The process for declaring a Catholic marriage null and void
Many people, after having gone through a civil divorce, want to know how to proceed when it comes to the religious and sacramental aspect of their marriage. This section will aim to inform them on this matter. It will not deal with all matters concerning « the issues related to the nullity of a marriage »; instead, it will try to answer questions on how the Archdiocese proceeds in these kinds of matters.
But before that, it is necessary to remind everyone about what marriage is, according to the Catholic faith.
The Catholic Church defines marriage as a covenant in which a man and a woman declare themselves united for the rest of their lives, and ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses, and the procreation and education of children; this alliance between baptized people was raised by Jesus Christ to the dignity of a sacrament.
That’s why the Church takes civil divorce very seriously: it sees in it a last resort to preserve the rights of individuals in terms of secular law. But the Church does not accept the concept that divorce can untie the links created by a valid marriage. The law of the Church, in fact, assumes the validity of a marriage, a presumption that remains until proven otherwise. Civil divorce and a « declaration of nullity » of a Catholic marriage (you must never say that a marriage has been « terminated ») are two different things entirely.
In this section, we will discuss only the religious aspects, especially about the process to nullify a marriage.
 Canon Law, c. 1055; and Gaudium et Spes, No. 48.
 Canon Law, c. 1060.
II. Decree of nullity
The process of declaration of nullity has as goal to determine if, yes or no, an indissoluble bond was created when the two parties were married. The decree of nullity is an act by which a competent ecclesiastical tribunal officially declares the invalidity of a marriage, i.e. that the marriage was null and void before it was even celebrated. That means that the Church has determined that the marriage was never valid for a well-determined reason in Canon Law. The Church, by the declaration of nullity, affirms that there was never a valid marriage, contrary to what people thought until then. It doesn’t say that the ceremony did not take place at the Church, (the photos, the family and friends are witnesses to that), neither that the husband and wife did not have a conjugal relationship; it does not deny that a certain common life existed between the spouses. The children born of that union are not deemed illegitimate. The decree of nullity does not deny that a relationship did exist; it does not infer that there was ill will neither, nor does it try to throw blame on either spouse. The ecclesiastical tribunal is not there to « accuse » or « acquit » either one of the spouses. Instead, the decree of nullity only says that the union was not, at the time of its celebration, a union that was indissoluble according to the teachings and convictions of the Catholic Church.
Many people in the Church talk about the decree of nullity as a way to « cancel » a marriage. That is not exactly true. « Cancelling » something means abolishing or abrogating something that existed. However, the decree of nullity declares that, despite appearances, the union in question never existed according to what the Church considers as the sacrament of marriage.
And since the process is basically a « trial » in front of a competent tribunal, it must be expected that there will be a dispute, contradictions, a « confrontation », not in the sense that people will attack, accuse, or defend each other, but in the sense that each one, in good conscience and honesty, will go and give his version of the facts: thus, we must listen to those who entered into this marriage, as well as their witnesses, in order to corroborate or invalidate the received declarations.
It is important to know that each testimony is confidential, and that at no time, either party, not even the witnesses, will have access to the other ones’ testimonies; only the tribunal will have access to all the testimonies.
Let’s say it again: the trial for nullity of marriage is not there to put blame on either party. Its objective is to answer the question: « Is the marriage in which Miss X and Mister Y entered null and void, according to the doctrine and the teachings of the Catholic Church? »
How does it work in the Archdiocese of Gatineau?
 Canon Law, c. 1061.3.
 Canon Law, cc. 1137 et 1138.
 Since that’s the question each trial for nullity of marriage must answer, the answer must either be YES or NO.
III. Information on the ecclesiastical tribunal
The procedures in the Archdiocese of Gatineau
The Archdiocese of Gatineau itself does not have an ecclesiastical tribunal to take care of its marriage cases; that’s why they are almost always transferred to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Montreal. At the Archdiocese of Gatineau, the responsibility for cases of nullity of marriage is handed over by the Archbishop to the Diocesan Chancery; the chancellor has received the mandate to act as an auditor, hosting and supporting those who are undertaking the process to nullity their marriage. And basically, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Gatineau judges each case; and if he decides they are valid, he sends them over to the regional tribunal in Montreal.
The coordinates of the chancery of the Archdiocese of Gatineau are written at the bottom of this document.
Before starting the process to declare the nullity of a marriage, the person concerned should have previously obtained a civil divorce, or be in the process of getting one. Indeed, the ecclesiastical tribunal rarely ever accepts the demand of a couple who have not yet received a civil divorce, the latter seeming to be the solid proof that no possibility of reconciliation can be brokered between the spouses.
