TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Upholding the Law of Marriage

Those of us who work the Tribunal (more formally known as the Inter-Diocesan Tribunal of Sydney) consider ourselves to be a pastoral minister of the Church.

This may surprise those who see our role as primarily administering the law of the church on marriage.  The words ‘law’ and ‘pastoral minister’ are not commonly found sitting comfortably in the same sentence!

The law part of my work involves upholding the law of marriage according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which states that all marriages are considered valid unless proven otherwise.  Note the use of the word ‘all’!  Our Church does not recognise divorce as freeing any person of any faith background from the bond of marriage if his/her former spouse is still living. 

From experience, I’ve come to realise some Catholics don’t know this and it can come as a great shock to find out that a divorced Anglican or Hindu or atheist fiancée isn’t currently free to marry in our Church.  The fact that the previous marriage didn’t take place in a Catholic church doesn’t make any difference; every marriage matters and there are canon laws to prove it!

There is any number of misconceptions about the work of the Tribunal - and another one is that everyone who comes to see us requires an annulment.  However, there are other processes which may apply, depending for example on factors such as whether both parties were baptised at the time of the wedding. What if neither was?  Well that would be a Pauline Privilege case. Or what if one party was baptised and the other wasn’t? Or if a person has been married more than once, what might that involve?  Or if a Catholic party married civilly without permission from the Bishop?  Each of those questions has a different answer in terms of which process applies. 

And what if none of the above apply; what then?  Then we are looking at a ‘formal case’ or what is commonly known as an annulment.

What exactly is an annulment?  An annulment says that a marriage was, in some way, flawed from the beginning and thus not a true sacramental marriage as understood by the Church. What if the circumstances of your marriage mean that the applicable process is an annulment?

As you will appreciate, it is a complex process to investigate the truth and it’s not easy as any number of our clients could testify.  I know that many come to see us at great emotional cost. Together we dig deep into their life story, commencing with the story of their family of origin.  From there we work through the family story of their former partner, explore who they both were when they met and commenced their relationship, investigate how their relationship developed and how it led to marriage. 

We would ask: What were their intentions around marriage?  Did both understand that marriage is for life?  Did both parties intend to remain faithful?  Was either party under any pressure to marry?  Did either party withhold information from the other which, if it had been shared, might have given pause for thought as to whether to marry?  Was their consent freely given, or did one or the other feel they had no choice but to marry and thus their consent was compromised? 

There are so many complexities to be unravelled and understood. And it’s only after all this that we turn to the story of their marriage and how it was lived out.

And the hard fact is, not all marriages can be annulled. While many marriages end through divorce, not all are considered invalid.

I often use the example of my parents’ marriage to illustrate what makes a valid marriage; Mum and Dad were married for 60 years before my dad’s death and together they lived out the sacrament of marriage in a powerful and life-giving way, as many people do.  Their marriage was indeed a valid marriage.

However, when I consider my work at the Tribunal over the past 13 years, I don’t think about the law I’ve applied, or the paperwork I completed, or how many cases I sent to Rome (no more than a dozen, in case you’re curious); I think of the many people I’ve met from all faith backgrounds and the stories they have told me.

These include the young and the not so young; the angry, the sad, those who are anticipating with joy the new marriage which awaits them; those who are weighed down by the hurt of a failed relationship or some other major life trauma; those to whom their faith is important and those who have no faith at all; those from other faith backgrounds who are here solely so the person they love can have the Catholic marriage they desire; which in many ways is the most generous gesture of all.

But most of all I think of the great trust all these people have placed in me to sort out, on their behalf, this game that is life.  And how much I, in turn, have learnt about life through being entrusted with their stories.

If you have any queries about the work of the Tribunal, please feel free to contact Jane Dunn by phoning her on 4979 1370 or by emailing her at Jane.Dunn@mn.catholic.org.au

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Jane Dunn Image
Jane Dunn

Jane is the Tribunal Director for the Maitland-Newcastle diocese Marriage Tribunal.