The Tribunal is an extension of the Bishop’s judicial governance of the Diocese of Memphis. Though the bishop himself is the primary judge in the Diocese, he usually entrusts this part of his ministry to the Tribunal. Our Tribunal is staffed and assisted by priests, deacons, and lay persons trained in canon law together with their support staff. All tribunal procedures are carried out in accordance with the 1983 Code of Canon Law and relevant Instructions from the Holy See.
Though the Tribunal is competent in many legal matters, the primary work of our Tribunal pertains to matrimonial matters, especially declarations of nullity (annulments). The ministry of the Tribunal is one part of the Church’s effort to offer healing and hope to those whose marriage has failed. The Tribunal investigates these situations to determine whether, in certain instances, the parties may be free to remarry in the Catholic Church.
Faithful to Catholic doctrine, we maintain the innate dignity of marriage and the inviolability of the bond of marriage. At the same time, we live in an imperfect society in which divorce is a common reality. In accord with Canon Law, all previously married individuals (Catholic or not) have the right to seek clarification of the canonical status of their previous marriage(s).
By decree of the Apostolic Signatura, the Tribunal also serves as a Court of Second Instance (Appeal) for matrimonial cases from the Tribunal of the Dioceses of Nashville and Knoxville.
We hope that the following information will help you to become acquainted with our ministry on behalf of the Church.
Most Rev. David P. Talley, M.S.W., J.C.D.
Very Rev. James Clark, J.C.L.
Adjutant Judicial Vicars
Rev. Msgr. Peter P. Buchignani, P.A., J.C.L.
Rev. Jaimes Ponce, J.C.D.
Most Rev. David P. Talley, M.S.W., J.C.D.
Very Rev. James Clark, J.C.L., J.V.
Rev. Msgr. Peter P. Buchignani, P.A., J.C.L.
Rev. Jaimes Ponce, J.C.D.
Mrs. Anna Lynn, J.C.L.
Rev. Charles Bauer
Mrs. Cindy Ettingoff, Esq.
Defenders of the Bond
Miss Ashley Voeller, J.C.L.
Rev. Carlos Donato da Silva
Rev. Augustine de Armond, O.P.
Rev. Simon Hoang, S.V.D.
Rev. J. Antonio Romo Romo, S.V.D.
Rev. Dennis Schenkel
Rev. Robert J. Stellini
Deacon Ernie Albonetti
Deacon Michael Blome
Deacon Mick Hovanec
Deacon William Lifsey
Deacon James McBride
Deacon Robert Walker, M.D.
Deacon Frank Williams
Mr. James Brewster
Mrs. Angela “Po” Canale (Full-time)
Mrs. Karen Clark
Mr. Paul Dooley
Mr. Joaquin Espadas
Mrs. Cindy Ettingoff, Esq.
Mr. David Woods
Ms. Lynn Cozart
Miss Kimberly Kelsey
Ms. Bonnie Harrell
Ms. Lynn Cozart
There are different canonical processes conducted by the Tribunal and/or the Chancellor’s Office to determine the status of those whose marriage has ended in divorce. There are different applications for each of these canonical processes.
To determine which application to use, please click on the following link and answer a few questions to determine which application is the correct one for you.
For Lack of Form and Pauline Privilege applications, please go to the Chancellor page.
Completing and Submitting an Application
All Tribunal applications can be printed and completed by hand. Please write legibly. You may also complete an application online, if you have the necessary software.
After completing an application, take the printed application and any required documents to your parish or bring it to the Tribunal.
Submitting the Application at Your Parish: If you bring your application and documents to your parish, a priest or deacon will witness your signature and sign the application. Then the priest/deacon will mail the application to the Tribunal.
Submitting the Application at the Tribunal: You also have the option of bringing the application and documents directly to the Tribunal. If you choose to submit the application and documents at the tribunal, a tribunal notary will witness your signature and sign the application. Whenever possible, a tribunal advocate will meet right away with any applicant who delivers his/her application directly to the Tribunal. This will help to expedite your case.
