When can a Church tribunal Declare Marriage Annulment?

By Sr. Pauline Busienei (FSJ)

Canon law defines natural marriage as, “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its very nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children” (Canon 1055, § 1).

The second paragraph of the same canon adds that; a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament.

Therefore, it is understood that those who have been baptized receive the sacrament of marriage when validly married. As a sacrament, marriage becomes a source of grace and salvation.  Marriage is understood to be validly, a marriage between the baptized as to be celebrated in the presence of a bishop, a priest, or a deacon who has been rightly authorized. It has to be before two witnesses as well.

However, for a valid marriage to take place there has to be consent specifically from both parties (man and woman). The Church law describes the consent as follows; Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage. In this case, every consented and valid Sacramental marriage that has been consummated is indissoluble. It becomes a permanent union, a stable union, a solemn commitment protected by Church law. Consent is what brings marriage into being so much such that if consent is not rightly exchanged, then a specific marriage can be questioned.

To properly constitute marriage, consent must be manifested externally, must be before a lawful minister and witnesses. The two exchanging consent must have no impediments those which the law of the Church recognizes to be so. The mention of the above already points out to us that there are a times that certain marriages may not have been celebrated under all required circumstances and it may call upon the Church tribunal to study such marriages.

The investigation by Church tribunal may lead to declaration of nullity or annulment of marriage. Annulment is a legal judgment made by a Church tribunal that a certain specific marriage never existed. It may not have existed from the beginning because vows were exchanged due to defect of consent, existence of impediments and defect or lack of the right minister and witnesses. There would be no need to hold on to such a marriage which was invalid right from the beginning, and worse if it has already irreversibly broken with no hope for reconciliation.

Thus, in order to declare a particular marriage null, those concerned with the tribunal literally look at the marriage right from its beginning. It has to be discovered with clarity that something was gravely wrong at the time of the wedding vows. It is like asking the question, what is it that happened that made these two people make a defective consent that has eventually led to an invalid marriage?

This is not a question that can be answered by one party, in one sitting, but it is such a weighty question that calls for proper discernment and application of Church law. Experience has shown defective consent only comes into question when a marriage has broken up. This is the time that those concerned are to approach a Church tribunal to seek for nullity of marriage.

However, experience shows that many of our Christians are not aware of the availability of tribunals in our Diocesan organizations. Instead, couples whose marriages have broken up due to defective consent remain suffering in the world with little or no assistance at all.

By the fact that the Church has authority to establish the necessary requirements for the validity and the licit matrimonial celebration and the matrimonial impediments it also has authority to judge by its own law (through tribunals in each diocese) the matrimonial cases of the baptized. This implies that marriages out there remain to be understood as stable and valid until or unless the parties concerned approach the tribunal to express the doubt of their broken or about to break marriage.

Church law in Canon 1060 states; “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven”. If therefore, there is doubt as to whether a certain marriage took place, proof must be given that it did.

In this case, any doubtful or struggling marriage outside there may not be in a position to be investigated and eventually be validity proven before it is presented to the Church tribunal. The responsibility entirely lies on the affected Christians to seek pastoral assistance from there parishes and where upon may be guided for further judicial assistance from Judicial or canon law office of the diocese.

The following experience from Judith (not her real name) may help explain the importance of the services offered by Church tribunals. Judith is a staunch Catholic Christian who had presented her marriage petition to be considered for annulment at the Archdiocese of Nairobi Tribunal.

How do I feel after the Annulment?

I feel loved: To think that God took one look at me, while feeling all alone and desperate and at a time when I had been made to feel so rejected, so unwanted, so unloved; instead of condemning me, he became the Merciful Savior. He embraced me, shielded me (literally put a protective wall around me) and became the center of my pitiful little world. He took me up to the mountain and made me his number one companion. He taught me how to love Him in a way that I had never known before. He was patient with me, He kept picking me up when I fell, dusted me and tucked me under His Sacred heart over and over again. He surrounded me with a new family of friends. He renewed me completely and revealed His heart to me.

I feel free and relieved: The anticipation, the heaviness of the burden I had carried around my shoulders of knowing that I was not free yet is all gone. The possibility that my annulment could be granted, or not was a heavy load to carry around. Worse still, the thought of spending the rest of my life without a companion (had the annulment not been granted) was painful to think about; especially with the reality that I would amount to nothing if one move in the wrong direction would see me denied the Sacraments (Holy Eucharist and Confession); my greatest source of strength and purpose I feel relieved.  (Verbertim: permission granted by her to share her experience)


Sr. Pauline Busienei (FSJ) is a Notary of the Archdiocese of Nairobi Tribunal