The Metropolitan Tribunal is the primary judicial arm of the Archbishop and serves according to the mandates of universal and particular law.
In addition to serving as the Court of First Instance for the Archdiocese of Detroit, the Tribunal serves as the primary Court of Second Instance for the suffragan sees of the Province of Detroit (the other dioceses in Michigan) and also adjudicates First Instance cases referred to it by various Eastern Catholic Churches located within the Archdiocese of Detroit.
The Tribunal receives an average of 500 marriage nullity petitions each year. In addition to adjudicating matters concerning the validity of marriages, the Metropolitan Tribunal each year responds to several thousand phone calls and emails inquiring about Church law (Canon Law) on various matters.
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A declaration of nullity is a decision that is made by the Church, which acknowledges that a couple never established the sacred bond of marriage. This "declaration" can only be made after one of the parties in a former marriage requests it, and only after a detailed study of the marriage has been carried out. The process of declaring a marriage bond to be 'null' examines the intention and understanding of both people at the time of their wedding to see if the necessary elements of a full and true marriage were present (i.e., permanence, fidelity, the ability for true companionship and love of the spouses, and openness to generating and educating children).
The declaration of nullity process seeks to determine whether or not there was anything that prevented these elements from being present in the relationship, despite the fact that both individuals may have entered the marriage with the best of intentions. Marriages rarely fail because of ill will or malice. It could happen that one or both spouses were unable to create the quality of relationship necessary to establish this sacred bond. If the Church declares that a prior bond of marriage was not properly established, the parties are considered free to celebrate a new marriage in the church. A declaration of nullity is a religious decision that does not have any civil effect on the relationship or legitimacy of any children born of the union.
Marriage enjoys the favor of the law. Consequently, in doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven (Code of Canon Law, canon 1060).
The people who work in the marriage tribunal look upon their effort as a healing ministry, an expression of the Church's compassion and concern for those whose marriages have ended. The Church has a system of courts to handle marriage nullity cases. Those who believe that their marriage was not validly established, have the right to petition a tribunal to look into their claim. The work of the Tribunal, for the most part, involves a process of reviewing and discerning the basis of such petitions.
We do not share this information with anyone not directly involved in the review. Church law guarantees the right of each party to know the other party's contention, as well as a summary of the witness testimony. An oath of confidentiality must be made before looking at the information. This right is observed by allowing parties, or their advocates, a controlled opportunity to review the information at the offices of the Metropolitan Tribunal, or at another tribunal if the person lives in another diocese. This means that copies of the documents cannot and will not be made and given to the parties.
The Metropolitan Tribunal exists as part of the ministry of the diocese. It abhors any malicious action on the part of the parties to hurt one another. The review judge can restrict the rights of either party to review the information if his or her intention is to not seek the truth, but rather, cause mischief and needless delay. In certain cases the review judge may seek the opinion of a qualified psychological expert.
These experts are held to the same strict standards of confidentiality as any other member of the tribunal staff. Such individuals are trained professionals who do not decide the outcome of the declaration of nullity but merely advise the review judge about the dynamics that could have contributed to the failure of the relationship.
The result of a procedure seeking a declaration of nullity rests largely on the information provided by the spouses and on witnesses who know facts concerning the relationship. The petitioner is expected to supply the names and addresses of at least five people who can act as witnesses. These people may be family, friends, or acquaintances who can identify the significant problems in the dating, courtship, and years of common life.
The respondent can also offer witnesses and other information. It is expected that the one who presents the names of witnesses will have secured their cooperation before submitting the names to the tribunal. The tribunal must hear from witnesses. A case is unable to proceed without them. Witnesses are important for an objective evaluation of the marriage relationship. The best witnesses are those who can provide facts regarding the onset of problems in the relationship. If the information they provide proves insufficient, the tribunal will have to request additional witnesses. Witnesses are asked a number of questions detailing their knowledge of the marriage and the spouses.
Questions are asked about specific events in the courtship and marriage, and for an opinion concerning the relationship and what went wrong. Any other information that might be helpful, such as reports from therapists, counselors, or other professionals consulted during the marriage, can also be submitted.
The Tribunal must inform the other spouse (called the respondent) that the review has been initiated and must offer that person the opportunity to participate. Church law requires this. A letter is sent to the respondent giving him or her the option of fully participating in the process. If the respondent does not want to cooperate, the tribunal is not bound to wait indefinitely for a response before moving the case forward or bringing it to judgment. A reasonable time is given to the respondent to reply. The case will not be held-up by needless stalling tactics by one of the parties. The judge is free to set reasonable time limits, though some he cannot change due to the requirements of Church law.
