Hope for Marriages in Crisis

By Fr Paul Kariuki Muriu

The covenant of love between a man and a woman is a reality that is faced with joys and sorrows. The joy of love that is experienced in marriage continually nurtures the desire to get married and to remain faithful to the end in spite of the pains.

The Church being mother and teacher, raises her children to embrace the vocation of marriage whole heartedly, without ignoring the sufferings of those that are experiencing very difficult moments.

In this article, I shall distinguish three aspects: the reality of marital tensions, the breakdown of some marriages, and re-marriage.

Thereafter, I shall point out how to challenge the validity of a marriage in a church tribunal. To achieve true clarity over each of these aspects, we must look at the Church’s teaching with honesty, realism and openness to the spirit of God.

At the very exchange of marital consent, one gets a clear idea that marriage is not meant to be a rose without thorns; that to go for the rose flower is also to take the thorns. The sacramental rite requires one to accept the other partner unconditionally, the good and the bad, even mentioning them side by side in the same marriage rite, and extending such acceptance to the entire horizon of one’s life.

More often, it appears that there is in the thrilled parties to the covenant, a silent hope that the thorns will be harmless, or at least that they will not prick too deep. That could explain why to some, the dawn of injuries and wounds on their marriage come as a surprise. The natural inefficiencies, the failure of one or both parties to keep the promise to the letter, and possible interference from other destructive persons might form the onset of serious trouble.

Calling upon the grace of God, mutual faithfulness to one’s word, constructive dialogue, and ongoing pastoral and clinical assistance is of great help in such situations. At times the problems may turn very sour. Frequent unresolved quarrels, failure to talk to each other, complaints and even legal suits may threaten the permanent union. Nevertheless, “It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ” (CCC 1615).

The cohabitation may become discordant, full of conflicts, interrupted or even broken. Under the regime of sin, “this disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character”(CCC 1606). However, with the grace that God gives to marriages, the reign of sin cannot have the upper hand.

When living together becomes practically impossible, “…the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart.  The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union” (CCC 1649).

In fact, if the marriage is discovered to be invalid due to a diriment impediment, or a defect of consent, or even defect of canonical form, simple validation can be sought (can. 1156-1160). To rush to seek the declaration of the nullity of a marriage just because it has failed, or one has discovered a reason for its nullity is not realistic.

Although some parties get into other stable unions officially or otherwise, one who completely abandons the former partner and joins in a more or less stable manner with another, is almost equivalent to one who has legally divorced and re-married, and thereby commits adultery.

Since an act does not become perfect upon its legal sanction, but rather upon its essential constitution, a legal or tacit divorce has the same moral consequences. The church does not recognize such unions as valid. The parties find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. As a result, they cannot receive sacramental absolution, nor receive the Eucharist, nor exercise certain ecclesial ministries as long as this situation persists, unless they commit themselves to complete continence (cf. CCC 1650).

The assertion that even when it is practically impossible to live together, you either reconcile with the first true partner, or should you have moved on to another union, live in complete continence is often seen as a hard saying.

The two affirmations are very true, but their truth stands on the existence of the marital bond. It is because there was an indissoluble bond that one should stick to the first partner or live in complete continence.

This is where the church tribunal comes in, to examine that reality. It investigates the existence, or inexistence of the marital bond.  This clears doubts as to whether there is an obligation of faithfulness to the first marriage.

How to approach a church tribunal

Pope Francis has reformed the canon law to improve the matrimonial processes (cf. Pope Francis, Motu proprio, Mitis Iudex).

What ought to be done by one who believes that a certain marriage does not exist?

A marriage can be challenged either by the parties involved, or by the promoter of justice if its nullity has already become public and it is not possible or expedient to convalidate it (can. 1674§1). Two prerequisites are necessary: that the marriage is so broken that it is impossible to resume the common life of the parties, and that the case has some foundation (can. 1675, 1676§ 1).

It is advisable to approach one’s parish priest for guidance. The pastoral structures that care for married couples should help in making an objective evaluation of the situation. Since the marriage bond is indissoluble, the effort to be made is not to construct a convincing case in order to ask for dissolution, but rather to find out the true status of the said marriage. In other words, it is meant to see whether it was a building on rock or on sand.

Furthermore, given that marriage enjoys the favour of the law, the path will not be about proving whether there is a marriage, but instead to present reasons and proofs to support one’s convictions against the marriage (cf. can. 1060).

A good petition should contain at least the following elements: a statement of what one is asking the church tribunal to do; documentary identification of the marriage in question; specification of the place where each party has a stable residence, the phone contacts of the petitioner and the respondent; a detailed love story of the parties prior to the wedding; the activities surrounding the days before the wedding;  a brief report on the actual celebration of the wedding; the period immediately following the celebration of the marriage; other relevant supportive documents e.g. baptismal certificate, National identification card, copies of personal letters, medical reports; a mention of kinds of proofs to be produced, civil divorce decree (if it has already been pursued), names and addresses of possible witnesses, and a specification of the place where most proofs are to be obtained.

The petition is to be presented to the Judicial Vicar of the diocese where the marriage was celebrated, or of where either or both parties have a more or less stable residence or even of where in fact most proofs must be obtained (can. 1672).

Once the petition is admitted, the cooperation of the parties especially the petitioner is important in order to propel the case forward. The parties should also harbor an honest openness to the outcome of the case, whether favourable or unfavourable.

Two conforming sentences are no longer necessary. A single sentence declaring a marriage null is executable (can. 1679). However, if a party is aggrieved, there is room to challenge the validity of the sentence, or to lodge an appeal (can. 1680).

Still, should the final definitive sentence prove unsatisfactory, one may make a new petition with new and grave proofs or arguments (can. 1681). Better still, despite getting an unfavourable sentence, one can choose to take up his or her cross and humbly anticipate that bliss where there will be no marriage, by moving out of the new union or living in complete continence (cf. Mt. 22:30).

Fr Paul Kariuki Muriu is the Judicial icar of the Catholic Diocese of Murang’a