Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the Tribunal Process
How Does The Church Understand Marriage?
The Catholic Church considers marriage an institution of divine origin both in the order of creation and in the order of redemption. The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium etSpes, teaches that marriage forms a relationship "which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one." The Council described marriage as a "community of love" and an "intimate partnership of life and love."
The Church presumes that every marriage is valid unless proven otherwise. If there has been a marriage of any kind (religious, civil, common law) ended by a divorce, some Church process is required before a previously married person is recognized as free to marry in the Catholic Church. This applies even if the partners in the former marriage were not Catholic. The Church considers a marriage entered into by two non-Catholics, Christian or other, to be true marriages. Therefore, any previous marriage is an obstacle to a new marriage with a Catholic ceremony. (Not every marriage needs the same kind of process. What is needed depends upon the unique circumstances of each marriage).
The law of the Catholic Church as found in the Code of Canon Law describes marriage as: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own nature is ordered to the well being of the spouses and the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptized, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."
Husband and wife create together an exclusive, intimate partnership for the whole of life. The sacrament of marriage bonds a couple in a union that is faithful and life long. It is the bond of marriage which makes a second marriage impossible as long as both spouses are alive. This principle guides and directs the Church in the pastoral preparation of couples for marriage and directs the ministry of the Tribunal. In its examination of marriages that have been broken by divorce, this ministry is carried out with compassion.
What Is The Tribunal?
Church law requires that every diocese establish a Tribunal. The Tribunal of the Diocese of Pittsburgh exists as a ministry of justice to assist the Bishop in fulfilling his ministry to the faithful entrusted to his care. It offers assistance to persons who ask that the Church examine a marriage to determine if some defect existed at the time of the wedding which may have prevented the establishment of a true and lasting bond of marriage. If so, the parties could be declared free to marry again.
On What Basis Can the Tribunal Declare a Marriage Invalid?
A declaration that there was no bond of marriage must be based on grounds consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and recognized in Canon Law. Grounds arise from the nature of marriage as a partnership of the whole of life freely consented to by both parties. Grounds can be found in the failure of one or both parties to understand the essential obligations of marriage. Grounds may be found also in a lack of freedom to give consent or in the lack of ability to assume the obligations of marriage.
Other basis of grounds include: Intentions deliberately excluding some essential aspect of marriage or the partnership of the whole of life may be alleged to make the consent invalid. Future conditions, deliberate or fraudulent deception about an important marital quality, force or fear which compelled the marriage, mistaken ideas about marriage and other grounds may be alleged. This list is not exhaustive but grounds must touch the essence of marriage and they must be proven to the certainty of the Tribunal. The length of a marriage, common life and children born of the marriage do not of themselves establish validity in a marriage.
What Are The Effects of a Declaration of Invalidity?
For a divorced [and remarried] Catholic, a declaration of invalidity will allow full participation in the sacramental life of the Church [including marriage in the Church]. For members of other religious traditions, a declaration of invalidity will enable the Catholic partner to celebrate the marriage in the Catholic Church and to fully participate in the sacramental life of the community.
If a Tribunal declares a marriage invalid it does not mean that the marriage never occurred, nor does it imply guilt. It is impossible to deny a historical reality. A declaration of invalidity means that a marriage lacked at least one of the essential elements of a binding union. It shows that a marriage presumed valid was in fact invalid as the Church understands a sacramental marriage.
A declaration of invalidity does not render children illegitimate nor does it have any civil meaning or effect in the United States. All children remain fully legitimate according to both civil and Church law. It has no effect on the rights of property ownership, inheritance, custody, visitation of children, child support or similar legal matters.
How Does The Process Begin?
The process is generally initiated by completion of a petition, [a questionnaire or case history form], that is obtained from the Office of the Tribunal. A Petitioner, (the one who initiates the process) may contact an Advocate who will represent them before the Tribunal. The Advocate will provide assistance in the development of the case history. A parish priest may also be helpful in the initial stage of the process. After an initial evaluation of the case history and a review of the documents submitted, witnesses who are named and the former spouse (Respondent) are contacted. Since this is a canonical-legal process, proofs and evidence are required. It is a policy that a couple must be civilly divorced according to the laws of the state before the Tribunal will conduct a review.
Why Are Witnesses Important?
