ALLOUEZ — Each of us probably knows someone who has been affected by an annulment. Yet, most of us don’t really know much about the annulment process. Sometimes what we have heard from others is only partially correct. And confusions can arise.
Some people worry about what an annulment could mean for their children. Others wonder why their civil divorce isn’t enough for the Catholic Church.
Since annulment is a complex issue, The Compass has asked both the judicial vicar of the diocesan Marriage Tribunal — Fr. Brian Belongia — and several field advocates for the tribunal about the questions they often hear about annulment. In this series, we are exploring some of these questions.
- If I get an annulment, will my children will be illegitimate?
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains, “A declaration of nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children who were born of the union following the wedding day, since the child’s mother and father were presumed to be married at the time that the child was born.”
Norbertine Fr. Tim Shillcox serves in Clintonville as a field advocate for the marriage tribunal in Green Bay. He has 33 years of experience with the tribunal. Fr. Shillcox wants people to know that “the annulment process says nothing about children. The presumption is that they were conceived in good faith, as the couple tried to make things work.”Deacon Mike Eash, a field advocate from Appleton, also seeks to reassure petitioners. “The church views all marriages as valid unless proven otherwise,” he said. “Regardless if the covenant between the couple is annulled at a later time, the children were born within a valid contract and that cannot be changed.”
Sr. Carol Haanen, another field advocate from Appleton, addressed the legal dimension in this question. “The marriage license that couples, witnesses and the priest or deacon sign during the wedding ceremony is the civil document that is then sent in to the county courthouse,” she said. “The children born to this marriage are legal and recognized by any other civil union.
- I don’t want my ex involved. Does he/she have to be?
A variation of this question that Fr. Shillcox said he often hears is: “My former spouse won’t cooperate.”“Former spouses don’t have to participate,” the priest said. “They have to be invited to participate, since the annulment is a statement about the union of two persons.”
Deacon Jerry Cross, a field advocate from Laona, has 21 years of experience with the tribunal. He reminds people that an annulment is a true court case and operates the same way.“As in a civil courtroom, all involved parties have a right to express their thoughts and opinions,” he said, adding that it is a good decision for the former spouse to make. “The former spouse has a right to review the paperwork submitted. However, the former spouse may only review the paperwork if they participate in furnishing their own paperwork as the petitioner.”
What sometimes happens, Deacon Cross added, is that the former spouse doesn’t even respond, or fill out the paperwork he/she receives.
“It would help things progress at a faster rate if the former spouse would send a note back to the tribunal saying that they choose not to be involved,” Deacon Cross said.
Kerry Adam, administrative assistant for the marriage tribunal, said that the tribunal “makes every attempt to notify (the ex-spouse), but their lack or response/participation does not stop the case.”
- My spouse was unfaithful. Doesn’t that count?
Often, field advocates hear about cases involving infidelity. Some petitioners believe that this should be reason enough for granting an annulment.“One of the biggest misconceptions about annulments is that (the tribunal) looks at what went wrong in the marriage to determine if a marriage was valid,” said Deacon Eash. “What the annulment process is discerning is if the contract (vows) between the couple was valid. It is looking to see if the ‘I do’s’ were given freely and with the intent to live them within the marriage. Yes, the annulment process looks at the marriage, but only to try and find clues if the contract was valid from the beginning.”Sr. Carol noted that, “Sometimes families of divorced couples are broken and there is plenty of blame and sides to take. But an annulment is not like a civil divorce: wife versus husband. Rather it is the couple’s marriage versus their marriage as a sacrament.”
“It can also give a better insight into why the marriage did not work,” she added. “It can help put closure and even bring a deeper forgiveness, to move on in new relationships with a better self-understanding for each person. One need not degrade the other. Rather, it is important to be honest and also admit and identify where each one may have failed. It is not to be a condemning event.”
Sometimes, though, there is fear involved regarding the former spouse’s possible reactions. Deacon Cross said that field advocates recognize this.
“If there is a danger of a significant reaction from a former spouse,” he said, “let the tribunal know that. The case can move forward with a ‘protective discretion.’”
- Isn’t this just a Catholic divorce? Why isn’t my legal divorce enough?
Fr. Brian Belongia, judicial vicar, noted that, “An annulment is not ‘Catholic divorce.’ An annulment says that the marriage itself never existed in the eyes of the church. An annulment looks not only on how the marriage ended, but the entire relationship from dating through divorce. Since the Catholic Church has the theology of marriage as sacramental and unbreakable until death, (the marriage) is either contracted or it is not, which is the reason for the lengthy and involved process.”Deacon Eash explains that, while an annulment may seem similar to a civil divorce, other things come into play.“The annulment process involves a number of people who help determine the validity of a marriage,” he explained. “There are people who help try and gather enough information so that the annulment is granted; there are people who will argue against granting the annulment; and an ecclesial judge who has to weigh the testimony to determine if the vows were valid. Unlike a civil divorce (that is almost certainly granted with minimal testimony), an annulment is taken more seriously to protect the couple involved.”
To contact the diocesan marriage tribunal, visit gbdioc.org/canonical-services/marriage-cases or call (920) 272-8167.
Editor’s note: Third in a four-part series.