Diocesan Marriage Tribunal seeks to dispel annulment myths and misinformation

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

From an early age, almost everyone knows what goes into a wedding: the white dress, the veil and the flowers, the aisle, the priest, the “I do’s” and the rings.

But it’s not as easy to come up with what goes into an annulment. For many, this process is still shrouded in rumors, myths and misconceptions.

“You still run into people who should know better, even some clergy, who don’t know themselves what the right information is,” said Father Timothy Elmer, judicial vicar for the Syracuse Diocese.

When even some of the documents meant to explain the process and reasoning behind annulments can be weighed down with canonical jargon and complex theological concepts, it can be difficult for those seeking an annulment to fully understand the process.

It’s for this reason that the Marriage Tribunal, the canon law court that considers annulments for the diocese, hosted a series of information sessions in each region of the diocese. Both Father Elmer and Father Charles Vavonese led the workshops, and about 100 people showed up to learn more.

“We really hadn’t done anything on this scale in a long, long time,” Father Elmer said.

Those who attended the information sessions learned that an annulment is different from a divorce for a number of reasons. Firstly, a divorce is a civil proceeding, while an annulment involves canon (church) law.

Father Elmer said that a divorce usually tends to focus on the more immediate events that led to the break-up of the marriage. A civil court might consider the last five years or so to find grounds for divorce, but an annulment considers the relationship from its start.

Instead of ending a marriage, an annulment says that the marriage was never fully entered into on the right terms. It declares that there was an essential problem that was there in the very beginning that made the marriage invalid from the start, even if everything looked fine from the outside.

Substance abuse or violence can be considered symptoms of deeper psychological issues that might impact the ability of a person to fully enter into a marriage. If that’s shown to be the case, then an annulment will probably be granted.

Annulments might also be granted for what’s called “inadequacy of judgement,” in other words, perhaps the couple was just too young to know what they were entering into, or a pregnancy may have pressured the couple into marriage. The annulment process might also show that there was never a true intention to have children or be faithful until death.

“Even people who are much older who have lived a single lifestyle [for many years] can come into a marriage and their mindset is ‘I live for myself.’ And that mindset continues into the marriage,” Father Elmer said.

An annulment can be a lengthy and emotionally exhausting experience. But it can also help a couple understand what went wrong.

The annulment process requires the completion of a document with a series of questions that examines the history of the relationship in an effort to understand whether it was strong — or flawed — from the start. The process also requires witnesses who knew both the husband and wife and could be reasonably objective in giving their account of the couple’s relationship.

“The experience varies from person to person,” Father Elmer said. “For some, it can lead to anger or even antipathy. For others, it’s a very cathartic process — or at least it becomes that for them. They can say, ‘Well, I learned something about myself and I learned something about this relationship.’”

He said that this past year, the Marriage Tribunal saw between 125 to 140 complete cases. That figure is down considerably from 30 or 40 years ago, when closer to 500 applications were submitted on an average year. Father Elmer said there was a backlog of applications once the church came to a deeper understanding of the role of marriage.

“The church’s original understanding of marriage was highly legalistic. It defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman, and once they exchanged these words and once the relationship was consummated, then there was very little that could be done to annul that marriage,” Father Elmer said.

But this definition proved to be too narrow and not open to the realities and complexities of human relationships.

“What happened after the Second Vatican Council was that they said that marriage was not just a contract but a covenant, a true relationship between people that is intimate and interpersonal and really involves life and love. There’s so much more to it than the exchange of vows and going to bed one night,” he said.

One common misconception is that an annulment somehow makes children from the marriage illegitimate. “The church never said that the children will be illegitimate — either through a divorce or through an annulment,” Father Elmer said. “A lot of people applied a type of logic to this that if the marriage is voided then the children are illegitimate. But the church never did that to the children.”

Instead, Father Elmer said, consider it like a contract between two businesses that have, together, created an invention. If a court later voids the contract, that doesn’t negate the legitimacy of the invention.

There is an application fee of $50 to begin the process and to receive the forms that need to be filled out. After that, the annulment costs an additional $550, but help may be available for those who cannot afford this cost. The fee goes toward the cost of maintaining the Marriage Tribunal, with a budget of $112,000 for staff and office costs.

Those who are able to file their paperwork quickly can often learn of the court’s decision within three months.

“If you’re in doubt, just try,” Father Elmer said. “Maybe some people think that they can’t get the annulment, but most people who stick with the process find that they do.

“We’re not a scary bunch of people,” he said, laughing. “It’s not a court situation. We’re here to listen to you, we’re here to help you.”

For more information on the annulment process, call the Marriage Tribunal at (315) 470-1480. Parish priests and deacons can also provide more information on the process.

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