Please keep a photocopy of anything you bring or send to the Tribunal, since mail and documents can be lost.
If you need help with the application process, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (901) 373-1200 and ask for the Tribunal.
THE SACRAMENT OF MATRIMONY
337. What is the plan of God regarding man and woman?
God who is love and who created man and woman for love has called them to love. By creating man and woman he called them to an intimate communion of life and of love in marriage: “So that they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:6). God said to them in blessing “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).
338. For what ends has God instituted Matrimony?
The marital union of man and woman, which is founded and endowed with its own proper laws by the Creator, is by its very nature ordered to the communion and good of the couple and to the generation and education of children. According to the original divine plan this conjugal union is indissoluble, as Jesus Christ affirmed: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:9).
339. How does sin threaten marriage?
Because of original sin, which caused a rupture in the God-given communion between man and woman, the union of marriage is very often threatened by discord and infidelity. However, God in his infinite mercy gives to man and woman the grace to bring the union of their lives into accord with the original divine plan.
340. What does the Old Testament teach about marriage?
God helped his people above all through the teaching of the Law and the Prophets to deepen progressively their understanding of the unity and indissolubility of marriage. The nuptial covenant of God with Israel prepared for and prefigured the new covenant established by Jesus Christ the Son of God, with his spouse, the Church.
341. What new element did Christ give to Matrimony?
Christ not only restored the original order of matrimony but raised it to the dignity of a sacrament, giving spouses a special grace to live out their marriage as a symbol of Christ’s love for his bride the Church: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church” (Ephesians 5:25).
342. Are all obliged to get married?
Matrimony is not an obligation for everyone, especially since God calls some men and women to follow the Lord Jesus in a life of virginity or of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. These renounce the great good of Matrimony to concentrate on the things of the Lord and seek to please him. They become a sign of the absolute supremacy of Christ’s love and of the ardent expectation of his glorious return.
343. How is the sacrament of Matrimony celebrated?
Since Matrimony establishes spouses in a public state of life in the Church, its liturgical celebration is public, taking place in the presence of a priest (or of a witness authorized by the Church) and other witnesses.
344. What is matrimonial consent?
Matrimonial consent is given when a man and a woman manifest the will to give themselves to each other irrevocably in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love. Since consent constitutes Matrimony, it is indispensable and irreplaceable. For a valid marriage the consent must have as its object true Matrimony, and be a human act which is conscious and free and not determined by duress or coercion.
345. What is required when one of the spouses is not a Catholic?
A mixed marriage (between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic) needs for liceity the permission of ecclesiastical authority. In a case of disparity of cult (between a Catholic and a non-baptized person) a dispensation is required for validity. In both cases, it is essential that the spouses do not exclude the acceptance of the essential ends and properties of marriage. It is also necessary for the Catholic party to accept the obligation, of which the non-Catholic party has been advised, to persevere in the faith and to assure the baptism and Catholic education of their children.
346. What are the effects of the sacrament of Matrimony?
The sacrament of Matrimony establishes a perpetual and exclusive bond between the spouses. God himself seals the consent of the spouses. Therefore, a marriage which is ratified and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. Furthermore, this sacrament bestows upon the spouses the grace necessary to attain holiness in their married life and to accept responsibly the gift of children and provide for their education.
347. What sins are gravely opposed to the sacrament of Matrimony?
Adultery and polygamy are opposed to the sacrament of matrimony because they contradict the equal dignity of man and woman and the unity and exclusivity of married love. Other sins include the deliberate refusal of one’s procreative potential which deprives conjugal love of the gift of children and divorce which goes against the indissolubility of marriage.
348. When does the Church allow the physical separation of spouses?
The Church permits the physical separation of spouses when for serious reasons their living together becomes practically impossible, even though there may be hope for their reconciliation. As long as one’s spouse lives, however, one is not free to contract a new union, except if the marriage be null and be declared so by ecclesiastical authority.
