Don’t Waste Your Time With “The Tribunal” if Understanding the Catholic Annulment Process is Your Goal


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.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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”


There’s No Ambiguity in Jesus’ Statement Regarding Divorce-Remarriage-Adultery

Before the obvious is verified, let’s look at what marriage accomplishes with the originally separate individuals.

“and [Jesus] said, “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two can become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”1

Christians are familiar with Jesus’ reply when asked about the “bill of divorce” in Moses’ time:

“He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”2

So, Why the Confusion?

Knowing this, how can any Christian argue that a civil decree of divorce negates the sacramental union created by the covenant of marriage? Civil laws have no impact on the validity of a covenant. To use the vernacular, “Marriage is above the state’s pay grade” (which is also important to remember when dealing with the absurdity of the state attempting to redefine marriage—a discussion for another time).

But still, aren’t there extenuating circumstances permitting a divorce?

Two Erroneous Grounds for Christian Divorce

The split in the Church as a result of the 16th century Protestant “Reformation” has created much confusion producing today’s justification of divorce by many. For example:

▪ “When adultery has take(sic) place, a divorce can be obtained, because adultery has already severed the marriage relationship and divorce is a formal acknowledgment of what has already taken place.”3

Adultery may do great harm to a human relationship leading to a temporary or permanent separation, but it does not break the marriage covenant. Recall the vow “for better or for worse.”

The act of adultery is a mortal sin, another reality that was lost sometime after the year 1517. Mortal sin does sever the relationship between the individual and God. However, that relationship with God can be reestablished through a proper confession and absolution of the sin,4 but adultery is not a “get out of jail card free” which allows the other partner to ignore the commitment made before God.

Now, if it can be established that one of the partners had a history of an inability to commit to relationships or showed a disregard for the permanence of marriage any time prior to the wedding ceremony, then a valid marriage never took place. Something which never took place need not be broken (divorce). While the validity of a marriage is always presumed, key facts may become known later which reveal that the two did not become “one flesh.” Hence, “a decree of nullity” (annulment) may be granted, thus freeing each to marry someone else who is also free to do so.

▪ “The Pauline privilege, which I mentioned earlier, (1 Corinthians 7:15) permits divorce on the grounds of desertion by an unbelieving spouse. For mental cruelty to be grounds for divorce, it must involve conduct which makes it impossible to live with the spouse without endangering oneself.”3

The epistle in question refers to a “separation” which “The brother or sister is not bound in such cases.” Since a valid marriage is indissoluble, the only way a spouse is not bound by the marriage vows is if the necessary conditions were not present at the time of the commitment. Again, the origins for abusive behavior must be proven to have existed before the ceremony, otherwise the “for better or for worse” vow holds. (Of course, the Church does not suggest that the abused party must continue to live with the abuser.)

This is why entering into a marriage is such a serious issue requiring an sufficient period of discernment. It’s much more than having moral sex.

If No Annulment, What About the Happiness of the Aggrieved Party?

In some cases, an annulment cannot be granted. Where does that leave each spouse?

For those of us who believe in an afterlife, we are concerned about “happiness” in the next life not just on Earth. It’s easy to forget that. One cannot watch a simple sporting event without an advertiser trying to convince us that life without sex is desolate, unloving and not worth living.

Speaking from experience, this is completely false. A special relationship outside of marriage with a member of the opposite sex can achieve amazing fulfillment for each person while being faithful to all ten of the Commandments.

So, instead of trying to rationalize our way into immoral activities, we could make the world a much better place if we would return to the commands our Savior gave us Himself or through his apostolic successors.5,6

1 – Matthew 19: 5-6 from “The New Catholic Answer Bible,” Fireside Catholic Publishing; Wichita, KS, 2005

2 – Matthew 19: 8-9, Ibid.

3 – from “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce and Remarriage?” at

4 – “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” John 20: 22-23, from “The New Catholic Answer Bible,” Fireside Catholic Publishing; Wichita, KS, 2005

5 – as Jesus said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” Luke 10: 16, Ibid.

6 — For those who do not believe in God, we still possess the code of moral behavior present in human consciences even before the time of Moses’ trip to Mount Sinai. When we try to pretend it doesn’t exist, we end up feeling empty in the end. Ask any therapist.