Notes and guidance from the Matrimonial Tribunal
Q. What is a Matrimonial Tribunal?
A. It is not a divorce court, and it is not a marriage counselling service – though counselling goes on. People who seek the services of the Tribunal have usually been through a civil divorce and in many cases they have received counselling.
No, a marriage tribunal is there to establish facts about a marriage and to draw a conclusion from those facts. It does not seek in any way to allot blame to anyone. Though blame may be an issue in a divorce court, it plays no part in a marriage tribunal’s investigation. The tribunal looks at the facts and attempts to judge whether there was or was not in the case in hand a real sacramental bond of marriage. If so the marriage is indissoluble “till death do us part”. “What God has joined together, let no one put apart.” (Matthew 19:6). Such tribunals have existed in the Church for many centuries, long before civil courts ever became involved in matters of this kind. The Tribunal is not there to annul marriages, but to uphold the sanctity and indissolubility of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Q. What is an annulment (or decree of nullity)?
A. Let us explain a little further. The sacrament of Matrimony creates a bond between a man and a woman which is a reflection of the bond that exists between Christ Himself and His Church, i.e. ourselves. (Ephesians 5: 21-33). It is therefore indissoluble, unbreakable. However, sometimes the bond created by a particular man and woman falls short of the full requirements of the sacrament. Like Ordination, Matrimony is a sacrament for adults, so that a man may take his life in his hands, as it were, and hand himself over totally to the other, and she may do the same to him. For this they both need to be free, not physically or emotionally impeded in any way, aware of the implications of marriage and able to take on its responsibilities. It happens sometimes that one or other of these elements is missing when the vows are exchanged and the contract is entered into; in such a case, however worthy the parties’ intentions, a sacramental bond is not created and the sacrament can be declared invalid. The parties can then be declared free to enter into another, sacramental, marriage.
Q. Shouldn’t I just forget the past?
A. Not really – you don’t want to make the same mistakes again, do you? It really is a helpful experience to face reality with the help of the trained men and women who conduct the enquiry. It can be painful of course, but it can bring great relief as well, and indeed a real personal growth. And you won’t be shocking anybody! And what a blessing to be able to enter into a fresh marriage with the full blessing of the Church!
Q. Are decrees of nullity easier to get nowadays?
A. In a sense yes, since recent developments in psychology have enabled tribunals to make a fuller assessment of the requirements of sacramental marriage. We understand better now how certain people approach their wedding without having “grown up” sufficiently to assess their own readiness or ability to sustain the life that lies ahead. Of course this does not mean that the Church expects a couple to foresee all the snags and problems that their marriage will bring forth, but only that they have the necessary maturity to handle the problems together as they arise. In trying to make a judgement on these sensitive issues, the members of the Tribunal will often be helped by listening to the assessment of witnesses who knew the parties at the time of the wedding (parents often make helpful witnesses), and on occasion by the views of an experienced psychologist.
Q. Who can ask for an annulment?
A. Either party to the marriage, whether Catholic or not. No one else. Second partners normally play no part, though of course they frequently give good moral support.
Q. Are petitions usually successful?
A. The starting point of any enquiry is that the marriage is valid – the burden of proof is on the Petitioner to show that it was not so, and if the Judges (three in number), are to reach a conclusion of nullity they must do so with moral certainty (beyond reasonable doubt). Sometimes, an initial conversation with a Canon Lawyer or an experienced Parish Priest will be enough to show that a Petition has small chance of succeeding. (Remember, it is not enough to show that one or other party has deserted the marital home). Witnesses to the facts are required, and the other party has always to be given a chance of contributing his or her own view of the marriage. Sometimes there are divergences of views!
Q. How long does it take?
A. As long as a piece of string! It varies greatly, but in Clifton Diocese we make a serious effort to complete a case within a year, as recommended by the authorities in Rome. In practice six to eight months if all goes smoothly. Many delays, though by no means all, are caused by Petitioners themselves! Witnesses may be far away or hard to contact – and the Tribunal staff themselves may have a heavy workload. Remember that no Priest is allowed to perform the wedding of a divorced person unless and until the first marriage has been annulled by a Church tribunal. So it would be foolish to ‘name the day’ before the annulment has actually been granted.
