The Tribunal is staffed by people who have been appointed by the bishop and who have received special education to represent him and the faith community in church judicial proceedings for marriage cases and other matters of Church law. Most of its work involves assisting divorced persons who hope to obtain a declaration of nullity (annulment) of a prior marriage bond, allowing them to remarry in the Church. As such, the Tribunal has a three-fold ministry:
Persons interested in seeking a declaration of nullity are encouraged to call to schedule a confidential appointment with an auditor, who will explain the annulment process. Please call the Office of Canonical Services at 1-701-204-7203 or 1-877-405-7435, ext. 118 for an appointment.
- Protecting the integrity of marriage as Christ taught;
- Assisting in the exercise of rights given in Church law for those who are seeking a possible remarriage in the Catholic Church; and
- Helping participants experience reconciliation with their faith community insofar as possible.
Introduction–Catholic teaching on marriage
As originally designed by the Creator, marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and love directed toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. Marriage begins with the public exchange of consent and ends in the death of one of the spouses. These beliefs are rooted in Jesus Christ's teachings in the Gospels, the writings of Saint Paul, and centuries of Christian tradition. The Church recognizes both sacramental marriages (between the baptized) and natural marriages (when one or both parties are not baptized). Moreover, the Catholic Church shares the belief of other religious bodies and of society that marriage is not just the private arrangement of a couple, but rather is a public reality, affecting civil and religious societies and serving as their foundations.
What is the role of divorce?
While the Church discourages divorce, there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of truly grave reasons. In such cases the Church does not object to the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. However, the right to “remarry” does not exist as long as one party is alive. If a “remarriage” takes place, the Catholic party is no longer in full communion with the Church and is unable to receive Holy Communion or absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation.
What is a declaration of nullity?
A declaration of nullity, or commonly known as an annulment, is a statement by the Church made after investigation by a Tribunal that the bond of marriage was never brought into existence when the parties gave consent. Church law indicates that if certain serious circumstances are later shown to have been present at the time of consent a Tribunal is obligated to declare nullity (provided that adequate proof is found). In other words, a declaration of nullity states that the bond of marriage, as the Church understands it, did not in fact begin. Keep in mind that even civil courts of law can and do declare marriages null if certain circumstances are later proven.
Who needs a declaration of nullity?
Any divorced person who seeks possible marriage in the Catholic Church must have each prior marriage examined by a Tribunal for a determination of its validity, unless prior marriage ended in death. Since the Catholic Church also views the marriages of baptized Protestants (and non-baptized) as valid and binding, these too must be proven null in a Tribunal before a marriage in the Catholic Church can occur. Foreign countries recognize marriages begun elsewhere; the Catholic Church also recognizes marriages appropriately begun in other faiths.
Upon what grounds can a marriage be declared null?
Church law always presumes that an existing marriage is valid and binding, until proven otherwise in a Tribunal. Such grounds for a declaration of nullity can include, but are not limited to:
1. For Catholics . . . marrying without a dispensation from the Catholic form of ceremony
2. For all persons, Catholic or non-Catholic . . .
a. existence of grave emotional or mental issues
b. force or grave fear
c. faking all or part of one’s vows
d. having a gravely erroneous understanding of marriage
What is a Tribunal?
A Tribunal is a court of law within the Catholic Church. It is staffed by officials who are appointed by the bishop and who receive special education and training to represent him and the faith community in Church judicial proceedings for marriage cases, and other matters of Church law.
What is the purpose of the Tribunal?
Most of its work involves the assistance of divorced persons who hope to obtain a declaration of nullity of a prior marriage bond, allowing them to marry in the Church. Once a party begins such a petition, the Tribunal carefully follows the law of the Church in its exploration of the marriage. As such, the Tribunal has a three-fold ministry: protecting the integrity of marriage as Christ taught, assisting in the exercise of rights given in Church law for those who are seeking a possible marriage in the Catholic Church, and helping participants experience reconciliation with the Catholic Church, in as much as possible.
How long does this process take?
It is impossible to predict accurately the time it will take to complete this process, since it depends upon many factors, such as the gathering of testimony from witnesses and other forms of evidence. While the reforms of Pope Francis have shortened the process, the average case will still take 12-15 months. Because of this, the scheduling of weddings and pre-nuptial preparations cannot take place until the process is complete.
