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Can a religious annulment be contested?31 Dec 2016

It is common for a civil divorce to be contested by one spouse. An annulment that is being sought in a civil court can also be contested, although such cases are found much less frequently on court dockets than petitions for divorce.

Since religious annulments take place outside the reach of the secular courts, it is difficult to say exactly which religions or denominations within a larger faith will allow one spouse to contest an annulment. Since ecclesiastic courts or tribunals are practically unheard of in the Protestant churches, the following discussion will largely be drawn from the Canon Laws of the Roman and Orthodox Churches. In respect to the Roman Church, the discussion will attempt to follow the changes in Canon Law that were issued by Pope Francis in 2015.

A request for annulment will usually reach a religious court following the conclusion of a divorce proceeding in a civil court. In many cases, the annulment request will come from a spouse who wishes to remarry but wishes to remain in communion with the Church. Canon Law requires that every effort be made to find the other spouse so that they may appear before the tribunal and be heard.

When an annulment request has made its way from the local church to the level of the diocese a tribunal. usually consisting of at least the bishop of the diocese and an advisor well versed in Canon Law, will send notices to all parties that will be directly impacted by the court’s decision informing them of the location of the tribunal, the date that it will hear arguments, and that both parties can be represented by advocates for their respective positions regarding the petition for an annulment.

During the arguments before the court, if it can be shown that the marriage was an invalid one ab initio due to some disqualification or impediment of either party the court has the option of ending the proceedings and ordering the bonds of marriage to be dissolved and grant the annulment. If this is not the case, then the court will hear arguments from both parties and a third person known as the “Defender of the Bond” whose duty is to defend the validity of the marriage on purely theological grounds.

If an annulment is being contested, it is unusual for the tribunal to announce its decision immediately. In most cases the members of the tribunal will retire and discuss the arguments among themselves and, if they feel it to be necessary, consult with other clerics regarding points of law.

When the court reaches its decision regarding the annulment request, the party that may be dissatisfied with the court’s ruling has the right to appeal that decision to another tribunal. Should this be the case, the appeal will first be reviewed for its conformance with Canon Law at the level or the archdiocese. (In the Orthodox Churches, this is sometimes referred to as the Metropolitan).

At this level of the Church hierarchy the appeal can be rejected, and the original decision is affirmed as being free of error or the appeal may be upheld and the archdiocese will appoint another tribunal to hear the arguments again. In practice, appeals rarely succeed and the original decision is upheld.

To summarize, a petition for an annulment to be issued by an ecclesiastic tribunal can be contested by the spouse of the petitioner and there are provisions within the canon law of most faiths and denominations for such objections to be heard. As with any other strictly ecclesiastic matter, the secular courts are very reluctant to become involved to become involved in such matters and should not be counted on to intervene on behalf of either party.

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