The procurator/advocate's role is both to act on behalf of the party he or she is representing and to assist the Church in finding the truth. The "advocate" aspect of the role involves being available to answer any questions that may arise from the person he or she represents. Once all the information for the case is gathered, the advocate may be requested to compose a brief argument on behalf of the party and submit it to the review judge.
The "procurator" role involves acting in the place of the party when he or she is impeded or chooses not to act. All priests and most of the permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Detroit are approved to act in the role of procurator/advocate. There are some lay people with special training in tribunal procedure, who are certified to work in this capacity. The party he or she represents must appoint the procurator/advocate in writing and the procurator/advocate must acknowledge this appointment in the same way.
The review judge remains impartial to both parties. Sometimes one spouse attempts to turn the declaration of nullity process into a continuation of the arguments that were present at the divorce. The respondent may incorrectly see a petition as his or her spouse asking the Church to assign blame or condemn them for their actions in the marriage. The respondent may not understand how the Church can allow the so-called "guilty" person to request a declaration of nullity, and will tend to see the declaration of nullity as condoning the sinful actions of that spouse.
The spouses in the marriage are not judged; the bond of marriage is what is judged. The respondent is encouraged to actively participate in the proceedings. An attempt is made to answer all of the respondent's questions in a manner that assures this person that he or she is an equal participant in the process. Sometimes both parties join their efforts in seeking an affirmative decision. At other times, the respondent is indifferent towards the outcome. Speak up, present your case, consult with each other (Isaiah 45:21)
No. If a declaration of nullity is made, both people are free to marry (unless a stipulation, temporarily holding-up immediate access to a future marriage, is placed on one or both parties at the time of a declaration of nullity). A negative decision, in effect, admits that the evidence does not show that the marriage bond was not properly established and binding. The parties therefore are not free to celebrate a marriage in the church. A tribunal has the task of examining whether the parties gave full and unqualified consent to the marriage and whether they had the capacity to carry out what they vowed.
The tribunal does not act as a judge of moral action. A declaration of nullity should not be interpreted as an award granted to either party, but rather a factual determination about the bond of marriage. A declaration of nullity should not be seen as a stamp of approval for particular behavior in a marriage. Declarations of nullity cannot be purchased and the review judges will not be influenced in their decision. Indeed, in the Archdiocese of Detroit, no money is requested or will be collected by the Tribunal.
Any person, (i.e., Christian or non-Christian, Catholic or Protestant), who wishes to enter marriage in the Catholic Church, and who has a former spouse who is living, needs to look at the possibility of a declaration of nullity in order to determine that they are free to marry in the Catholic Church. The fact that a couple was married before a Catholic priest and two witnesses does not necessarily guarantee that all the requirements were present to establish a full and valid marriage. As part of its fundamental teaching on marriage, the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce as ending the bond established in marriage, believing that marriage is binding until death. While the presumption always exists that a marriage is valid, either of the spouses has the right to ask the Church to examine this presumption after common life has ceased, there is no hope of reconciliation, and a civil divorce has been obtained.
The petitioning spouse may approach any priest, deacon, or certified parish staff member in the Archdiocese of Detroit. This person may eventually assume the role of procurator/advocate, so it is important for the petitioning spouse to approach someone with whom they think they can work. It is very important to work with the procurator/advocate in completing the application form. Submission of the application form is the first formal step in the process.
The application form asks for biographical data, as well as a detailed history of the marriage. The completed application, with all necessary documents (i.e. marriage license and divorce decree), is then forwarded to the Metropolitan Tribunal by the procurator/advocate. Someone from the Metropolitan Tribunal will contact the petitioner by mail to explain if the case can be officially accepted for further review. Once the application is officially accepted, the Metropolitan Tribunal will gather further documentation in the following weeks. This consists of pre-marriage preparation records from the Church of marriage. The petitioner and the respondent are notified each time the process reaches a new and different stage. Any contact with the tribunal is usually made through the procurator/advocate. A personal interview can always be requested if it is the preference of the one presenting information to the tribunal.
The Church does not teach that civil divorce is grounds for excommunication. Catholics who are divorced and who have not entered another civil union are encouraged to practice their faith, including reception of the sacraments. Being separated or divorced, on its own, does not affect one's status in the Church. Catholics who happen to be divorced are full members of the Church with all of the same rights and duties as any other member of Christ's faithful.