Church law requires that a case be proven by documents and the supporting testimony of witnesses. Witnesses are necessary for the Tribunal to gain a deeper understanding of the background and dating experience of both parties, the marriage, and the reasons for breakdown. Anyone who has known the parties well or for a long time may be a witness. The best witnesses are those who have known the former spouses since the time of courtship. Typically, parents, brothers and sisters, childhood neighbors or other relatives and friends make good witnesses. A minimum of three witnesses will be contacted by mail and asked to give their personal observations.
What Role Does The Former Spouse Have?
A former spouse must be contacted and given the opportunity to present his or her views of the marriage as well as to introduce witnesses. This is required by the law of the Church. It is therefore necessary to have a current address. If a current address in unavailable, then the last known address and/or the address of a family member should be provided. Justice demands a good faith effort to locate the former spouse.
Since both spouses are equal partners in the marriage, both enjoy the same rights in cases which may result in a declaration of invalidity. Even in cases where the former spouse is not Catholic and may not be interested in the Church's process, the party has rights before the Church. The former spouse does not have the option of preventing the process. If the former spouse ignores the citation (summons), the process continues without his/her cooperation. The spouses are never scheduled to appear at the same time.
What Are The Rights of the Respondent?
The law recognizes the right of the Respondent to fully participate in the process if the Respondent so chooses. Statements may be made either by completing a written questionnaire or by appearing at the Tribunal for a personal interview. The testimony of the Respondent will always be of assistance to the Court in reaching a decision.
The Respondent is entitled to know the grounds for nullity, has the right to appoint an Advocate, the right to know the names of witnesses, the right to name witnesses, the right to reply to pleadings and observations, the right to know the contents of the judgment, and the right to appeal a judgment.
Who Are Advocates?
Advocates are trained Catholic priests, religious sisters and lay persons who represent the parties at the Tribunal. They are to assist in the timely and orderly preparation of the case, and provide pastoral care as the party goes through the process. Additionally, they may write briefs and accompany the Petitioner/Respondent to the hearing. The priest who witnessed the wedding may not serve as the Advocate; his assistance may be more valuable in the capacity of a witness. A party may designate the Advocate of his/her own choosing. If assistance is needed in finding an Advocate, the Tribunal can offer names of Advocates who have volunteered to assist parties in the presentation of their cases.
How Does The Process Work?
There are three steps in the formal process of a case.
- The preliminary stage involves the assembling of the case history, gathering of civil and church documents, requesting names of witnesses and notifying the Respondent.
- The judicial process begins when the Court is constituted and the parties are cited for session to appear before the Tribunal. Proofs are gathered from the testimony of the parties, witnesses and in some cases, experts. The decision of the Tribunal is issued.
- The appeal of the sentence is the third step. Church law requires that each case is subject to a mandatory appeal to a higher Tribunal. All decisions of the Diocese of Pittsburgh are reviewed by the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia unless an appeal is made directly to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota. The Appeal Court can either ratify the first decision, overturn it, or request additional examination leading to either a confirming or a contrary decision.
Who Will Read What Is Submitted?
All material relative to the nullity process is treated confidentially as required by the Church's law. Only those who have a right to the information ( the parties, their Advocates and the Tribunal officials,) are permitted to review it at the Hall of the Tribunal for the reasons expressed in canon law. All are bound by oath to keep all information confidential and to use it only for the express purpose of resolving the case.
How Long Does It Take?
Each case is unique. It is impossible to predict the exact time that it takes to handle a case because of a number of variable factors. Generally, from the date of the hearing (step 2) cases can be completed within one year. The preliminary stage of the process does not have a timetable. A case can move along more rapidly if all documents are presented as requested and if the parties and witnesses reply in a timely fashion.
What Are The Costs?
A Petitioner is responsible for only a portion of the costs of a case. The faithful of the Diocese of Pittsburgh substantially subsidize the operation of the Tribunal through their contributions to the annual Diocesan Parish Share Program. For efficiency, the office must be staffed with trained and qualified priests, canon lawyers, support staff and equipment, all of which is costly to the Diocese.
A Petitioner is expected to pay $650 payable as follows: a non-refundable filing fee of $100, and the balance of $550, in two or five installments, or arrange other methods of payment. Case outcome is not contingent upon a Petitioner's ability to pay the fee. A Petitioner may request a reduction of the fee if there is financial difficulty. Respondents are expected to pay $200 when seeking to use the decision to enter a new marriage.
