It’s not often that when a bride and groom say their wedding vows, in the presence of friends and family and under God’s watchful eye, that they’re thinking their marriage will end in divorce.
However, many Catholics do have experiences with divorce and remarriage. And yet, many people do not clearly understand divorce and remarriage in the Catholic Church.
Once a divorce has been finalised, people are free to marry civilly. But it often comes as a shock to many to learn that while they are now “legally” divorced, they are not free to remarry in the Catholic Church if their former spouse is still alive.
It can come as an even greater shock to be told this law does not just apply to Catholics; it applies to any divorced person, regardless of their faith background. This is because the Church believes all marriages are valid – not just Catholic marriages – until proven otherwise. This can be hard for people to hear and accept.
The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Marriage Tribunal is a pastoral ministry reaching out and assisting people who have been divorced and are now seeking to remarry in the Catholic Church.
This can also include those people who have remarried civilly after a marriage breakdown and now wish to have the Church recognise their new marriage.
Some enquiries also come from divorced persons who have no immediate intention of remarriage but still seek clarification of their standing in the Church.
There are a number of ways we can assist people depending on the circumstances of their previous marriage. The most common process is a declaration of nullity, frequently referred to as an annulment. The generous spirit of non-Catholics who are prepared to undertake this process for the sake of their Catholic fiancée never fails to move me.
You may be wondering why someone would want an annulment? Mostly it is so they can remarry in the Catholic Church, whether that be now or sometime in the future. For others, it can be to bring closure to a painful chapter of their life.
If an annulment is the answer to their question of “how can you help?”, what is it we might want to know?
First, we have to understand the story of their first marriage. Not just their relationship, but the story of their lives – their family life, and the family life of their former spouse? How did their family life impact on their understanding of marriage and relationships? How did they meet? How did their relationship develop? Were either under any pressure to marry? Did they both hold the same values about marriage? Were they ready to make the commitment?
After wending our way through their life story, we discuss the factors that contributed to their marriage ending and events since then.
My 15 years of experience working for the Diocese’s tribunal has provided me with raw insight into the feelings of individuals, once part of a loving couple, coming to terms with their reimaged future.
A common attribute to all who contact the tribunal is courage. They find the strength to face the pain and grief associated with the end of their marriage so they can talk about it. To revisit these memories and recount them, takes courage and resilience.
Many of us would not see ourselves as courageous. In the past, I commonly thought of courage as a physical quality, but working at the tribunal I have learnt to recognise courage in all its guises and I am full of respect for those who come to see us and say yes to starting a process.
In doing so, many have told me it gives them the opportunity to reflect on their lives in a meaningful way, which can be both a learning and healing experience for future relationships.
For many, the tribunal process may have challenging and painful moments. However, as well as a legal procedure, it enables them to provide context to the breakdown of their previous relationship, develop greater understanding and a sense of closure.
Importantly, an annulment does not declare the spouses never really loved each other, nor that the divorce was more the fault of one party than the other. The important
thing to remember in initiating the process is that our experienced staff care about what has happened to you.
Moreover, whether a decree of nullity is issued or not, the decision should bring peace of mind to the parties who have been wondering or questioning whether the Church would regard the marriage in question as binding for life, or not.
Jane Dunn is Director of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese Marriage Tribunal.
The Tribunal services the entire Diocese and is open Mondays to Fridays, 9am-5pm. If you would like to have a confidential chat to discuss your situation, you are welcome to call (02) 4979 1370.