Catholics who are divorced and who have remarried without a declaration of nullity* are not free to receive the sacraments until they celebrate the marriage in the Church. They are however encouraged to practice other aspects of their faith. People in this situation can certainly attend mass, pray, study scripture, etc. *Also included are dissolutions of marriage through a Pauline Privilege, Privilege of the Faith, and Ratified and Non-Consummated marriage.
Due to the great number of cases considered and the requirements of Church law, an exact time for the final decision cannot be specified. The process usually takes about one year, but length will vary from case to case. In fact, in this diocese, no Church official is free to determine a specific date for a subsequent marriage until the Metropolitan Tribunal gives notification of the outcome of the case.
A case can be completed more expeditiously if the witnesses submit their answers promptly and coherently. Once all the information is collected, the case can move to the next step. The parties are always free to contact their procurator/advocate for an update on the status of their case. Since others are also waiting for their petitions to be answered, cases cannot be "bumped-up" or "given priority". There is one exception to this. If a person is dying, Church law allows the tribunal to immediately deal with the case.
Today, some people enter unions with less consideration than they bring to purchasing an automobile! In our culture, we are very much aware of how addiction to substances (alcohol and drugs) plays a role in disrupting married life. If one is already addicted at the time of consent, a concern should be raised about the person's capacity to establish a true marriage. Also, such things as a "divorce mentality" and "hidden conditions" may come into play. If someone approaches marriage with the conviction that he or she can always "get out of it" if one chooses to do so, that may invalidate marriage consent. There are many other factors that could negatively affect consent. Deception, fraud, grave error, or force and fear, can also affect the validity of a marriage bond.
Please see Terms and Explanation of Grounds in Section 4 for further information
The Church considers the marriage bond between non-Catholics to be as equally binding as those of Catholics. Like marriages in the Catholic Church, the validity of these marriages is presumed until the contrary is proven. Therefore, the marriage of two non-baptized people is presumed to be valid. The marriage of two Protestant people is presumed to be valid. Finally, the marriage of a Protestant and a non-baptized person is presumed to be valid. Religious decisions regarding the effects of marriage and the possibility of remarriage that are made by other religions or Christian denominations, do not enjoy legal effect in Catholic Church law. People who have received a decision from the relevant authority of another Faith will still need to have a declaration of nullity if they intend to celebrate a marriage in the Catholic Church.
There are still others that fear an unfavorable reaction from family and friends, and consequently deal with abhorrently abusive situations. Still others stay in the marriage "for the sake of the children." There are always significant reasons why a review judge comes to a decision regarding the nullity of a marriage. From the perspective of those not involved in the case, the benefit of any doubt must always be given to the competence of the review judge, who through the confidence of the Archbishop of Detroit, continues this important ministry and service to the Church.
The review judge asks for information from both parties in the marriage under review. The information of witnesses and other documentary information is then gathered. Both parties can offer additional information up until a point in time that is determined by the review judge.
The procurator/advocate may then draw up a summary of their party's position on the matter at hand. In turn, the defender of the bond must draw up a similar statement in favor of the validity of the marriage. In certain cases the review judge may consult a psychological expert or other review judges to assist him in understanding the information. The review judge then studies the information and makes a decision. In summary, the final decision of the review judge is based on three criteria: the legal grounds as contained in the Code of Canon Law (i.e., ways of understanding the nullity); as understood by the judge(s) and the jurisprudence of the Vatican courts; in light of the information given to the tribunal (statements, declarations, depositions, documents, and reports submitted by the parties or professional counselors).
Once the process begins, it does not stop unless the petitioner formally withdraws the application or neglects to follow through on a request of the review judge. A withdrawn or abated application is considered inactive, awaiting renewed interest by either of the parties or new information.
Applications are screened carefully before acceptance. In some cases, a negative decision is the only conclusion that the review judge can make. In the event of a negative decision, it may be hard to understand how the Church could come to such a conclusion given the fact that a person wants to validate a current civil union in the "eyes of the Church," or marry a Catholic in the Catholic Church. Tribunal decisions are not granted out of favor or pity, but for reasons of fact. Sometimes the only conclusion that the review judge can make is that the marriage bond cannot be proven to be null.
A negative decision in a case can be appealed by either of the spouses. An appeal of a negative decision needs to be explicitly requested.
If a case is concluded with an affirmative decision, it is held for 15 Business days to give either party the opportunity to appeal. The Archdiocese of Detroit has two tribunals to which it sends its cases: the Diocese of Grand Rapids and the Diocese of Saginaw. If there is no appeal a Decree of Execution is sent stating the freedom to marry. If there is an appeal in writing, the Second Instance Court will indicate what to do.