Q. Who can be a witness?
A. It is the responsibility of the Petitioner to find willing witnesses to fill in the picture for the Judges. Every effort is made to contact the Respondent; and parents, relatives, the Best Man or the bridesmaids can all be useful witnesses. Remember that the emphasis is on the situation at the time of the wedding, rather than on the breakdown; and remember too, as mentioned above, the Tribunal is not interested in apportioning blame.
Q. What about the children?
A. Annulment by a Church Tribunal has no effect at all on the legitimacy of the children, in either civil law or Church law. Sometimes legitimacy is an upsetting factor, so it is good to remember that the canonical annulment of the parents’ marriage makes no difference whatever.
Q. How do I start a case for annulment?
A. Simply by writing to the Tribunal Administrator (Clifton Diocese Tribunal, Alexander House, 160 Pennywell Road, Bristol BS5 0TX) and asking for application forms. You will be guided on to the next steps. If you know your Parish Priest well it is good to discuss with him what you are doing. All information that reaches the Tribunal is treated in the strictest confidence, and every effort is made to comply with the Data Protection Act. The telephone number is 0117 983 3907, and the office is open in the mornings, Monday to Friday.
Q. What if my case is urgent?
A. Every case is urgent! But see How long does it take? (above).
Q. How much will it cost?
A. At the time of writing, annulment cases cost the Diocese on average around a thousand pounds. The lay staff have to be paid (the clergy are not paid), and the office is not cheap to run. Hence Petitioners are asked to pay whatever they can afford towards this sum. An initial payment is asked of £50, and thereafter the Petitioner makes an arrangement with the Tribunal’s lay financial officer to make a reasonable payment, in instalments if appropriate. No case is ever turned away for financial reasons – and the Judges do not know, and have no wish to know, what arrangements any individual Petitioner is making. Even the Judicial Vicar, who is responsible for the entire running of the Tribunal, knows nothing of these matters.
Q. Does every case go to Rome?
A. Very few cases actually go before a Tribunal in Rome. But decisions do have to be ratified by a second Tribunal, in our case in the Archdiocese of Birmingham. A marriage must be declared null by two Tribunals, and it is only if those two disagree that the case goes to Rome for final decision. It happens occasionally and can cause long delays.
Q. Is nullity a Roman Catholic form of divorce?
A. Decidedly no. The Church is conscious of its mission to uphold the dignity of the sacrament of marriage. The very fact that the Church insists on the procedure for annulments shows how keen she is to fulfil that mission. If people do not understand the difference between divorce and annulment it is because they have usually refrained from taking the necessary steps to inform themselves or are so prejudiced against the Catholic Church and its laws that they are unwilling to accept any explanation that would free them from their prejudice. Marriage is a divine institution and is given into the custody of the Church founded by Christ. Our tribunals do not exist in order to annul marriages but in order to deal justly with difficult situations of doubt and uncertainty. Whenever, after investigation, the tribunal remains uncertain about a case, it must give the marriage the benefit of the doubt.
All applications for investigations into marriage should be addressed to: Clifton Diocese Tribunal, Alexander House, 160 Pennywell Road, Bristol BS5 0TX.
Association of Separated and divorced Catholics:
For more information, contact Deacon Dennis Sutton on 01793 520753, or follow this link to the ASDC website for England
The ASDC is an association of local lay self support groups; stemming from an inaugural meeting called in Manchester in 1981 in response to an increasing pressure for a more compassionate understanding of separated and divorced catholics.