How much does it cost?
Nothing for either party (you or your former spouse). The Bishop of Bismarck pays for the operational costs through your donations to the Annual God’s Share Appeal. Parties are encouraged to pray for all benefactors that make this possible.
What happens after I start a case?
The process will begin after you provide all of the necessary documents and information requested by the Tribunal. You will also need to provide a list of friends and/or family members willing to give their testimonies, which is a major source of evidence for most cases. The Tribunal must then contact your former spouse, who by Church law has an equal right to be heard. The case concludes once as much evidence as possible has been gathered and the case goes on to final decision.
Who decides whether nullity can be declared?
Per church law, a panel of three judges, which includes specially trained priests and lay persons, will be assigned to your case. The evidence is reviewed and a definitive decision is written on behalf of the bishop and the Church community as to whether the marriage can be declared null or remains valid and binding.
Are cases always decided in the affirmative?
No. A case might receive a negative decision if it lacks canonical grounds, adequate testimony from witnesses, or the parties fail to prove invalidity. Simply because a case is introduced does not mean the marriage will be declared null.
Can a Declaration of Nullity be Appealed?
Yes. Either party involved or the Defender of the Bond can make an official appeal to our appellate tribunal (in St. Paul, MN) to review our local decision. If this appeal is not made, the decision can be considered final.
What is the standing in the Church of a divorced Catholic?
A Catholic who is simply divorced is fully and completely a member of the Church. There is nothing in the Church’s law that prevents a Catholic, simply because they are divorced, from receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church.
Does that mean a divorced Catholic remarried outside of the Church may receive Communion?
No. A Catholic who remarries without a declaration of nullity for any prior marriage(s) may not receive Communion, since the reception of Communion is a public statement that one adheres to the life and practice of the Church. However, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have repeatedly affirmed that Catholics remarried outside the Church are still members of the Church and have a right to pastoral care and accompaniment.
Does a declaration of nullity (annulment) affect the legitimacy of children?
No. Church law states that the status of children is not affected when they are born of a marriage that is later determined to be invalid. Children are a gift from God and entitled to the love and support of parents as well as the faith community.
Must the Tribunal contact the other spouse, and what happens if he/she refuses to participate or is unlocatable?
By Church law the Tribunal must make reasonable attempts to notify the other spouse that a marriage case has been submitted to the Tribunal. Church law mandates for the fairness of allowing both parties the opportunity to participate. If the other spouse refuses or is impossible to locate, the Tribunal can still proceed with the case.
Is a declaration of nullity a “catholic divorce”?
No. No human power can dissolve a valid, consummated marriage between two baptized persons. A declaration of nullity is not a dissolution or ending of marriage already in being. It is a judicial pronouncement that a valid marriage did not in fact begin as the community (or sometimes the parties) had originally presumed due to serious issues at the time of consent. Keep in mind that declarations of nullity are also declared by civil courts of law as well. In sum, divorces are about the end, while declarations of nullity are about the beginning. However, declarations of nullity in the Church are not recognized by our government and so do not affect the merely civil affects of marriage.
How do I begin the process?
You would contact the Office of Canonical Services to schedule an appointment with an official who will be most willing to assist you. There is no obligation, and inquiries are confidential.
Are there other sources that I can read about the Church’s teaching?
Yes. Other official documents from the Church include:
• Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of February 22, 2009,
• Saint Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio of November 22, 1981,
• Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church
Concerning the Reception Of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of
the Faithful, 14 September 1994.
• Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, L’Osservatore Romano, The Power of Grace: On the Indissolubility of Marriage and
the Debate Concerning the Civilly Remarried and the Sacraments, October 23, 2013.
• Most Reverend David D. Kagan, And the Two Shall Become One: A Pastoral Letter,
February 18, 2015.
• Code of Canon Law, canons 1055-1165.
• Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1601-1666.
For further information, please contact:
Office of Canonical Services -- Tribunal
Diocese of Bismarck
520 North Washington St.
Bismarck, ND 58501
(701) 204-7203 or 1-877-405-7435, ext. 118