349. What is the attitude of the Church toward those people who are divorced and then remarried?
The Church, since she is faithful to her Lord, cannot recognize the union of people who are civilly divorced and remarried. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). The Church manifests an attentive solicitude toward such people and encourages them to a life of faith, prayer, works of charity and the Christian education of their children. However, they cannot receive sacramental absolution, take Holy Communion, or exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities as long as their situation, which objectively contravenes God’s law, persists.
350. Why is the Christian family called a domestic church?
The Christian family is called the domestic church because the family manifests and lives out the communal and familial nature of the Church as the family of God. Each family member, in accord with their own role, exercises the baptismal priesthood and contributes toward making the family a community of grace and of prayer, a school of human and Christian virtue and the place where the faith is first proclaimed to children.
The Effects of the Sacrament of Matrimony
1638 “From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, in a Christian marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state by a special sacrament.”
The marriage bond
1639 The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God himself.143 From their covenant arises “an institution, confirmed by the divine law, . . . even in the eyes of society.”144
The covenant between the spouses is integrated into God’s covenant with man: “Authentic married love is caught up into divine love.”145
1640 Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, divorce can be a grave sin. In the Old Testament book of Malachi (2:16), God declares: “I hate divorce.”
When is divorce not a sin?
There can be circumstances in which the choice to divorce is not a sin. One example could be, when a spouse obtains a divorce to escape an abusive spouse or to protect one’s children from an abusive spouse. If you would like to discuss whether or not divorce is an acceptable option in your own situation, contact a wise priest or deacon who can help you to understand the circumstances in which the Church tolerates divorce.
Isn’t an annulment just a Catholic divorce?
No. A divorce is a civil declaration that the parties are no longer considered married in the eyes of the state. An annulment, more properly called a “declaration of nullity,” is a declaration by the Church that the husband and wife attempted to marry, but there was some legal impediment or defect in their consent that invalidated their marriage vows at the time of the wedding.
Isn’t that just a lot of fancy words for a Catholic divorce?
No. Some people presume that a declaration of nullity is just a clever loophole for Catholics who need a second chance or who donate enough money. Someone may have made a mistake in choosing a spouse, but that is not necessarily grounds for claiming that the marriage is null. Also, the amount of money that one gives to the Church has no influence on the decision of the judges. Any attempts or even hints at bribery will be detrimental to the case because it will undermine the credibility of the person’s testimony.
Why does the Catholic Church make such a big deal about divorce?
Because Jesus did. In Mark 10:11-12, our Lord declared: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This admonition comes from the mouth of God himself; therefore, the Catholic Church believes and teaches that, whenever two baptized people validly contract marriage and consummate that marriage, no power on earth can dissolve the bond of marriage between them. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9).
If Jesus is so emphatic about the immorality of divorce, then why does the Church issue decrees of nullity?
The Church’s tribunals will accept any petition to investigate a failed marriage for evidence of anything that would have prevented the marriage from being validly contracted. If there is evidence to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt (what the Church refers to as “moral certitude”) that the marriage was contracted invalidly according to Church law, the tribunal will declare that the marriage was null from the beginning.
If the tribunal declares that my marriage is null, does that mean that my marriage never existed?
Yes and No. Let me explain. The Catholic Church believes that consent makes marriage. When the bride and the groom make their vows to one another, the bond of marriage comes into existence that binds them together as husband and wife. If the marriage is declared invalid by the tribunal, that means that there never was a true bond of marriage between the bride and the groom. So, insofar as there was no marriage bond, there was no marriage. Nevertheless, that does not devalue or erase the good times that the couple had together, their common partnership, or the love that they have for their children.
If my marriage is annulled, does that make my children illegitimate?
Any marriage can be annulled, right?
No. If two baptized people validly contract marriage and then consummate that marriage, no power on earth has the authority to dissolve the bond of marriage between them.