The purpose of our organisation is to provide catholics shattered by the trauma of marriage breakdown with the support and care which is often best provided by fellow believers and sufferers. With the guidance of our group chaplains, and confident in Christ’s promise to those who gather in His name, we believe Christ shares in our mutual ministry of healing. Many lonely and isolated catholics with our common faith in Christ (in particular those trying to raise children on their own) describe joining the ASDC as “finding a new family”. With the help of our new brothers and sisters we learn to admit our anger, resolve our bitterness, start to forgive past injuries and mistakes, our own included, and so to begin to live again. Through shared prayer, discussion, study, retreats, as well as more social outings and entertainments, we grow in the confidence to reassert ourselves in society.We are not a pressure group seeking to change church law; we uphold the sanctity and integrity of marriage as the foundation of human life. We do aim to change attitudes by spreading accurate information on the church’s teaching on separation, divorce, annulment and remarriage both among our members and fellow Christians. We want to integrate our work with other caring agencies to reduce the number of marriages that fail.
General information on the law of the church (canon law) concerning marriage
1. The Church’s own laws (as distinct from the laws of God Himself) apply to Catholics only, whether baptised as Catholics or received into the Catholic Church.
2. For a true marriage to take place and to be recognised by the Church as valid, a Catholic is normally obliged to celebrate it in the presence of a duly authorised bishop, priest or deacon and two other witnesses. When there are serious difficulties in observing this ‘form’ the local Ordinary (i.e. the Bishop or Vicar General or Episcopal Vicar for Matrimonial Affairs) may, in the case of ‘mixed’ marriages (i.e. of a Catholic with a non-Catholic), in certain circumstances grant a dispensation in order to permit the marriage to be celebrated for example in the church of another communion. Without such a dispensation a Catholic cannot enter a valid marriage with a non-Catholic in, for example, a church or chapel of another denomination or in a Register Office. Thus it can happen that a Catholic ‘marries’ in a Register Office and the ‘marriage’ is recognised as valid in civil law but as non-existent in Church law. It must be remembered, however, that two non-Catholics marrying in another church or Register Office are contracting a true marriage which is recognised by the Church (provided both parties are baptised) as a true sacrament.
3. For a Catholic to be granted permission to marry a person belonging to another Church there are certain conditions:
(a) The Catholic must promise his/her readiness to eliminate the danger of falling away from the faith and to do what he/she can within the unity of the partnership to have any future children baptised and brought up as Catholics;
(b) The other party must be made aware of these promises as soon as they have been made;
(c) The other party is not required to give any undertaking in this matter, formally or informally. (Bishop’s Conference Revised Directory, April 1990, p. 15).
(d) Both parties are to be instructed on the meaning and purpose of marriage (viz, unity, indissolubility and openness to children), none of which is to be excluded from their intention in marrying.
4. Impediments to marriage are obstacles which prevent persons from contracting a valid marriage. Some of these impediments attach to human nature itself (e.g. a man cannot marry his sister). Other impediments are of Church law (e.g. a Catholic may not validly marry a person who has not been baptised). Not even the Pope can allow someone to marry against the ‘natural law’. But, in certain circumstances and for the spiritual good of the parties, the local Ordinary is empowered to grant a dispensation from most impediments which arise from Church law. For example, the Bishop, Vicar General or Episcopal Vicar for Matrimonial Affairs may allow, for a proportionate reason, a marriage of a Catholic to a person who has not been baptised; but the Pope reserves to himself all dispensations from the impediment arising from the obligation of clerical celibacy. Although the marriage of first cousins is the subject of the impediment of what is called consanguinity, such a degree of relationship is not sufficient of itself to prevent marriage (as does the relationship of brother and sister). But the Church forbids a marriage between cousins where a Catholic is concerned. These are just a few notions about impediments.
5. For many reasons a couple desiring to be married should give several months notice to the local parish priest. (It is wise to book the Church and the Reception at the same time).
6. A matrimonial tribunal exists in each diocese to investigate allegations of invalidity of marriage. A marriage is always presumed to be valid unless the contrary is proved to the satisfaction of two distinct tribunals. A decree of nullity is not a divorce. An annulment is an official declaration by the competent authority of the Church that what had appeared to be a true marriage was not in fact a fully sacramental marriage. The procedure for a decree of nullity usually takes a few months, and members of the Diocesan Tribunal (cf. page 20) are happy to give guidance at any time.
