Marriage annulment cases are never affected by the petitioners' worldly` influence writes Fr Peter Smith, a judge on the Southwark Metropolitan Marriage Tribunal
RECENT press reports, suggesting that Princess Caroline of Monaco has had her marriage to Philippe Junot declared null and void, were promptly denied by the Vatican. One report also suggested that the Vatican had had many thousands of letters protesting that a nullity should not be granted at all.
This renewed speculation has again raised a number of questions in many people's minds on the whole issue of annulment. Who has the right to apply for an annulment? What are the grounds on which a marriage can be annulled by the Church? Is there one law for the rich and another for the poor? Are those in positions of rank and influence able to bring pressure on Tribunal Judges in order to get a favourable decision?
Under Church law, either or both parties to a marriage have the right to challenge its validity before the competent Church Tribunal. The fact that "onlookers" cannot see any immediate reason why a particular marriage might be annulled, does not give them any right to "protest" that the Church should not even hear a case. For the mere fact that a petition for nullity is presented to a tribunal, whether diocesan or the Sacred Roman Rota, does not mean that an annulment will be automatically granted. Between the presenting of a petition and a final declaration of nullity, there is a long and involved legal process which is painstaking and time consuming.
A nullity is not granted by the Church at the drop of a hat, though it is true that the number of such declarations has risen sharply throughout the universal Church in th,e last two decades_ But this is because the Church is making greater use of her time honoured means of dealing with a real pastoral problem which is growing more and more acute. The Church, with a mother's love for her members, uses the annulment process to heal and strengthen the broken without abandoning the values of the Gospel held dear by the community.
So what do we mean when we use the phrase "declaration of annulment"? Simply put, we mean that it is a formal declaration by the competent authority in the Church, that what appeared to be a marriage on the face of it, was in fact no marriage at all. Such a declaration is substantially different to a civil decree of divorce by which the State claims to break the bond of an existing and valid marriage, although it must be said that the English Courts also recognise the concept of marriage annulment and still grant nullities as they have done for centuries. However, the Church does not recognise the right of the State to grant such nullities, especially when it concerns a sacramental marriage between two Christians.
The vast majority of people who benefit from the Church's pastoral concern in this area are ordinary, "average" parishioners and not the wealthy, the famous and the influential. If a married person believes that the marriage might be null and void, he or she must establish two things.
First, the facts set out in the petition regarding the courtship and marriage must convince the judges that there appear to be grounds in Church law on which the validity of the marriage can be seriously questioned.
Secondly, there must be an indication that there are witnesses who are able and willing to give evidence regarding the marriage from their own knowledge and observation of the couple during the courtship and marriage.
If both these criteria are fulfilled, then the competent tribunal must accept the case for a hearing, whatever anyone else may think about the matter. However, what is alleged in the petition has yet to be actually proven.
The difficulty for most people is that they are not at all clear on ;what precise grounds the Church does declare a marriage null and void. To anyone other than a trained Canon Lawyer, it is true that the legal grounds cart appear rather complex and confusing, and it is very difficult to state them simply without at the same time misleading people.
But that is, unfortunately, inevitable, because marriage is a very complex reality which has spiritual, emotional, psychological and physiological aspects as well as theological and social implications. However, there are many good books available now which do spell out the grounds for nullity very well, Mgr Ralph Brown's Marriage Annulment being the classic in this regard. In practice, the tribunal judges or an Advocate, having carefully examined the facts of a particular case, determine what the actual
grounds will be.
We have all heard the criticism which then arises: it doesn't really matter if you have good grounds or riot, it depends on who you are, how much money you have and what influence you can bring to bear! That criticism is utter nonsense and bears no relation to reality at all. Every petitioner is treated absolutely equally by tribunal judges, quite irrespective of whether the person is, as they say, of high or low degree. In fact, any attempt to "pull rank" by a prospective petitioner, or any attempt to invoke influential friends or relations in order to get a case accepted, receives very short shrift indeed from the tribunal.
Anyone who attempts to bring undue influence on the judges is regarded with the greatest suspicion, and it may well work to the detriment of a petitioner rather than in his or her favour. Judges are rightly jealous of their reputation for impartiality and fairness and are very concerned that justice is both done and seen to be done.
Similarly, lack of money is never a bar to a person bringing a case before the competent tribunal. No one is ever refused a hearing merely because he or she cannot afford the administrative costs of processing a case, and that is always made abundantly plain To anyone who approaches the tribunal in good faith.
If a prima facie case is presented, and if it can be proven by due process that the marriage is in fact null and void, it will be so declared. If the nullity cannot be proven, it will not be so declared and no amount of money, influence or opposition will make the slightest difference, whatever pressure may be brought to bear from whatever source.
The tribunal judge has a difficult task to fulfil. He must know and apply the law, tempered by canonical equity, to each individual case. He must make his judgement with integrity and according to the dictates of his own conscience. When he does that, whatever the outcome, he fulfils his office fully.
But the Church has always recognised that judges are human and not infallible in their decisions, and that in a particular case, experienced and learned judges can honestly and genuinely differ in their judgement. That is precisely why the Church also insists on a system of Appeal Courts, so that a petitioner who feels aggrieved can be given a second or sometimes even a third hearing. No judge takes exception to that, but rather welcomes it, because he is aware of his own fallibility. His sole concern is that justice be done to both parties, irrespective of what others may think.
At the end of the day, a marriage case is like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw until the full picture emerges. The judges alone know the full reasons why a marriage has been declared null and void, and those reasons are never made public — and for very good reasons. For whilst there is a public and social aspect to marriage, it is also an intensely personal and intimate relationship between a man and a woman. When, tragically, a marriage breaks down, it involves a great deal of personal suffering on the part of husband and wife. In all charity, those sufferings and difficulties should not be bandied about in public to the further hurt and harm of the couple. The tribunal process is very rightly, highly confidential, and more often than not a therapeutic and healing process for those involved. For others to speculate, criticise or deplore either the process or the outcome of a particular case is unjust, unworthy and in the proper sense of the term, "rash judgement".