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Local canon lawyer makes presentation on annulments

Speaks to support group for divorced Catholics at parish

Editor’s Note: Because of the sensitive nature of annulment cases and the setting in which the presentation reported on in this article took place, The Witness is taking the unusual measure of withholding the names of the presenter and participants.

By Dan Russo
Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — A canon lawyer from the Metropolitan Tribunal, the church court of the archdiocese, recently gave a presentation on annulments to a support group for divorced Catholics at St. Columbkille Parish in Dubuque.

Regular support group participants joined other members of the public in attending the event. One of the members of the support group who has been through a civil divorce and a church annulment said the group invited the church official because there is much interest in learning about the topic among area Catholics.

“The more we can get the word out (about the annulment process) the better,” she said. “There are people in the archdiocese that need help. A lot of people just leave the church because they feel there are no options.”

Most annulment cases come down to one key question: was the marriage between the two people involved valid at the start according to church and divine law? If the answer is yes, then the sacramental bond between the couple can’t be dissolved. If the answer is no, then the church has the authority to annul or “invalidate” the marriage.

Many complex issues can affect how this core question gets answered, which is why each Catholic diocese in the world has its own court system to make decisions on annulment cases and other matters involving church law, also known as “canon law.”

The canon lawyer began her presentation by explaining Catholic teaching on marriage and the basic ideas behind church law. The purpose of church law, she said, is to promote the spiritual wellbeing of church members and society as a whole. Ultimately, she said, the church’s process for getting an annulment strives to promote the spiritual good of the parties involved.

“It’s a legal process, but it’s also a healing process,” said the canon lawyer during the Dec. 6 event.

The church law expert explained the difference between divorce, which occurs when a secular court dissolves a civil marriage, and an annulment, which occurs when the church declares a marriage invalid due to a problem that surfaced before or at the start of the union.

Catholic teaching does not view marriage as merely a legal contract, but as a sacrament — a means by which God transmits grace. It is an “irrevocable covenant” entered into freely by the consent of the two parties, according to canon law.

“We presume marriages are valid until we prove there is one reason it wasn’t valid,” explained the canon lawyer. “Marriage is a partnership, rooted in consent, established by God.”

“Guadium et Spes,” a document created in 1966 as a result of the Second Vati­can Council, offers guidance on how the church views marriage.

“Authentic married love is caught up in the divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church,” states the document, in part.

In order for there to be grounds for an annulment, there must be issues with the union in one of three areas, according to the canon lawyer: form, impediments or consent. Here is a brief summary of those three areas:


Catholics must usually be married before a priest or a deacon, unless they get a dispensation from the church. If they did not do this before getting married, then this could be the basis for an annulment.


There are certain situations that make a person “incapable of validly contracting a marriage,” according to the presenter. Examples include, but are not limited to, age (i.e.: one or both people are too young), consanguinity (there is a blood relationship between the two people), or prior marriage, among others.


There are many possible “defects of consent,” according to canon law. Some examples include: an intention against fidelity, lack of due competence, force and fear, etc.

The canon lawyer explained that in order to receive an annulment, one or both parties must present proof of their case based on one of the grounds for invalidity. This proof can come in the form of witnesses, documents or other means. Once a case is presented, the church court will rule based on the evidence, according to the canonist.

“We usually can do this in less than a year, but I make no promises,” she said.

If either person disagrees with the ruling, they have the opportunity to appeal within a certain time frame. The case would then go to an appellate court. The Archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal handled over 100 annulment cases in 2018, according to the presenter. The annulment process can cost anywhere from $25 to about $450 depending on the case. Financial assistance is available for those who cannot afford the fees.

During and after the presentation, the canon lawyer answered questions from the audience. She said members of the tribunal sometimes make presentations on annulments to parish groups when requested. Those who are interested in applying for an annulment should start by contacting their local parish. The Archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal can be contacted at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center at 563-556-2580. More information is also at

For more information on support groups for divorced Catholics, contact Matt Selby, director of the Archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life: dbqcfl@­


A canon lawyer for the Metropolitan Tribunal, the church court for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, speaks during a presentation on annulments at St. Columbkille Parish Dec. 6 in Dubuque. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)