One challenge of my work as a judge in a diocesan marriage tribunal is that, in one sense, nobody is happy to have to meet me. No matter how a relationship became broken, or whose “fault” it was, or whether a declaration of nullity can ultimately be granted, the experience of a failed marriage is never easy.
Sometimes people begin the marriage nullity process because they have been told it is a “healing” experience, but is this true? Like so many things related to canon law, the answer is, “yes and no.”
To start with the “no,” it’s important to keep in mind that a marriage nullity trial is different from something like psychotherapy or pastoral counseling, where facilitating a person’s emotional well-being is the principal goal. The stated purpose of the marriage nullity process is to sort out the truth of what happened in each case, as objectively as possible.
To give a very simplified explanation of how the marriage nullity process works, the “petitioner,” i.e., the person seeking the declaration of nullity, approaches the marriage tribunal of a diocese that has the competence or “jurisdiction” to try their case. Often with the assistance of qualified clergy or tribunal staff, the petitioner composes a document formally alleging that the marriage was invalid for a specific, recognized reason — such as one or both of the parties lacking the psychological capacity to consent to marriage or their lack of a proper intention in marrying. Once the petition is accepted, the rest of the process is dedicated to the petitioner providing proofs for this initial claim — naming witnesses who can corroborate their testimony or submitting relevant documents such as counseling records. Depending on the specifics of the case, a psychologist or other expert might further provide a professional opinion. At the end of the process, typically three canon lawyer judges will review all the assembled evidence and meet privately to discern whether the supposed cause of nullity is actually proven with moral certainty, or, “beyond any reasonable doubt.”
The other spouse, called the “respondent,” also is invited into the process — to testify and to provide his or her own witnesses. To ensure that the rights of both parties are being respected, it is a strict requirement for tribunals to contact the respondent and offer the chance to participate. However, the case can still move forward even if the respondent chooses to ignore communication from the tribunal or is unwilling to engage in the nullity process.
In my professional experience, judges and other tribunal staff do make a concerted effort to guide petitioners and respondents through the nullity process in a pastoral way, and we try to be as sensitive as possible when asking difficult questions or sharing hard news.
Even so, the fact of the matter is that going through the marriage nullity process can be emotionally difficult. The steps required by canon law are there for a specific reason: to seek out the truth as fully as possible, in a way that is just and fair to everyone involved.
And this brings us to the “yes” part of our answer. In the Gospel Jesus tells us that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). In tribunal ministry, it is our hope that by helping people to come to “know the truth” about what happened in their marriage, this knowledge will ultimately have a freeing — thus hopefully also healing — effect. While the nullity process is not directly oriented toward emotional healing, many people still experience a sense of personal and spiritual healing as a beneficial side effect of the process.
Everyone is different, and although some people may find revisiting old memories to be challenging and painful, others may find that the experience brings them clarity and closure. Likewise, if some may find it difficult or slightly embarrassing to share private information with the tribunal (which they shouldn’t — tribunal staff have heard it all!) others may find it validating to have the church listen to their story and take their perspective seriously.
Finally, it’s good to remember that just because an experience is difficult doesn’t mean that it can’t also be simultaneously healing. People who undergo successful life-saving surgery usually find the experience physically painful, but they know that pain will be temporary and also will, ultimately, lead to their greater well-being.
Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist. Her column, “Question Corner,” appears weekly at OSV News.