Marriage, divorce and annulment: Part Two: What happens next?

OSV News illustration/Natalie Hoefer, The Criterion
This photo illustration is a reminder to couples that Christ needs to be a part of every marriage.

(Editor’s note: The Catholic Messenger is publishing a series on the Tribunal of the Diocese of Davenport. This is the second article, based on an interview with Father Paul Appel, the diocese’s judicial vicar.)

Fr. Appel

In the first article from the Tribunal, we took a look at some prevailing trends in Chris­tian marriage. Unfortunately, not every marriage succeeds. People seek divorce for innumerable rea­sons, but before we look at some of these I would like to dispel some misguided notions about separation and divorce.

First, separation commonly refers to a time when couples take a break and seek to reexamine their relationship before moving back in together. Accompanied with counseling and pastoral support, this can often lead to healing and reconciliation between parties. Sadly, many people only seek separation or counseling after it is too late. This leads to an inevitable divorce when the marriage might have been saved if the parties had taken action sooner. Civil divorce is handled in the courts, though there is a provision for divorce even in canon law. The reasons given are: “If one of the spouses poses a grave or mental or physical danger to the other or to the child, or otherwise makes their common life too difficult.”

Unfortunately, some Catholics and their pastors still view divorce as inherently sinful (even in the cases mentioned above). That thinking prevents a divorcee from seeking Communion or the other sacraments. This is not the teaching of the Church. That being said, the context of each individual case should be taken into account. For instance, if one of the parties then continues to engage in manifest and gravely sinful behavior following the divorce, this behavior could place them outside of communion with the Church until they seek reconciliation. We should also note that a person who seeks divorce for a just cause is not automatically free to attempt another marriage. To remarry, the parties must first seek an annulment.


The Tribunal will accept a petition for nullity a year after the civil divorce is concluded. This gives time for emotions to cool and the parties to think more clearly about the events that led up to the divorce. After a year or so, people are more willing to look at the events rationally and even accept their own responsibility for the breakup of the marriage.

We ask that a petition for marriage be completed with one’s pastor and include a short history of the courtship, marriage and breakup. We also ask that the petitioner provide three witnesses who can testify to the events pertinent to the case. A petition for nullity is handled like any other court case, meaning that the parties are entitled to representation before the Tribunal, they can call witnesses and provide evidence, and each party has a chance to review this evidence before a judgement is rendered.

It is not a sure thing that the petition for nullity will be granted. Any court case handled at the Tribunal is a quest for the truth. Our decisions are based on clear and convincing evidence from authentic sources. If a marriage has all the semblance of a valid marriage, then nullity is not granted. Likewise, if there is no evidence of the petitioner’s claims, the petition is not granted.

The reason so many annulment petitions are granted is that we don’t get requests to nullify successful, sacramental marriages! As I discussed in my previous article, modern notions about marriage tend to fall far from what the Church intends for married life. In previous generations, such things as atheism, contraception, abortion, abuse, careerism, pornography, materialism and drug use were recognized as detrimental to a successful Christian marriage.

Now, and I know I risk sounding old-fashioned here, these things are commonplace in modern dating circles. In the Tribunal, we see case after case of marriages torn apart by these behaviors and couples lament they had no idea this would affect their marriage so profoundly. This is to say nothing of the lack of mental health services for those in need and the stigma around seeking professional or pastoral help when things begin to go bad.

Once the petition is made, the judge assigned will establish the grounds of the case, usually something to do with one of the factors listed above. Once these have been established, the court sends a letter to the parties informing them that we will be seeking evidence and they can respond if they wish. The petitioner and the respondent both have a right to participate in the case, though the respondent’s participation is not required.

After the parties have had a chance to respond, they and the witnesses will receive a questionnaire to complete. We hope that they all provide us with good information about the marriage. In particular, we are looking for the parties’ mindset at the time of consent. Bad behavior 20 years after the marriage is not proof of annulment.

I hope that this clarifies the process a little bit. Next time we will look at the conclusion of the case and some comments from clients. May God bless you!

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *