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Annulments help church, society

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice


Seminar to be held

The Archdiocese of Omaha will host an annulment seminar March 5 beginning at 9:30 a.m., at St. Leo Church, 102nd and Blondo streets, in Omaha.

Father Patrick Harrison, vicar judicial of the archdiocesan marriage tribunal, will speak and answer questions.

For more information, contact the Family Life Office at 551-9003.

Grounds for annulments

The Catholic Church views marriage as a permanent covenant between a man and a woman. If the marriage ends in a civil divorce, the couple must receive an annulment before either one is free to marry again in the Catholic Church.

Father Patrick Harrison, vicar judicial of the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Omaha, said marriage can be declared null under the following circumstances:

  • The existence of an impediment, such as a previous marriage or religious vows or a close blood relationship between the couple.
  • Psychological incapacity, at the time of the wedding, to assume the duties of marriage. This could include mental illness.
  • The presence, at the time of the wedding, of an intention contrary to marriage, like refusing to have children, not intending to remain faithful or believing in the possibility of divorce.
  • The presence of a future "condition" for marriage, such as one spouse demanding that the other spouse will make a certain income.
  • Psychological immaturity that did not allow one or both parties to understand the true nature of marriage at the time of the wedding.

Annulment can be a touchy issue for many Catholics, especially when a person is trying to enter a second marriage after a divorce.

That sensitivity, says one member of the Archdiocese of Omaha marriage tribunal, often results from misinformation or a lack of understanding of the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage.

"The Catholic Church sees marriage as a sacrament, a covenant between a man and a woman that is exclusive, permanent and open to children," Father Patrick Harrison, vicar judicial of the marriage tribunal, told The Catholic Voice.

Even if a civil divorce or separation takes place, the church still considers a couple married, that the marriage is valid and permanent. That makes them unable to enter into a permanent relationship with someone else while their spouse is alive, he said.

The church does, however, realize that there are reasons why a valid marriage might not have occurred, and allows people to petition for an annulment after getting a divorce. Annulments are important and necessary for both the church and society, Father Harrison said, and Catholics need to understand the church's teaching on annulments and marriage to avoid confusion.

Through an annulment the Catholic Church declares that a valid marriage never took place between a man and a woman, he said. It focuses on the spiritual and personal aspects of the marriage prior to, at the moment of and following the marriage ceremony. The annulment, however, doesn't dismiss the civil contract or declare children illegitimate.

"Basically what we are saying in an annulment is that what appeared to be a valid marriage in the beginning wasn't (valid) because of a serious defect in the martial consent of either the man or the woman or both," Father Harrison said.

Grounds for an annulment

Father Harrison said a marriage can be declared null by the church under a number of circumstances.

An impediment, such as a previous marriage or religious vows, could have been present at the time of the wedding, or one of parties might have been psychologically incapable to assume the duties of marriage. Both of those would be considered grounds for an annulment, Father Harrison said. If, at the time of the wedding, a person had intentions against permanency, fidelity or openness to children, that could serve as grounds as well.

The presence of a future "condition" for marriage, such as one spouse demanding the other spouse make a certain income, or being psychologically immature are other reasons a marriage might be declared null.

If a Catholic and a non-Catholic married outside the church didn't have their marriage blessed by the church, that could be grounds for an annulment if they were to divorce, Father Harrison said. The Catholic did not follow the basic laws regarding getting married in the church or with the permission of the church, making the marriage is invalid, he said.

One of the common misconceptions regarding annulments is that all requests are granted. That's not true, Father Harrison said, noting he doesn't even accept an annulment case unless there is a possibility that he thinks it could be declared invalid. Generally, there are about 175 active cases being reviewed in the archdiocese at one time.

The annulment process

If a person has done everything possible to salvage a marriage and has been unsuccessful, then he or she can inquire about the annulment process.

Most people inquire about an annulment after they have already become involved with someone else. That's not the best way to do it, Father Harrison said.

"Ideally, we would like them to come to us before they're involved with someone else because if they're seen to be married in the eyes of the church, then they're not free to marry and therefore not free to date," he said.

To begin the annulment process, a person should contact his or her parish priest who will help start the paperwork. That paperwork will include details about the couples' dating, engagement and wedding, as well as the breakdown of the relationship. The person also will be asked to provide the names of witnesses who can verify the information.

Once the petition is completed, it is submitted to the marriage tribunal and the case is decided by a panel of judges who are experts in canon law and marriage. Their decision is reviewed by experts in another diocese before the person is informed of the decision.

If the marriage is declared null, the person is free to marry again in the Catholic Church. If the annulment is denied, the person can appeal or try the case on different grounds.

The fee for an annulment is $250, which is paid after the annulment process is completed and only if the annulment is granted. These fees help offset the administrative costs, Father Harrison said.

The whole process takes at least a year to complete, he said, because the judges must evaluate the facts and the circumstances against the law of the church before a marriage is considered invalid.

"This whole process is geared toward seeking the truth of what happened," he said.

No preferential treatment is given to individual cases, he added.

"People are treated equally. We take these cases in the order they come. There's no preferential treatment to people, rich or poor, known or unknown. Whatever the situation might be, they are treated equally as far as the attention they are given," he said.

An annulment is necessary for divorced Catholics who want to remarry because the church believes that Jesus instituted marriage as permanent and once entered into validly is considered indissoluble, Father Harrison said. Marriage is really the image of the covenant relationship that God has with his people, he said.

"To say a marriage was invalid from the beginning can't be a decision made by the individual," he said. "It must be carefully decided by the church."

The Catholic Voice

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