Doesn’t every Catholic get a decree of nullity if they cooperate with the process?
No. A decree of nullity is not a favor given by the Church for being a good Catholic or donating to the Church or being cooperative with the process. With the help of your tribunal advocate, you must provide the necessary evidence to give the judges of the tribunal moral certitude (i.e., proof beyond a reasonable doubt) that the marriage was invalid from the beginning. If the judges cannot find proof that the marriage was invalidly contracted according to canon law, then they must presume that the marriage was valid and that the bond of marriage remains.
I am a Catholic who married and has subsequently divorced. Do I need a declaration of nullity?
You are not obliged to obtain a decree of nullity; however, if you want to keep open the possibility of marrying someone in the future, you must obtain a decree of nullity. Even though a couple may have divorced and “moved on” with their lives, the Church presumes that the bond of their marriage continues in existence. A decree of nullity must be obtained before the person can validly marry someone else.
I’m not even Catholic. Why do I have to get a decree of nullity?
The Catholic Church respects the marriage bond between any man and woman, regardless of their religious affiliation. So, if a person who has been previously married and divorced wants to marry a Catholic, then the non-Catholic party must obtain a declaration of nullity for any previous marriage(s).
I believe the state has the right to dissolve marriages and my divorce decree says that the “bonds of marriage are dissolved.” So why does the Church care about my previous marriage when the state has given me a divorce?
The bond of marriage is a matter of divine law, not state law. The Catholic Church does not believe that the state has any jurisdiction whatsoever over a marriage once it has been validly contracted. One’s opinion about the validity of his/her marriage has no impact on the reality of the bond of marriage.
A priest/deacon/family member told me that I could not get a decree of nullity because my marriage lasted a long time and we had several children. Is that true?
Not necessarily. It is often more difficult to prove that a long marriage is invalid, but it is not impossible. Keep in mind, however, that no one is guaranteed a decree of nullity.
I was not married in a Catholic Church; therefore, my previous marriage does not count, right?
Not necessarily. The only time that a bride and groom are required to get married in the presence of a Catholic minister is when one of the parties to the marriage is a Catholic. In some instances, the diocesan bishop will allow a Catholic to celebrate his/her wedding without a Catholic minister present, but this permission must be obtained before the wedding and such permission can only be obtained if one of the parties is not Catholic. If two non-Catholics get married anywhere (in a church, in a courthouse, on the beach, etc.), the Church presumes that the marriage is valid until proven otherwise.
My former spouse and I got married in Las Vegas at a wedding chapel and divorced one month later. Do I need to obtain a decree of nullity?
Yes. The Church presumes that all marriages are valid until proven otherwise.
My former spouse and I were married for twenty years, but had no children. Does the fact that no children were born into the marriage make the marriage invalid?
Who can petition the tribunal for a declaration of nullity?
Anyone of any faith or no faith at all can petition the tribunal for a decree of nullity.
If the civil court gives me an annulment, does that count in the Catholic Church?
No. Civil annulments have nothing to do with a Catholic decree of nullity.
Is the tribunal’s annulment process recognized by civil courts?
No. The tribunal of the Diocese of Memphis is a tribunal that operates in accord with the canon law of the Catholic Church. It has no legal relationship with any civil court and its decisions have no civil legal effects in the United States of America.
I am not divorced yet. Can I go ahead and start the annulment process?
No. The tribunal cannot begin a case until it has been established that the marriage is already irreparably broken. In the United States, a Catholic tribunal will not accept an application for a decree of nullity until the final divorce decree has been issued by the proper civil authority. This tribunal will also refuse to accept a case if the parties to the marriage are engaged in any civil litigation with each other.
How much does it cost to get a decree of nullity?
