code of Canon Law contained the answer to this question in its canon 1673; but in 2015, Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Letter Mitis Iudex, which reworded and renumbered several of the canons in this chapter of the code—and the new version of this canon is now canon 1672.  Inexplicably, four years later the Vatican’s website still hasn’t been updated, to show the current canons as they are laid out in the 2015 document.  Thus it’s necessary to read the canons of this section of the code directly from Mitis Iudex.

The current canon 1672 gives us a list of which diocesan marriage tribunals are competent to judge a marriage case:
1. The tribunal of the place where the marriage was celebrated;
2. The tribunal of the place where either spouse has a domicile or quasi-domicile (these terms were discussed in both “Marriage and Quasi-Domiciles” and “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?”); and
3. The tribunal of the place where in fact most of the proofs will have to be collected (more on this in a moment).

So let’s say that Hank and Julia were married in Diocese A, where they lived.  The marriage later ended, and two years ago Julia moved to Diocese B, while Hank stayed put in their original home.  According to the current canon 1672, if one of them now seeks an annulment, the tribunals of both Diocese A and Diocese B are competent to judge the validity of their marriage.

How does the third option in canon 1672 apply?  There are a whole host of scenarios when this could become relevant.  Let’s imagine that Gregory and Suzanne were married in Diocese W.  Subsequently they and their extended families all immigrated to a new country, and lived there in Diocese X.  The couple later divorced, and both of them moved to new cities, where they still reside: Gregory now lives in Diocese Y, and Suzanne is in Diocese Z.  Now Gregory wants an annulment.

In this imaginary situation, it would legally be possible for the tribunal of Diocese W to judge the marriage, since this is where the wedding took place (c. 1672 n. 1).  Since the ex-spouses have established domiciles in Dioceses Y and Z respectively, the tribunals in each of these dioceses would have competence as well, as per canon 1672 n. 2.  But let’s say that the rest of their family members and many of their friends still live in Diocese X—in fact, almost every person whom both parties intend to call as witnesses lives in that diocese.  In this case, Diocese X is competent to judge the validity of the marriage too, in accord with canon 1672 n. 3.

So how do you decide where to submit your petition?  It’s not possible to provide a one-size-fits-all sort of rule, because it depends on many factors.  Note that the canon tells us which tribunals legally can judge the case; it doesn’t tell us which one should.  In general, since the petitioner normally begins the process by contacting his/her parish priest, that diocese may end up being the place where he/she submits the petition; but this could vary if—to cite only one example—the respondent (i.e., the other spouse) lives in another hemisphere and can only communicate with the tribunal of the petitioner’s diocese with great difficulty!  The correct answer to this general question, therefore, is “it depends.”

That said, let’s now take a look at Clint’s situation.  Clint and his first wife, both Catholics, were married in a Catholic wedding ceremony.  The marriage ended in divorce, and Clint wanted to marry another woman, who was likewise divorced, so he sought an annulment of his first marriage.  We’ve just seen which diocesan marriage tribunals are competent to accept the case; but as Clint tells us, the decree of nullity which he obtained didn’t come from any of them.

Instead, Clint went to “an Orthodox Archbishop” for an annulment of his Catholic marriage—and the Orthodox cleric gave it to him.  This logically raises two questions: why would Clint do this, and why would the Orthodox Church agree to judge the validity of a marriage celebrated in the Catholic Church between two Catholics?

As has been discussed numerous times in this space, the Orthodox are not in communion with Rome.  The Orthodox Churches (such as the Greek, Russian, and Romanian Orthodox, to name only a few) are officially in a state of schism vis-a-vis the Catholic Church (cf. c. 751), because for nearly 1000 years, the Orthodox have refused to recognize the primacy of the Pope over the universal Church.  The Catholic Church does recognize the validity of the sacraments administered by Orthodox clergy, since it holds that they are validly ordained.  But while the Orthodox are celebrating valid sacraments, that does not mean they are Catholic sacraments.  And the Catholic Church has certainly never held that the Orthodox hierarchy have any authority over the Catholic faithful—which is exactly what Clint seems to be suggesting here.  After all, he asked a cleric from an Orthodox Church to judge the validity of a Catholic sacrament.  Why would anybody presume that a cleric who is in schism with the Catholic Church is able to do such a thing, and why on earth would anybody expect this decision to be recognized by the Catholic Church?

