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The Catholic Church's Process For Annulling a Marriage Is Much Like A Civil Trial

Cynthia M. Fox

I have always known that the Catholic Church has a process in which a Catholic marriage can be annulled. As a divorce attorney and a non-Catholic, I have been curious about how the church decides whether a marriage, even a long-standing one, can be "brought to nothing", which is the meaning for the Latin word "annullare". For the answer, I spoke with Monsignor John Shamleffer, the Judicial Vicar of the St. Louis archdiocese.

According to the Monsignor, an annulment is a judgment by the Catholic Church that "a relationship, which may have approximated marriage according to civil or social standards, is deemed not to have been a binding relationship". To reach this conclusion, there must be proof that one of the "essential elements" of a marriage was not present at the time of the marriage, or that one or both of the parties "lacked the personal capacity for competent consent".

Sometimes, the annulment can be based on very straightforward facts, such as if one or both parties were still married to someone else. However, many cases are more complex, particularly those involving long-term marriages, because the church has to determine the "state of mind, intentions, and capacity for consent" of each party at the time of the marriage, according to the Archdiocese's web site (www.archstl.org).

Assessing whether a person had the capacity for competent consent can turn on very subjective assessments. For example, as the Monsignor related, did one or both intend to be faithful, did they see marriage as give and take, did they grow up in a dysfunctional family with no concept of a committed lifelong marriage? Was the decision to marry made under duress, such as a threat by one party to leave the other if they didn't marry him/her?

Determining if an "essential element" was missing often pivots on examining the willful acts or the intentions of the parties at the time. If someone entered marriage with the intention of seeking a divorce if it didn't work out, this can be evidence, says the Monsignor, that the person did not see marriage as a lifetime commitment. Similarly, the intention to use all possible means to not have children could be grounds for an annulment.

In the St. Louis archdiocese, its Metropolitan Tribunal coordinates the annulment process, and that process is similar to a civil trial's search for the truth. The person seeking the annulment is called the "petitioner" and he/she begins with an application to the Tribunal, typically forwarded via their parish priest. The petitioner will then be asked to complete a questionnaire and to present a list of people that knew the couple at the time of their marriage ("witnesses").

The petitioner is assigned an "advocate", someone trained in church law (there are 250 in St. Louis), that represents the petitioner and, if requested, an advocate will be assigned to the "respondent", the spouse of the petitioner. Every case is given to a "presiding judge" who oversees it and insures that testimony is taken from the petitioner, respondent, and the witnesses. The presiding judge is always a priest and an expert in church law.

Once all the evidence is in-hand, it is reviewed by the "defender of bond", who's sole job is to present arguments as to why the marriage should not be annulled. The presiding judge, and any associate judges involved in the case, will then make the final decision. According to Monsignor Shamleffer, about 800 applications for annulment are made each year in the St. Louis archdiocese, of which about 600 go through the formal process, with 440 annulments being granted.

For over 25 years Cynthia M. Fox has focused her practice in family law, with a particular emphasis on matters relating to the dissolution of marriage: divorce representation and mediation, child custody and child support. She is a native St. Louis and a graduate of the Washington University School of Law, Class of '73.

Cynthia M. Fox can be contacted by phone at (314)727-4880 or
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