The bishop in charge of a tribunal determines the amount to be collected for tribunal cases. Though some tribunals in the United States charge anywhere from $200-$1,000 for a formal case, the tribunal of the Diocese of Memphis does not charge any fee. After a case has been completed and a decision has been rendered, a letter is sent to the petitioner informing him/her of the approximate amount that the tribunal spent on the case with an invitation to make a donation to cover the expense of the case. A donation is not required, but greatly appreciated.
How long does the process for obtaining a decree of nullity take?
The length of the process depends upon the nature of the case that is presented to the tribunal. If a Catholic attempts marriage without the presence of a Catholic minister, the marriage is invalid. Such a case lasts anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month because it is relatively easy to prove. A formal case, which is required for most failed marriages, can take anywhere from several months to several years.
Why does the process take so long in formal cases?
It can be very difficult to prove that a marriage was invalid from the beginning. When a person petitions the tribunal for a decree of nullity, a judicial process begins. The tribunal is a court of law of the Catholic Church. The Church’s canon law regulates the stages of the trial and determines how a verdict is reached. The length of time needed to obtain the decree of nullity depends on several factors. Among the factors that could influence the time to process the case may include the following: (1) the petitioner’s willingness to provide all of the requested information and documents, (2) the willingness of the parties and their witnesses to give testimony in a timely fashion, and (3) the number of cases currently pending in the tribunal.
To which tribunal should I apply for a declaration of nullity?
You may apply to one of four tribunals: (1) the tribunal of the Catholic diocese in which the wedding took place (even if it was not a Catholic wedding), (2) the tribunal where the petitioner currently lives, (3) the tribunal where the respondent currently lives, or (4) the tribunal where most of the evidence of marriage nullity is located.
How do I initiate the process?
If you wish to approach the tribunal to obtain a declaration of nullity, you must begin by determining what kind of nullity process is needed and then completing the correct application. This can be challenging for someone who is not trained in canon law. You are encouraged to approach a priest or deacon at your parish to determine the type of application needed. It is always helpful to have a knowledgeable person who can accompany you through the challenges of applying. Once you have completed the application in its entirety and obtained the required documents, you may (a) bring the application and required documents to your local Catholic parish and sign the application in the presence of a priest or deacon OR (b) bring the application and required documents directly to the tribunal and sign the application in the presence of the tribunal notary.
On what grounds can the validity of a marriage be challenged?
The Catholic Church recognizes various impediments and/or defects of consent that can prevent a couple from contracting marriage validly. After you apply for a declaration of nullity, a tribunal advocate will assist you in determining on what grounds the validity of your marriage can be impugned.
Adultery is grounds for the nullity of marriage, right?
No. The fact that a spouse commits adultery does not in and of itself entitle a spouse to a declaration of nullity. Adultery is a grave sin and, in some instances, it may be a legitimate reason to seek a civil divorce. Nevertheless, the fact that a party committed adultery is not proof of the invalidity of marriage. If, however, it can be proven that one of the parties never intended to be faithful from day one, this could be a ground for granting a decree of nullity.
Why do I sometimes have to provide witnesses for my nullity case?
The judges of the tribunal usually cannot accept one person’s testimony without it being corroborated by someone else. When deciding whom to recommend to be a witness for your nullity case, keep in mind that the best witnesses are people that knew you before, during, and after the marriage. If there is any fact or event that you want to use in your argument for why your marriage was invalid, you must find witnesses who can corroborate your testimony.
My former spouse was physically abusive and I do not want him to be contacted about this process. Is that okay?
No. We will do everything we possibly can to protect your private information and will never tell your former spouse where you live. We are obliged by canon law to make a serious attempt to contact your former spouse and give him an opportunity to participate in the process. He has a right to participate because he was a party to the marriage and he has a right to defend himself before the tribunal if an allegation is made against him.
I do not know where my former spouse lives. Is that a problem?
Yes. You must make a good faith effort to locate your former spouse. You must at least provide a valid mailing address for your former spouse. If you need help in finding your former spouse or his/her contact information, please call the tribunal and we will be happy to give you suggestions for ascertaining the whereabouts of your former spouse.