Civil Formalities for Marriage
The bride and groom have the responsibility of personally informing their local Registrar of Marriages (whose address can be found in a local telephone directory) of the date, time and place of the proposed marriage.
In some places the local Registrar will attend. In others the Priest himself or a layperson is empowered to act for the Registrar as an “Authorised Person” to register the marriage.
Two witnesses must be present for the whole of the wedding.
When it is not possible to give the full notice, arrangements can be made with the Registrar for a marriage to take place after notice of one full day. Such arrangements should be made only in consultation with the local priest who is attending to all the formalities.
Notice to the Registrar of Marriage
The Registrar will explain all the procedures when the couple visit him/her.
Priests and other Authorized Persons are referred to page 3 of the current Authorized Persons Book.
1. A child should be baptised as soon as practicable after birth.
2. Ordinarily a child should be baptised in the parish to which his/her parents belong; if not, the permission of the parents’ Parish Priest must be sought.
3. The names given in Baptism should be in conformity with the dignity and Christian status conferred by the Sacrament and should preferably include the name of a Christian Saint.
4. Canon law requires only one godparent. In England there is a custom for two and both should be practising Catholics. A baptised non-Catholic may be a witness alongside a Catholic godparent, and the entry in the baptismal register should show this distinction.
5. Arrangements will be made by the priest for some instruction of the parents, and Godparents if practicable.
Baptism in Case of Necessity
1. If there is danger of death the priest should be called in; but if there is danger of the person dying before the priest’s arrival, anyone may baptise.
2. Pour water on the head and say at the same time: ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.
(a) Use holy water if you have a supply in the house; otherwise water from the tap.
(b) Pour the water on the forehead and let it flow back over the head.
(c) Do not leave out or slur any of the words.
(d) If the child recovers the Priest should be informed and arrangements made to have the ceremonies of Baptism completed and the Baptism registered.
Registration of Births
The local Registrar must be notified within forty-two days of the birth. The information must be given personally by one of the following, who must call on the Registrar: the father or mother of the child; the occupier of the house of birth; person present at the birth; the person having charge of the child. The obligation rests first on the parents; in default of these it rests on the other persons mentioned.
In districts where the ‘Notification of Births Act (1907)’ is in force, notice must be given within thirty-six hours to the Medical Officer of Health by the father or person attending the mother. This is additional to the above registration.
The Eucharistic Fast
1. One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.
2. A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day may take something before the second or third celebration even if the period of one hour does not intervene.
3. Those who are advanced in age or who suffer from any infirmity, as well as those who take care of them, may receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have taken something during the previous hour. It is good to remind carers/nurses of this possibility).
Reception of the Eucharist a Second time on the same day
One who has received Holy Communion may receive it a second time on the same day, but only within a Mass in which that person participates.
Canon 921, §2
Even if they have already received Holy Communion that same day, it is nevertheless recommended that those in danger of death should communicate again.
Days of Fasting and Abstinence – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
Fasting is observed by all 18 years of age and older, who have not yet celebrated their 59th birthday. On a fast day, one full meal is allowed. Two other meals, sufficient to maintain strength, may be taken according to each one’s needs, but together they should not equal another full meal. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids, including milk and juices, are allowed.
Abstinence is observed by all 14 years of age and older. On days of abstinence, no meat is allowed. Note that when health or ability to work would be seriously affected, the law does not oblige. When in doubt concerning fast and abstinence, the parish priest should be consulted.
Extract from a Statement of the Bishops of England and Wales on Canons 1249-1253 dated 24 January 1985.
1. The code of Canon Law reminds us that all of Christ’s faithful are obliged to do penance. The obligation arises in imitation of Christ himself and in response to his call. During his life on earth, not least at the beginning of his public ministry, Our Lord undertook voluntary penance. He invited his followers to do the same. The penance he invited would be a participation in his own suffering, an expression of inner conversion and a form of reparation for sin. It would be a personal sacrifice made out of love for God and our neighbour. It follows that if we are to be true, as Christians, to the spirit of Christ, we must practise some form of penance.