If a person thinks he has reasons to study the validity of his marriage, these are the steps he needs to take.
1. Preliminary contacts: talk with your pastor, a priest, or a deacon.
The married person must first contact the priest of his parish, in order to discuss his case. Then it can be decided if a « formal process » is needed. This contact with a priest must be done well before the person starts preparing for an eventual new marriage and, in fact, many people start this process immediately after having obtained their legal separation or their civil divorce.
Throughout the period that the trial will last, every parishioner can count on the moral and spiritual support of his parish priest.
2. Presentation of the demand to the auditor of the Archdiocese of Gatineau
The second step in the process consists of contacting the Chancery of the Archdiocese (see address below). It could be a phone call or a formal meeting. All depends on your availability, or on the chancellor’s good judgment. This meeting will allow the concerned party to revise his case, and will give the chancellor an opportunity to make an initial assessment, to see if there are sufficient grounds to initiate a trial.
If it is determined that there are sufficient grounds, the person will be handed a brief survey; he will fill out the survey in all truth and honesty, relying on the sincere memories of the events that occurred in the couple. Let’s say this right now: filling out such a survey can wind up being quite difficult, since it may bring back some painful and distressing memories, and reopen some old wounds. But with enough courage and faith, you can succeed in getting through it.
He will also ask the petitioner to think of witnesses whose testimony could corroborate his case. Usually, four witnesses are enough. These are people who have been in contact with the person before and during the marriage, or who can attest to the veracity of certain facts. Of course, the concerned party will not try to influence the witnesses of which he gave the names and addresses. The petitioner will be informed of the financial costs of the trial.
During the presentation of his case, the person will be asked to provide the following documents:
His birth certificate coming from the parish of his birth (issued within the last nine months)
The birth certificate of his spouse, (issued within the last nine months), coming from the parish of her birth.
The marriage certificate coming from the parish where the marriage was celebrated.
If he has already obtained a civil divorce, a copy of the judgment for divorce.
3. Stage of hearing at the Chancery
Once the person gives back his completed survey, the hearing can begin. The diocesan tribunal receives a copy of the marriage file from the parish where it was celebrated, as well as other pertinent documents. The person is then interrogated.
And after the chancellor finishes reading the survey filled out by the petitioner, he meets him again for an audition. That is called the deposition of the petitioner.
Finally, after completing the hearing of the case, the auditor will send it over to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal.
4. The transfer of the case to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal
A member of the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal will then make contact with the petitioner, in order to authenticate the deposition he previously made to the diocesan auditor. After revision of the document by the tribunal, and if it is judged necessary, he may ask that the petitioning party and a certain number of witnesses be interrogated. It is suggested that the petitioner make contact with his witnesses, and tell them that the tribunal may ask to meet with them. Often, the witnesses are reassured to know that they will be asked questions for only about an hour or two, and they will be meeting with a representative of the diocesan tribunal in private.
The witnesses called in order to instruct the case may or may not reside in the archdiocese of Gatineau. After revision of the file, and if the witnesses do not live in this region, the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal will make a request that they be interrogated in their own region.
In law, you must give the defending party the right to participate in this process. And it’s the defendant’s decision if he wants to participate or not. It might happen that the tribunal needs to contact the defending party again, at an ulterior date, to obtain more information. The petitioning and defending parties must have no contact with each other throughout the whole trial, in order to avoid collusion.
After having taken all the dispositions needed, the Ecclesiastical Tribunal gives its answer:
- Affirmative: YES, the marriage is invalid
- Negative: NO, the marriage is not invalid, (thus, it is valid).
5. Second instance in Ottawa
Once the decision by the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal is made, and if one of the parties wishes to appeal the judgment, that party must make the demand with the Appeals Court of Canada, situated in Ottawa. If the latter comes to the same verdict as in Montreal, the case is considered final. Both parties are informed of the decision and, based on it, plan their next move, if any.
V. A few other questions often asked
Is there a difference between a divorce and a declaration of nullity?
YES. Civil divorce is a judicial act by which, once the division of property and the child custody issues are settled, the civil dissolution of the marriage is allowed: both spouses are declared, by the same civil authority, free to enter into a new marriage with a different partner. This civil procedure does not put into question the validity of a marriage. On the other hand, the procedure of declaration of nullity scrutinizes the validity of the initial consent given at that marriage. If the ecclesiastical tribunal is convinced that, in accordance with Church law and the evidence presented at court, what seemed from the outside to be a valid marriage was anything but, it will declare the marriage null and void. That’s the declaration of nullity. In other words, a civil divorce declares that the marriage doesn’t exist anymore while a declaration of nullity affirms there was never, from the start, a truly valid marriage. Civil divorce is mostly about what happens after the breakdown of a marriage, while the declaration of nullity is about the beginning of a conjugal union. Of course, there may be a link between civil divorce and nullity of marriage: if you’ve divorced someone, it may be, (but not necessarily), that your marriage was invalid.