I have tried every possible way to locate my former spouse’s contact information and I cannot find it. Does that mean that I can’t obtain a decree of nullity?
Not necessarily. If you provide evidence to the tribunal of an exhaustive effort to locate your former spouse but the former spouse is unlocatable, an advocate will be assigned to represent the former spouse and defend his/her rights. Then the trial will proceed.
My former spouse may choose not to participate in the process. Is that a problem?
Not necessarily. The other spouse must be offered a chance to participate, but their failure to participate will not stop the case. Keep in mind, however, that some grounds of nullity may be hard to prove without the participation of the former spouse. If you have a concern, speak to your assigned advocate.
I do not find my advocate helpful. What should I do?
Please talk to your advocate and explain that you are having difficulty. If you cannot work it out with your advocate, you may call the tribunal and request a different advocate.
Do I have to pay my advocate?
No. Our tribunal advocates are volunteers who have completed basic training in tribunal advocacy. There is no charge for their services.
Can I select an advocate that is not listed on the tribunal website?
Yes, you may request that someone else serve as your advocate; however, the person must have received the necessary training in canon law and must be approved by the bishop.
Can I hire a canon lawyer to be my advocate?
Yes. You may contact anyone with at least a licentiate degree in canon law (i.e., a J.C.L. degree) and ask them to represent you before our tribunal. If the canon lawyer you have appointed receives the bishop’s approval, he/she can serve as your advocate. You are responsible for any fees that the canonist charges for representing you.
How should I answer the questionnaire that is part of the application?
The application for a formal case has a questionnaire that is quite invasive. It can be a painful experience to complete the many questions that are given. Some people will take their time and work through it over a course of weeks or months. The amount of time that it takes is up to you. Just be completely honest. Do not try to make yourself look good or make your former spouse look bad. Just tell the truth. Do not try to give the “correct” answer. There are not “correct” answers. Many people have destroyed their own cases by answer the questions dishonestly or by telling the tribunal what they thought the tribunal wanted to hear rather than the plain truth.
Why is the questionnaire so intrusive and personal? Why does the tribunal want such personal information?
Please do not let the questionnaire scare you away from applying for a decree of nullity. If you need help completing the questionnaire, please call your parish priest or deacon or a tribunal advocate to help you answer the questions correctly and thoroughly. The tribunal staff understands that the information requested in the questionnaire can be very difficult to share. The tribunal does not ask you to answer these questions to shame you or humiliate you. The tribunal staff does not get entertainment from reading your personal information. The purpose of the long questionnaire for a formal trial is to help the tribunal identify grounds of nullity. There could be a very good case for the nullity of your marriage, but if we do not get all of the relevant information about you, your former spouse, and your marriage, then we might not recognize the ground on which the validity of the marriage can be challenged.
What if I were to lie in my testimony?
If you lie in your testimony, there is a good chance that we will spot it. The judges must have a reasonable certainty of what is being alleged in the testimony. Anything that could cause doubt in the mind of the judge could destroy your case. If any lie is detected, it can result in a negative decision, especially if there appears to be any collusion between the petitioner and the respondent or between the petitioner and his/her witnesses. It is also possible that someone could successfully deceive the judges of the tribunal; however, there is no point in doing so. You may fool the judges, but God knows the truth. If the decree of nullity is granted based on a lie, then the decree of nullity is not worth the paper that it is printed on. The marriage bond remains and the perjurer will have to answer to God for their deception on the day of judgment.
After you have completed and signed the application, the tribunal will assign a trained advocate to represent you and to help you initiate the canonical process.
When you meet with your advocate, he/she will have looked over all your documents and your application. He/She may ask additional questions to clarify your answers. When the advocate has determined the ground(s) of nullity most likely to be proven, the advocate will compose a formal petition called a libellus. The advocate will submit the libellus to the tribunal.
If the libellus provides some indication that the case can be successfully argued, it will be accepted by the judicial vicar.