May Future Marriage Plans Be Made?
Permission to remarry or validate a civil marriage in the Catholic Church cannot be guaranteed by anyone before this process is completed. Sometimes, as a condition of remarriage, counseling will be required. No plans for a future marriage may be made with the parish priest until such time as a Declaration of Invalidity is given and conditions are satisfied. The Tribunal bears no responsibility for any promises or guarantees made by anyone if a wedding date is scheduled before the completion of a case.
All are welcome to contact this office between the hours of 8:30 AM to 4:45 PM to speak with a member of the professional staff. The Tribunal is located at Saint Paul Seminary, 2900 Noblestown Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15205-4227, 412.456.3033.
Prenuptial Investigation Procedures
PRENUPTIAL AFFIDAVITS (FORM MA) NEED TO BE PRESENTED TO CANONICAL SERVICES IN THE FOLLOWING SITUATIONS:
- PRIOR MARRIAGES (Resolved by nullity decree or death certificate)
- MIXED MARRIAGES AND DISPARITY OF CULT (One party is non-Catholic)
- INTERECCLESIAL MARRIAGES (One party is an Eastern Catholic)
- NON PRACTICING CATHOLIC
- WEDDING TO TAKE PLACE IN ANOTHER DIOCESE
- PERMISSION (A chapel or a non-Catholic church) (Wedding of two Catholics to take place without Mass)
- EITHER PARTY IS UNDER TWENTY-ONE YEARS OF AGE
- ONE OR BOTH PARTIES ARE FROM ANOTHER DIOCESE
- EITHER PARTY HAS NO PERMANENT RESIDENCE
- CIVIL OBLIGATIONS HAVE BEEN PLACED ON EITHER PARTY (Toward another party or children of a prior union)
THE PROMISES (cautiones) NEED TO BE SIGNED BY THE CATHOLIC PARTY:
- WHEN ONE PARTY IS NON-CATHOLIC
- WHEN ONE PARTY IS A NON-PRACTICING CATHOLIC
Note: The promises are two-fold (a) To remain a Catholic (b) To raise children Catholic
TWO MB WITNESS AFFIDAVITS ARE REQUIRED:
- IF A PARTY IS NON-CATHOLIC (To provide proof of freedom to marry)
- IF A CATHOLIC HAS LIVED OUTSIDE OF THE DIOCESE OF PITTSBURGH (For more than six months after puberty excluding college)
- IF BAPTISMAL INFORMATION IS MISSING OR INCOMPLETE
- IF A PARTY CLAIMS NON-BAPTISM
- IF THE PRIEST SUSPECTS COERCION OR A PRIOR BOND
- IF A PARTY IS A MINOR
Ordinarily the two witnesses should be parents or other close relatives or friends who have known the party well since they were old enough to marry.
INTERECCLESIAL MARRIAGES (ONE PARTY IS A LATIN CATHOLIC AND THE OTHER AN EASTERN CATHOLIC)
- CANONICAL SERVICES WILL SEEK TESTIMONIAL LETTERS AND PERMISSIONS FROM THE PROPER EASTERN CATHOLIC EPARCHY
- QUESTIONS REGARDING MEMBERSHIP IN A RITUAL CHURCH AND JURISDICTION REGARDING WEDDINGS SHOULD BE ADDRESSED TO CANONICAL SERVICES EARLY IN THE PREPARATION PERIOD
CHECK LIST (PARISH PERMANENT MARRIAGE FILE)
- FORM MA FOR BOTH BRIDE AND GROOM (with MB’s as applicable)
- BAPTISMAL CERTIFICATES AS APPLICABLE
- COPIES OF DECREES OF NULLITY, DEATH CERTIFICATES
- DECREES OF MIXED RELIGION, DISPARITY OF CULT, CANONICAL FORM
- LETTERS OF DELEGATION
- RECORD OF PREMARITAL INSTRUCTIONS
- CIVIL MARRIAGE LICENSE (Validations need copy of civil marriage record)
- RETURNED MC FORMS (Notification of wedding to parish of baptism)
Catholic baptismal certificates, decrees of nullity and marriage licenses need to be retained in their original form. Other certificates may be photocopied.
Protecting God's Children
- Adult Faith Formation
- Family Ministry
- Marriage Ministry
- Separated or Divorced Ministry
- Natural Family Planning