If I’ve obtained a divorce, should I also make a demand for declaration of nullity?
YES, if you celebrated your marriage in a church. Because for the Church, you are still married to your spouse: civil tribunals do not have the power to dissolve the link of a marriage celebrated as a sacrament in the Church. The Church doesn’t impose any penalties to people who seek to obtain a civil divorce. However, before you can remarry in the Catholic Church after having obtained a civil divorce, you need to have obtained a declaration of nullity with the Church, to the effect that your first marriage wasn’t valid. If the procedure for nullity concludes that your marriage in the Church was valid, you cannot remarry in the Church, even if a civil court has issued your divorce.
Are Catholic marriages the only ones that must be declared null and void before a second marriage can be celebrated in the Catholic Church?
NO. A popular belief, largely spread throughout the Catholic population, is that the Church only recognizes marriages among Catholics. In reality, the Church recognizes, not only the validity of marriages celebrated between Catholics in a Catholic Church, but also those of non-Catholic Christians, and even those of people who haven’t been baptized. Marriages between baptized people, (Catholic or not), when they’re valid, are a sacrament; marriages between people who are not aren’t sacraments, since the partners are not baptized. Nevertheless, they are governed by God’s law, and those are solid and enforceable. Consequently, if a Catholic person wants to marry a divorced person, whether she’s baptized (Christian) or not, in both cases he will have to obtain from the ecclesiastical tribunal a declaration of nullity before being able to marry again in the Catholic Church. However, if the first marriage was with someone who was not baptized, the tribunal could examine the possibility of applying a procedure called « Privilege of the faith ». It is not a declaration of nullity, but of the dissolution of the link by the Pope in favour of the faith of the Catholic party who wants to get married.
If I don’t believe that my case is very solid, or it’s with me that lay the biggest responsibility in the breakdown of the marriage, should I still ask the tribunal to examine my first marriage?
It is always difficult for a person implicated to establish if, yes or no, he is justified in demanding a declaration of nullity. That’s what gives full value to the experience and expertise of the tribunal. You will be well advised to let the tribunal staff help you prepare your application, and also follow the instructions they give you. If your case is founded, the tribunal will make sure it is heard.
My first marriage lasted many years, and we also had children. How can this marriage be declared null and void by the Church?
It is absolutely true that it is more difficult to instruct and present to the tribunal a marriage that has lasted many years. Nevertheless, the length of the marriage and the number of children changes absolutely nothing to its validity or invalidity. In other words, if the initial consent (the YES said on the day of your marriage) was defective, i.e. invalid because of an impediment ignored at the time, neither the length of the union, nor the number of children, can give it back its validity.
Do the children born of our marriage become illegitimate if we obtain a nullity of marriage?
NO. The declaration of nullity does not affect the legitimacy of your children. Thus, your children are still considered as legitimate. They benefit from the fact that the marriage had been presumed valid until the declaration of its nullity. In addition, the Church demands that each parent, even if the marriage winds up being declared invalid, to continue keeping their civil and religious responsibilities towards his children.
It is often said that it’s only people with money who are authorized to take on this procedure, and who wind up with a decision in their favour. Is that true?
NO. That’s the most widespread misconception about the tribunal and how it works. In fact, each year, there are an important number of cases where the parties are simply unable to make a single significant financial contribution. Indeed, much of the financing of the tribunal is provided by the diocese. However, we consider it just and equitable that the people who directly profit from its services are invited to give a contribution, always according to their resources, in order to offset the necessary expenses. The preparation, hearing, and judgment of a case bring on some evident costs. If a party has the means to contribute money in order to offset these costs, it is normal that he should. However, and to be perfectly clear: the fact that someone can or cannot make a contribution in no way influences his right to see his demand treated equitably.
If the tribunal responds positively to my demand of declaration of nullity, does my former spouse also benefit from it?
YES. Both spouses are now free to remarry in the Catholic Church. In certain cases, however, it is possible that a restrictive condition be imposed due to the circumstances that caused the first marriage to be invalidated. That should then be the object of an inquest when either or both affected spouses decide to get married again in the Church.
Is there a limitation period to demand a nullity of marriage
NO. There is no limitation period. No matter how long you’ve been married or divorced, you can always have the validity of your marriage evaluated.
