In the Catholic faith, marriage is for life -- ending only upon death of a spouse or by a church tribunal decree of annulment, determining the marriage was never valid in the first place.
The annulment process is lengthy -- often taking 12 to 18 months.
It can be costly, with fees nationally ranging from $200 to $1,000. In the Lincoln Diocese, costs typically vary from $250 to $275.
But the process is not always successful.
The challenges of getting a failed marriage annulled have driven some Catholics away from the church, said Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln.
This week, the bishop eliminated one of the big annulment hurdles, saying the diocese no longer will charge fees for people seeking an annulment. Instead, the costs will be absorbed by the diocese.
Conley’s announcement coincides with the start of the Year of Mercy, as declared by Pope Francis, and is in keeping with the Pope’s long-standing desire that tribunals stop assessing fees for annulments.
“The Year of Mercy requires that each of us help the world to live according to the will of God,” Conley said.
Whereas a divorce legally ends a marriage, an annulment rules that the marriage wasn't valid because it never met the church’s requirements of marriage. An annulment does not deny a relationship ever existed, nor does it consider children in the marriage to be illegitimate.
But it determines if the married persons were mentally and physically capable to pledge their lives to one another, and were honest in their intentions of fidelity, family and lifelong commitment.
Without an annulment, divorced Catholics are not free to remarry and cannot receive the sacrament of Holy Communion if they remarry without benefit of an annulment, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The Catholic church believes and teaches that marriage is a permanent union," Conley said. "It is insoluble. It is for keeps.
“But marriages do break up. Some say about 50 percent will break up, even among Catholics.”
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An annulment determines whether “something was defective at the very beginning,” Conley said.
The annulment process determines whether the couple was free to marry and poses several questions: Was one already married to someone else? Were they able to freely consent to marriage? Did they possess the psychological maturity to understand what they were getting into? Were they addicted to drugs or alcohol and therefore unable to make a free and conscious decision?
Annulments also can be granted if a person expressed before the marriage that he or she never expected it to last, or that it was a marriage of convenience so as to obtain a green card, legal status or other benefits afforded to spouses.
“The tribunal process primarily involves testimony from people who knew the couple before they got married," Conley said. "People who can testify as to whether they were fully capable of consenting (to marriage)."
It’s a touchy topic. Sometimes those people don’t want to get involved, especially if they became related by marriage. They don’t return tribunal phone calls. They decline to answer questions.
On average, the Lincoln Diocese’s tribunal considers or hears roughly 100 cases a year -- devoting up to 100 hours to each case, Conley said.
But the diocese has a long history of helping those who cannot pay -- from waiving tuition for students seeking a Catholic education to providing free counseling, food, clothing, job training and housing for those in need, the bishop said.
Annulment fees covered about 15 percent of the diocese’s tribunal budget, Conley said
“Hopefully we can make up the 15 percent shortfall in other ways," he said. "We think it is worth the effort to try and raise these funds elsewhere."
The bishop said it is his hope that removing the financial hurdle will prevent people from leaving the church, and motivate others to come back.
“We want to remove as many obstacles as there are, and encourage people to come back into full communion with the church,” Conley said.
You can read the bishop’s column on the subject at lincolndiocese.org/op-ed/bishop-s-column/4112-the-marriage-tribunal-an-apostolate-of-mercy.