Why Tribunals?

Why Tribunals?

Divorce is usually a very painful experience for individuals. After that pain has been endured, the idea of petitioning for a declaration of nullity seems insurmountable to people. Can't the church simply accept the civil divorce? Furthermore, marriage is a private thing! Why does the church involve itself?

The Church, like the state ...

The church, like the state, considers marriage to be a public act. Marriage is not simply a private matter between two individuals. It has many public ramifications for both the civil and church societies. There is the good of the spouses, the welfare of children and the cohesive nature of the societies as a whole. Families are the bedrock of societies and so societies regulate the institution of marriage.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life (CCC, 1603)." We refer to the family as the "domestic church."

Premarital requirements are placed on the bride and groom by both societies. Without a civil license there can be no civil recognition of marriage. Two Catholics must marry in the presence of a priest or deacon and two witnesses. If they do not there is no church recognition of a marriage.

Civilly, if persons are already married, they cannot marry another. If they attempt to do so, they commit the crime of bigamy, and the second marriage is not recognized as valid by the state. The same is true in the church. A person who is already married cannot marry another. They are incapable of doing so because of the prior bond. The attempted second marriage would not be recognized as valid in the faith community.

Civil divorce

But, you say, "The state allows divorce!" It will dissolve the first valid bond of marriage for various reasons. Once the marriage is dissolved, the person is then no longer bound to the first marriage contract. With this contract dissolved the state permits the parties to remarry. It all sounds so "civil", this power to dissolve!

Though the state no longer considers the divorced partners husband and wife, the faith community does. This is where the church and state are at variance. The faith community holds that a valid, consummated sacramental marriage can never be dissolved "... by any human power or for any reason other than death" (c. 1141). Church law does not recognize the legal effects of a civil dissolution of marriage.

A declaration of nullity

No human power can dissolve a valid, consummated sacramental marriage. This statement is rooted in the church's scriptural, theological and canonical traditions (CCC, 1640 & 2382).

A declaration of nullity is not a dissolution of marriage. It is not a church divorce! Rather, it is a judicial pronouncement that a valid marriage had not been brought about (c. 1057), as the faith community had presumed. It is a pronouncement decreed within the church's judicial system.


What is the tribunal? It is the church's court in which legal acts and procedures are observed to solve disputes and questions. Who comprises it? It is composed of judicial personnel, i.e., judges, advocates, defenders, and others. What is done there? Judicial trials are undertaken to pursue or vindicate rights, to declare juridic facts or to impose penalties.

In regard to marriage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "... the Church after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of [the] marriage ... (CCC, 1629)."

Anyone, whether baptized or not can bring a case before a church court. All of the Christian faithful have access to the courts to vindicate and defend their rights. Church courts are carefully regulated by canon law. There are three levels of church courts in law: the first is diocesan (titled The Metropolitan Tribunal here in Boston), the second is regional (titled the Court of Appeal), the third is the Roman Rota. Diocesan courts, in actual practice, are occupied primarily with matrimonial cases, i.e., adjudication of the validity or nullity of marriages.

The diocesan bishop has chief oversight for the diocesan court (c. 1419 & 1420). There are various officials at the court. The judicial vicar heads the diocesan court and is assisted by the associate judicial vicar and judges of the tribunal. The defender of the bond argues to uphold the bond of the marriage that is in question. Procurators represent and act on behalf of parties, while advocates ensure that the rights of the parties are upheld. All exercise judicial authority in accord with canon law.

The legal professionals who serve on the church court here in Boston are both men and women, in full time and part time capacities. They hold license degrees, or in addition, doctoral degrees in canon law. They are assisted by a support staff of six dedicated individuals.

Marriage trials in general

A trial concerning marriage nullity follows three stages. First, a person initiates a case. The tribunal officials determine the nature of the case. It may focus on the parties consent, or the legitimate manifestation of that consent, or the parties qualifications to place consent. The judge decides the court's jurisdiction, the petitioner's standing and whether the case has merit. The judge then contacts the other party to the case and fixes the legal grounds on which the case is to proceed.

Second, evidence is gathered from the parties, witnesses and relevant documents. Third, the entire case, including arguments submitted by advocates and the defender of the bond, is discussed orally or in writing. Then the judges render a decision. All judgments are forwarded or appealed to the next level, the regional tribunal. Once confirmed, the decision of the judges is final.

Next, misconceptions about the legitamacy of children...