If the petition is deficient, it will be rejected and returned to the advocate to be corrected.
If there is nothing in the petition or in the application that gives the judicial vicar reason to believe that your marriage might be null, the petition will be rejected. If the petition is rejected, you may meet with your advocate or make an appointment with the tribunal to try to identify grounds of nullity that can be successfully argued.
If the judicial vicar accepts the libellus, your former spouse (the respondent) will be contacted by mail. A letter from the judicial vicar and a copy of the libellus will be sent to the respondent. (Do not put anything on the libellus that you do not want the respondent to know!) The respondent will be allowed a period of time to respond to the citation.
After the respondent has had sufficient time to respond, the judicial will issue a decree that contains the “Formulation of the Doubt,” also called the “Joinder of Issue.” By means of this decree, the judicial vicar determines what grounds he believes are most likely to be successfully investigated. Included in the same decree will be the assignment of tribunal officials to process the case. Most cases are assigned to a panel of three judges, though some cases will be forwarded to the diocesan bishop or assigned to a sole judge if the nullity of the marriage seems to be fairly obvious.
When the judges are assigned to the case, an additional canonist is assigned to the role of defender of the bond. It is his/her duty to offer arguments in favor of the validity of the marriage and observe whether or not the judges have followed the procedure correctly.
A letter will be sent to the petitioner, the respondent, and the defender of the bond informing them of the formulation of the doubt and the constitution of the court. The parties and the defender of the bond then have the opportunity to give their feedback to the formulation and voice any concerns about the assigned officials.
After everyone has had a chance to respond to the formulation of the doubt, the presiding judge will begin the investigation by contacting the witnesses provided by the parties.
The judge has the right to obtain testimony from whomever the judge deems necessary for the full investigation of the case. He/She may even contact someone who has not been suggested by the petitioner or the respondent.
After all of the testimony has been obtained by the judge, the petitioner and the respondent are offered an opportunity to view the testimony that has been collected. The parties are not required to view the testimony; however, they must be given the opportunity to do so. If there is some information that a party or witness does not want to be viewed by one of the parties, it is that person’s responsibility to communicate this to the tribunal when the testimony is offered. The judge will determine if there is sufficient cause to withhold the testimony from a party, but the party’s advocate will always have access to the testimony. The tribunal cannot guarantee that the information will not be discovered by one of the parties, but we will do our best to maintain the privacy of the testimony to the extent possible. After both parties and the defender of the bond have had an opportunity to view the testimony and the acts of the case, they may offer any additional evidence that they consider helpful or they can challenge anything in the testimony. The judge could possibly determine that more testimony must be obtained. If that is the case, after the testimony is obtained, a second publication will take place.
When the judge in charge of the investigation is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence and testimony, he/she will decree the conclusion of the investigation. The parties and their advocates will have an opportunity to submit briefs to the court arguing for or against the nullity of the marriage. The defender of the bond will also offer a brief in favor of the validity of the marriage. The defender always has the right to be heard last.
After the briefs have been received, the three judges will meet to discuss the case and render a decision. If two of the three judges believe that the nullity of the marriage has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the judges will issue an affirmative decision granting the decree of nullity. If two of the three judges are not convinced of the nullity of the marriage, then a negative decision will be issued.
Once the parties and the defender of the bond have been notified of the decision, they will have fourteen days to indicate whether or not they intend to challenge the decision. If there is evidence that the rights of the parties have not been respected or that there is an error in the procedure, the party, through his/her advocate may make a plaint of nullity against the decision.
If a party disagrees with the decision of the tribunal, the party may appeal the decision to the tribunal of the Diocese of Nashville or to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota.
Note: The defender of the bond also has the right to make a plaint of nullity against the decision or appeal the decision.
Usually, about thirty days after an affirmative decision has been rendered, the bishop or his delegate will execute the affirmative decision and a decree will be sent to the parties stating that they are free to contract marriage in the Catholic Church.