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FORUM: The Marriage Tribunal – An Apostolate of Mercy

Helping people to know how God calls them to live is a part of the Church’s essential mission … And effective this week, as we enter the Year of Mercy, we will offer the tribunal process to all who need it, without requiring payments or assessing fees

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This is the latest column from Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, reprinted from the Southern Nebraska Register.

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Marriage is God’s first gift to humanity. “In the beginning” God created one man and one woman, and he joined them together, instructing them to be fruitful and multiply. God created us for families, in his own image, through the gift of marriage.

Marriage is a life-long partnership of spouses, which exists to form families in the procreation and education of children, and to assist the spouses in the pursuit of holiness. Marriage is a permanent and exclusive union, which, when the spouses are baptized, is a sacramental union, in which Christ’s presence is manifested in grace.

Marriage is the fruit of choice—of consent. When a man and woman commit themselves to one another, and publicly manifest that choice in accord with the law of God, they become husband and wife—one flesh, joined for the remainder of their lives.

Consenting to marriage is a beautiful and serious choice. Marriage is a choice that must be free, honest, and mature. You need not be a saint to choose marriage, but you must be an adult: a person capable of making an unencumbered and rational decision. And consent requires intending what marriage really is: a choice for marriage cannot exclude the choice to be faithful, or open to children, or committed for life.

It should be obvious to all that we live in a culture that is not conducive to healthy marriages. The media devalues fidelity, permanence, and fertility. We are accustomed to egocentric instant gratification. The culture of death erodes the integrity of families, and that problem compounds with each generation: children who grow up without healthy families as role models are unlikely to form healthy families of their own. Today, for many reasons, there are people who intend to choose marriage but are not mature enough to do so, free enough to do so, or prepared enough—personally, intellectually, emotionally and morally—to do so.

Some sociologists believe that a marriage that begins in 2015 has a nearly 50% chance of ending in divorce.

Only exceptional circumstances justify divorce: married people are called to offer the sacrifices of their vocation, even in hardship, unless the gravest circumstances require separation. But, of course, there are couples that do separate. And for centuries, the Church has offered a legal process to determine whether those couples actually contracted marriage: this process is commonly referred to as the annulment process, or the tribunal process.

The tribunal process uses the accounts of both husband and wife, and the testimony of witnesses and experts, to determine whether both parties were fully capable of consenting to marriage, and whether they consented to marriage without excluding its most essential goods and properties. The tribunal asks questions about the very beginning of a marriage, in order to judge whether the consent supplied on the day of the wedding sufficiently established marriage. 

The tribunal does not find fault or assess blame: it simply considers whether the words of consent corresponded to the object and capacity of the spouses’ wills. This process is a kind of mercy for the couple, because it clarifies the truth about their lives. Knowing the truth, and living in accord with the truth, brings us to freedom.

The tribunal process requires legal, theological, and psychological experts to evaluate the situation of broken marriages. It requires gathering testimony and facts. It must be undertaken carefully, fairly, and professionally. The process is not without significant costs. 

But clarifying the truth about marriage is an apostolate of mercy. Helping people to know how God calls them to live is a part of the Church’s essential mission. Inviting divorced Catholics to know and live as disciples of Jesus, in the full communion of the Church, is a privilege, and a grace. 

The Diocese of Lincoln has long believed that every child should be welcomed at Catholic schools, regardless of his ability to pay. We have long offered counseling to families, couples, and individuals, even when they are unable to afford it. We provide food, clothing, job training and housing to those who cannot pay. And effective this week, as we enter the Year of Mercy, we will offer the tribunal process to all who need it, without requiring payments or assessing fees.

Each year, fees cover roughly 15% of our tribunal’s budget. We hope that those who utilize the process might offer freely some contribution for the Church’s work. But we will no longer assess fees of any kind for the legal processes of the diocesan tribunal. We offer the tribunal as a court of justice, and a prophet of mercy, without any consideration of cost. I pray that those who are searching for the truth might avail themselves of the Church’s judgment.

The Year of Mercy requires that each of us help the world to live according to the will of God. May our tribunal assist in that process, and may our witness to the gift of marriage, given freely by the Lord, call families to holiness, sacrifice, and charity.

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