Speaking broadly, the Orthodox clergy fully understand this—even though there is no single, uniform code of law that is followed by all the Orthodox around the world, and so individual exceptions abound.  It’s possible that the unnamed “Orthodox Archbishop” who declared Clint’s Catholic marriage to be null is one of these renegade exceptions; but based on what Clint says next, there is another, more reasonable explanation that is far more likely.

Clint tells us that he married his second wife in an Orthodox wedding ceremony.  Orthodox clergy, of course, do not celebrate a marriage if neither spouse is a member of their Church!   Logically, this means that either Clint’s new wife was already a member of the Orthodox Church and Clint decided to join her, or she and Clint both became Orthodox.  This explains the action of the Orthodox Archbishop, who declared that Clint’s Catholic marriage was invalid: his decision permitted Clint’s second marriage to take place in the Orthodox Church.  The Archbishop was examining the validity of the Catholic marriage, solely in order to determine whether it was valid in the eyes of the Orthodox Church—not of the Catholic Church.

It’s a pretty safe bet, therefore, that the Orthodox Archbishop who granted this annulment was never suggesting for a moment to act on behalf of the Catholic Church.  It seems probable that the Archbishop presumed that Clint and his second wife would be practicing the Orthodox faith from now on.  That’s why it makes absolutely no sense to suggest that somehow, the decision of this Orthodox Archbishop should be accepted by Catholic authorities—which is exactly what Clint wants them to do.  And Clint wants this, because evidently he has now decided that he wants to be a practicing Catholic again.

It’s painfully obvious that Clint is trying to have his cake and eat it too!  In a nutshell, Clint married a second time in a non-Catholic ceremony, without obtaining an annulment of his first marriage … and now he wants the Catholic Church to accept that this is okay.  It isn’t, and it would require pretty strenuous mental gymnastics to conclude that “based on reading your articles, I believed this to be a valid marriage.”  No article on this site could possibly be construed to suggest that Clint’s second marriage, celebrated in a non-Catholic ceremony and without first obtaining an annulment of his previous marriage, is valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

For this reason, Clint’s first wife is absolutely correct in challenging the validity of his second marriage, and it would probably take a typical (Catholic!) marriage tribunal only a few minutes to confirm this.  Given everything just stated, you have to wonder why Clint’s “Catholic parish priest accepted [his] annulment and marriage as valid and allowed [them] to continue in good grace in [their] local Catholic Church,” because this is quite erroneous.  It could be that somehow the priest has misunderstood Clint’s situation; or another possibility is that this priest wrongly thinks that the validity of a marriage depends merely on his say-so (much like the sad case described in “Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest”).  The fact is, Clint’s second marriage is most decidedly not valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, whether his parish priest “supports” him or not.  Clint is, therefore, currently living as husband and wife with a woman who is not his wife at all.

If Clint really does want to be a Catholic from now on, this situation needs to be rectified.  Clint can submit a petition for a declaration of nullity of his first marriage to a diocesan tribunal that meets the criteria found in canon 1672, as we have just seen, and the same must be done by his second wife, because she likewise was divorced before marrying Clint.  It makes no difference whether the new wife is a Catholic or not; the Church has to ascertain whether or not her first marriage was valid, before it can permit her to marry in a Catholic ceremony (see “Why Would Non-Catholics Get an Annulment?” for more on this). If the tribunal finds that that both Clint’s and his second wife’s previous marriages were invalid—something which can never be taken for granted!—Clint can then take steps to have his second marriage validated in accord with canon law (the circumstances described in “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? (Part II)” would apply to Clint’s case).  What an Orthodox Archbishop may have decided is of no consequence in this case whatsoever—because if you’re Catholic, you have to accept the authority of the Catholic Church.

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