If my ex-spouse refuses to participate in the declaration of nullity, can I still go forward with it?
YES. Since marriage is between two people, it is normal that we listen to each party’s side of the story. Thus, the other spouse has the right to be called forward to express his opinion. However, he may decide not to exercise that right. In that case, the procedure continues without him. But after each step in the procedure, he will be updated on what is going on. Thus, your ex-spouse cannot block your demand of nullity of marriage.
I obtained the civil divorce from my marriage, and I have no intention of getting remarried. Is it necessary that I take on a declaration of nullity of marriage?
YES. In a nullity of marriage, we try to shed some light on a situation that seems to have resulted in failure, thus the civil divorce. So, doing the procedure of nullity will allow you to discover what really caused the marriage to fail. It is not because you want to remarry that you’d ask for the nullification of the previous one. However, since you probably don’t know if and when you’ll ever fall in love again, to the point that you’d want to get remarried in the Church, it would be to your advantage to be proactive and to solve, soon after your civil divorce, the question related to the validity of your previous marriage.
How long does the whole procedure take?
It is impossible to predict exactly how long the procedure would take, since each case is unique and can require a different calendar. It depends a lot on the availability of the witnesses, on the complexity of the motives, and sometimes on the necessity to consult certain experts. We particularly invite the petitioners to remind their witnesses to present themselves at their assigned times. Since the personnel of the tribunal may have other responsibilities, and they may be taking on many cases at the same time, they lose a lot of time when specific parties arrive late for their interview. It often happens that the hearing of a case finishes in our diocesan offices within a month or two. For the whole trial itself, we generally suggest that the petitioners expect a delay of between twelve and eighteen months.
Please note, the tribunal cannot be deemed responsible for delays or personal projects of either party. We will do our best to complete hearing the case as soon as possible. We remind the petitioner and the defender that the tribunal will not tolerate repeated questioning or pressure tactics related to the case.
If you have other questions, please do not hesitate to contact:
Mr. Pierre-Paul Périard, d.p., chancellor at the address:
Chancery of the Archdiocese of Gatineau
180, boulevard Mont-Bleu
Gatineau (Québec) J8Z 3J5
Tel.: 819 771-8391x255 Fax: 819 778-8969
IV. Other aspects to know
The petitioner and the defending party are both equal before the law. The tribunal informs each party, by mail, of the progress of the case. In addition to other members of the court staff, upon request, the tribunal will appoint a lawyer for each party. This lawyer is trained in Canon Law, he will follow the different steps of the procedure, while asserting the rights of the party he represents. Each party has the right to be represented by a lawyer (at no additional cost). Each has also rights and responsibilities that the law recognizes and the court protects. These rights and responsibilities will be explained in detail to both parties by a representative of the tribunal.
The Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal, (like its branch in Gatineau), is part of the judicial branch of government of the diocese, which applies the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, and oversees the pastoral welfare of the Christian faithful. In Canada, the procedures of the tribunal are exclusively ecclesiastical and are applied in conformance with the Canon Law of the Catholic Church. Church law allows the petitioner and the defending party to have access to the acts of the case, with certain conditions. The diocesan tribunal has. as a policy, to only divulge the acts of the trial to the people who are duly authorized to see them or to other ecclesiastical tribunals who would have to intervene to solve the case. The confidentiality of the acts of the trial is essential so that the tribunal can discharge its responsibilities under the Canon Law of the Catholic Church. All documents received by the tribunal remain the property of the tribunal.
The handling of a case brings on important costs: employee salaries, valuations, administrative fees, etc… The Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal demands of people who introduce a case of nullity of marriage to contribute an amount of $1500 to cover part of the costs of the trial. (The Archdiocese of Gatineau doesn’t ask for any contributions to cover its costs, which are around the same amount.) They always accept postdated checks, even over a period of one or two years. An additional amount of $300 might be added if a psychological evaluation is needed during the study of the case. As for method of payment, the Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal will send an account statement to the petitioner at the signing of the deposition. The petitioner who doesn’t have the means to supply the required amount can strike an arrangement with the tribunal. So if the person is not able to pay right away, that shouldn’t stop him from continuing the procedure: the tribunal is always there to help. All the checks need to be addressed to the « Ecclesiastical Tribunal of Montreal ».
For more information, please contact
Mr. Pierre-Paul Périard, d.p., chancellor, at the address:
Chancery of the Archdiocese of Gatineau
180, boulevard Mont-Bleu
Gatineau (Québec) J8Z 3J5
Tel.: 819 771-8391x255 Fax: 819 778-8969
Email : email@example.com