2. So that all may be united with Christ and with one another in a common practice of penance, the Church sets aside certain penitential days. On these days the faithful are to devote themselves in a special way to prayer, self-denial and works of charity. Such days are not designed to confine or isolate penance but to intensify it in the life of the Christian right through the year.
3. Lent is the traditional season of renewal and repentance in Church. The Code re-affirms this. It also prescribes that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are to be observed as days of fast and abstinence. Fasting means that the amount of food we eat is considerably reduced. Abstinence means that we give up a particular kind of food or drink or form of amusement. Those over eighteen are bound by the law of fasting until the beginning of their sixtieth year, while all over fourteen are bound by the law of abstinence. Priests and parents are urged to foster the spirit and practice of penance among those too young to be the subjects of either law.
4. Because each Friday recalls the crucifixion of Our Lord, it too is set aside as a special penitential day. The Church does not prescribe, however, that fish must be eaten on Fridays. It never did. Abstinence always meant the giving up of meat rather than the eating of fish as a substitute. What the Church does require, according to the Code, is that its members abstain on Fridays from meat or some other food or that they perform some alternative work or Penance laid down by the Bishops’ Conference.
5. In accordance with the mind of the universal Church, the Bishops of England and Wales remind their people of the obligation of Friday Penance, and instruct them that it may be fulfilled in one or more of the following ways:
(a) By abstaining from meat or some other food:
(b) By abstaining from alcoholic drink, smoking or some form of amusement:
(c) By making the special effort involved in family prayer, taking part in the Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or praying the Stations of the Cross:
(d) By fasting from all food for a longer period than usual and perhaps giving what is saved in this way to the needy at home and abroad:
(e) By making a special effort to help somebody who is poor, sick, old or lonely.
6. The form of Penance we adopt each Friday is a matter of personal choice and does not have to take the same form every Friday. Failure to undertake this Penance on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin. However, Penance is part of the life of every Christian and the intention to do Penance on Friday is of obligation. We are confident that the faithful of England and Wales will take this obligation to heart in memory of the passion and death of Our Lord.
Care of the Sick
Sending for the Priest
In grave illness the priest should always be summoned. The priest should be called even in cases of fatal accidents or sudden death.
(a) Prepare a table, covered with a white cloth, and place it at the foot of the bed, so that it can be seen by the sick person.
(b) Place on the table: A Crucifix between two lighted wax candles; a small glass of water; a small handkerchief; cotton wool (for the Sacrament of Holy Anointing).
Patients in Hospital
It is most important that on admission to hospital a patient (or his/her carers) inform the admission staff that they are Catholic and wish to be visited by the Catholic Chaplain. The hospital will not ask for this information, it is up to the patient to make it known and to make sure that a note is made. The Catholic Chaplain is normally the local Parish Priest where the hospital is situated, but not always. It is also important that the patient’s own Parish Priest be informed.
1. The patient should hold a Crucifix in his hands. Holy Water should be sprinkled frequently, and a blessed candle should be lighted.
2. Prayers. Say short prayers which are familiar to the sick person. Frequently invoke the Holy Name of Jesus.
3. When death seems near. Read in a clear voice the Prayers for the Dying. A Crucifix may be held to the lips of the sick person whilst saying a short act of contrition.
4. Death: Say the ‘Out of the Depths’ and the Prayers for the Departed Soul. Arrange lighted candles and holy water on a table near the body so that those who come to pray may sprinkle the body.
Registration of Death and Funeral
The local Registrar must be notified within five days of death; the informant must obtain from the doctor a certificate of the cause of death and give this to the Registrar when the death is notified. Written notice of death accompanied by the doctor’s certificate, may be sent to the Registrar within five days of the death; within fourteen days of the death, notification in person must be given to the registrar.
Discuss with the Priest a suitable day and time for the Funeral, before approaching the Funeral Director. They will normally speak to each other to firm up the arrangements. The custom of bringing the coffin to church the evening before the Funeral is to be commended. Remember to ask the Funeral Director for a firm quotation of his charges. These normally include the Church fee, which he will pass on to the Priest.
So called “green” Funerals are acceptable, provided there is no lack of respect or reverence.