Many aspects of the Catholic faith are criticized simply because they are misunderstood. The annulment process is one that mystifies even quite a few who say they are Catholic.
What is an Annulment?
An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce.” A divorce breaks a civil contract, which can be broken by humans. A marriage between two baptized Christians is a covenant between them and God – something humans cannot break. “Until death do you part” applies to all Christians despite attempts to create man-made exceptions over the last five centuries.
A “declaration of nullity” by the Catholic Church simply means that all of the necessary conditions for a sacramental union were not present at the time of the wedding vows.1 This statement does not in any way change the legitimacy status of the children.2
The Movie’s Theme
The story involves a previously married Protestant man (Joseph) who wishes to marry a Catholic woman who has never been married (Emily). Since “until death do you part” clearly applies here, they can only be married in the Church if his first marriage did not exist sacramentally. Otherwise, he is still married in the eyes of God. The tribunal must determine whether any spiritual, psychological or physical impediments to marriage existed at the time those vows were taken. So, how well did the movie portray the process?
- The setting: It was a “court” arrangement where the petitioner and respondent3 were present along with the advocate and defender of the bond.4 In many dioceses, the petitioner, respondent and witnesses only have to submit written testimonies to the tribunal and are not required to make personal appearances. There was a small disclaimer in the movie’s credits at the end, but it would have been far more effective if it had been mentioned verbally at the beginning. Small point, and not critical.
- Prevailing action: What brings this movie down to a “not recommended” rating is that it spent an inordinate amount of time showing a PG-13 version of Emily and her battles with temptations of fornication with the two men involved, sometimes successful sometimes not. Her level of holiness has absolutely no bearing on the marriage being reviewed.
The director could argue that he wanted to show the reason for Tony’s emotional tug- of-war resulting from his helping a rival to possibly marry his beloved. But this could have been accomplished with a simple monologue from him explaining his moral dilemma. Filling the movie with her activities was essentially for a soap opera effect – not at all helpful or appropriate when attempting to explain the annulment process.
- Joseph’s irrelevant promises to be a good husband: Near the end, Joseph expressed his fervent intentions to be a loyal and attentive husband. That’s all well and good, but the tribunal is not assessing his suitability to be a husband again, but to determine whether his first marriage was sacramental and, therefore, exists to the exclusion of another wife.
- Emily’s feelings and maturity: Also near the end, she made a case for herself before the tribunal that she possessed the necessary character traits to be a good wife. Wonderful, but this has nothing to do with the validity of a marriage she was not involved with. Incidentally, neither Joseph’s nor Emily’s personal evaluation of their current state of maturity and resolve would have been included in any written responses for either forms of the tribunal process.
- Defender of the bond: He was given the opportunity to display an eruption of anger certainly not typical of people in this process. The director must have wanted Hollywood more than accuracy.
- Starting the engagement relationship with deliberate deception: Before the decision of the tribunal was known, Tony offered Joseph the engagement ring he had bought for Emily some time ago. After he convinced Joseph to accept it, they agreed that if Emily were to ask how he obtained that ring, Joseph was to say he bought it on the internet. He probably shouldn’t have used the ring in the first place and then he violated the trust that must exist between husband and wife by lying about its origins. This is funny only to the secular crowd which views life as a sitcom.
- Proceeding down the aisle with Saturday Night Live irreverence: The lack of respect for marriage continued to the end of the movie when Tony and Emily’s best friend, Amana, were seen going down the aisle together in the wedding procession. They were giggling and having a great time as they made only slightly veiled comments about hooking up later.
Movies which inform a misguided society about Catholic beliefs and practices are needed. Unfortunately, “The Tribunal” does much more damage than good. Reading about annulments on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ site or the Catechism of the Catechism would be a much better choice.
1 – “’Annulment’ is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic ‘declaration of nullity.’ Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic Church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.”
“For a Catholic marriage to be valid, it is required that: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they are capable of giving their consent to marry; (3) they freely exchange their consent; (4) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (5) they intend the good of each other; and (6) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by Church authority.” http://www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulments/
2 – “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. Parental obligations remain after a marriage may be declared null.” http://www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulments/
3 – “The person who is asking for the declaration of nullity – the petitioner – submits written testimony about the marriage and a list of persons who are familiar with the marriage. These people must be willing to answer questions about the spouses and the marriage. If the other spouse did not co-sign the petition, the tribunal will contact that spouse – the respondent – who has a right to be involved. In some cases the respondent does not wish to become involved; the case can still move forward.” http://www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulments/
4 – “Each party may also appoint a Church advocate to represent him or her before the tribunal. A representative for the Church, called the defender of the bond, will argue for the validity of the marriage.” http://www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulments/