Frequently Asked Questions

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New Life After Divorce

What does the Catholic Church believe about marriage?

In the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 19:1-12), Jesus teaches about the beauty of marriage and explains that God is the author of all marriage.   The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator.  Marriage is not purely a human institution but given to us from God.

Sacred Scripture teaches us that God created man and woman out of love, and commanded them to imitate his love in their relations with each other.  Man and woman were created for each other.  “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him… the two of them become one body.” (Genesis 2:18; 24)  A spiritual bond is created between a man and a woman when they are wed, because this is the way God made marriage to work.

Marriage is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. As a result, the Church has an obligation to protect marriage and ensure that it is celebrated with the dignity God intended for it.  When any wedding takes places a covenant is entered between a man, a woman and God. It is intended to help the spouses know God better, love each other in ways that are both beautiful and sacrificial, and share in God’s creative power through their openness to bringing children into the world. God designed marriage to be a faithful, lifelong relationship. As Jesus said, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” (Mark 10:9)

For a fuller explanation on the Church’s teaching about marriage, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church on marriage. For specific information concerning marriage in the Diocese of Pittsburgh Tribunal at 412-456-3033.

What does the Catholic Church believe about Divorce?

The Church accepts that divorce is sometimes a necessary when a marriage has become dangerous and unhealthy for the spouses and/or the children of this family.  However, God’s plan for marriage involves a permanent covenant, embraced by the couple.

Jesus taught the indissolubility of marriage:  “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mk 10:9). Therefore all marriages, even ones that end in divorce, are presumed spiritually binding until proven otherwise.

The Church must be faithful to Christ’s teaching on marriage and against divorce, but must also be sensitive to the pain of persons in difficult marital situations.

After a civil divorce has been granted, one of the former spouses can ask the Catholic Church to review the marriage and clarify his or her marital status in the Church.  This examination is conducted by a Church Tribunal, or Church Court. 

A Declaration of Nullity (often called an annulment) means that, after a careful review, the Church finds that something at the time consent was exchanged either was lacking or was incorrect, and as a result the spiritual bond of marriage was never able to be established.  Therefore, each party is free to marry another person in the Catholic Church, if that is desired.

What is an annulment?

For a marriage to be spiritually binding, it requires more than love, good intentions or even faith. Often when a marriage has  dissolved it turns out that there was an issue from the very beginning that prevented the couple from living out the obligations of marriage that are part of the teachings of the Church.

A Catholic marriage must be both legal and valid in the eyes of the Church. To be legal, it must be properly performed according to civil and religious regulations. To be spiritually binding, the marriage must be freely entered into, with no deception, coercion or fear driving either party. Both spouses must have the intention to enter a permanent, faithful union that is open to the possibility of children. In the Catholic Church marriage is understood to be a community of life for a man and a woman, for their mutual, interpersonal growth and for the procreation and education of children. Each spouse must have the basic physical, emotional, and psychological ability to understand the intentions and meaning of marriage and to intend and fulfill them.

For all marriages, this spiritual bond is presumed. The Catholic Church cannot end or break a valid marriage bond between two baptized persons. However, if one of the spouses requests it, the Church can examine the marriage to see whether something fundamentally prevented the bond from being established. That examination is what the annulment process is all about.

When one of the former spouses has challenged the bond of marriage, the Church has an obligation to examine the marriage bond because each party has that right. This investigation does not mean that the case is proved, only that the marriage has to be reviewed.

What is a Tribunal?

A Tribunal is the Church court for a local Catholic diocese. It adjudicates internal Church legal affairs, including petitions for declarations of nullity of marriage. The Tribunal gathers both written and oral testimony. All hearings are closed to the public and strictly confidential.  Once the investigation of the marriage has concluded (i.e. interviews have been transcribed, written questionnaires have been collected, etc.) the case files are open only to the parties involved in the petition. Tribunal records are never released to anyone else. The judges in the Pittsburgh Tribunal include priests and lay Catholics, both women and men who have received university a degree in canon law.

During the annulment process, each former spouse is represented by a canon lawyer known as an “Advocate.”  Another canon lawyer, known as the “Defender of the Bond,” argues for the validity of the marriage.

How much will this cost?


There is no fee in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  However, if one of the former spouses makes a personal decision to file an appeal to a higher Tribunal in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia or in Rome, that cost will not be covered by the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The cost associated with the annulment process varies by diocese.

Does an annulment make the children illegitimate?


No. The Church has always taught that “All life is a gift from God.”  A declaration of nullity means that the spiritual bond of marriage never existed. It does not mean that a marital relationship didn’t exist, since the Church would not be concerned about a marriage that never existed in any sense whatsoever. Both parents should make every effort to cooperate in loving and supporting their children after a divorce and a declaration of nullity.  Even if a declaration of nullity is granted it never negates parenthood nor its responsibilities.

How can you say there was no marriage when we have children to prove that there was?


An annulment  does not mean that there was no marital relationship. It means that while the couple entered into marriage in good faith, something happened or was lacking at the time of the wedding that prevented a true spiritual bond from forming.

We meant to have a good Catholic marriage. How can you say that the sacrament was invalid?

It will be up to the Tribunal to determine whether or not the spiritual bond of marriage took place. Unfortunately, many marriages are entered with  issues that lead to an eventual breakdown in the marriage. A spiritually binding marriage requires more than good intentions and strong faith. For example, one or both parties may have had psychological or neurological condition that prevented them from living up to the marital vows or one or both parties did not truly understand and intend to enter into marriage in the way that Jesus teaches us.

A declaration of nullity does not seek to determine guilt for the failure of the marriage but acknowledges that the failure of that marriage had deep roots.  An annulment allows both parties to move forward with their lives in full relationship with Christ and his Church, and without barriers to receiving the sacraments.

I’m divorced but not remarried. Does my divorce prevent me from receiving Communion?


No. A civil divorce, by itself, doesn’t affect your relationship with the Church or its sacraments. Seek pastoral care through the clergy, staff or a support group to help you deal with any pain from the break-up and to live a fulfilling life as a single Catholic.

My fiance’s first marriage wasn’t in the Catholic Church. Why must he or she seek an annulment?


The Catholic Church respects the spiritual bond of all marriages, not just Catholic marriages. 

Why does the Tribunal ask questions about sexual intimacy?


A marriage requires openness to children and fidelity, both of which involve sexual intimacy. Therefore questions about this may be pertinent to discovering whether there was a critical deficiency in understanding or intention at the time that vows were exchanged.  As an example, questions are typically asked about a couple’s use of birth control because   consistent use of contraceptives may reflect a lack of openness to conceiving a child.  If either former spouse, or any witness, has a specific concern about a question that may be asked, he or she should consult a Tribunal official at 412-456-3033.

Who can petition for an annulment?

Anyone who has been previously married and divorced and now wishes to have his or her marriage or future marriage recognized by the Catholic Church must petition for a declaration of nullity. 

My current spouse and I are willing to seek an annulment but my ex-spouse is a difficult person who may make trouble or tell lies. Do you have to contact our ex-spouses?

Generally speaking, both parties are always contacted as a matter of fairness and Church law.  There are exceptions when one of the parties is found to be unable to represent himself or herself. In that case a representative known as a curator or guardian is appointed to represent the interests of this party.

Even difficult spouses have rights in a legal process, and these rights need to be protected for the annulment process to be valid and acceptable according to Church Law.  Each person who speaks to the Tribunal does so swearing to speak the truth.  However, there are times when a person is found to have misrepresented the truth, sometimes purposefully.  When this occurs, the value of the person’s testimony greatly diminishes.

I got married in one diocese, divorced in another and now live in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Which diocese should I go to for an annulment?

A Petitioner may submit a case for consideration to the following tribunals:

1. The Tribunal of the diocese where the marriage was celebrated.
2. The Tribunal of the diocese where the Petitioner or the Respondent has a residence, even a part-time residence.
3. The Tribunal of the place where most of the testimony will be collected (c. 1672).

How long can I expect this to take?

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the average time from when the Tribunal agrees to hear the case to a decision is 10 months, but that varies according to the complexity of the case.  There is no guarantee that an annulment will be granted.

If the Tribunal’s decision grants an annulment, there is a 15 day wait from the time of notification until the decision becomes effective. This is the case even if both parties are in favor of a Declaration of Nullity.

If either party is opposed to the decision of the Pittsburgh Tribunal – whether the annulment was granted or not granted -- a personal appeal may be made to the Appellate Tribunal of Philadelphia. Alternatively, an appeal may be made to the highest Tribunal of the Church, the Roman Rota. Currently, there are financial costs for filing a personal appeal to either Philadelphia or Rome. Those costs are determined by those dioceses.

When can I start planning a wedding in the Catholic Church?

You can begin making plans with a priest and a parish only after an annulment has been granted. Other plans should wait as well, since there is no guarantee of the outcome or of how long the case will take. The Tribunal bears no responsibility for plans that are postponed because the decision was either delayed or did not grant the annulment.