Every country on earth develops laws and statutes to govern the inner life of that country and the country’s relationships with other nations. We are all very used to this obvious fact but we should also stop and think about the reality that cultures, organizations and associations also develop policies to govern the internal life of its members. They may not use the word “law” but they have the effect of law inside the organized entity. This is true of business associations, labor unions, fraternal organizations and it is certainly true of the Catholic Church.
I mentioned recently that because of the scrambled situation we have today, in terms of marriage and divorce, the Catholic Church has over the last hundred years or so developed a rather detailed system of law governing marriage, divorce, annulments, etc. To effective promulgate these laws and see that they are committed fairly and justly, the universal law of the Church calls for every diocese to have a Tribunal. These Tribunals are set up to handle other complex issues within the Church but for the vast majority of them their agenda is primarily marriage cases.
The universal law of the Church teaches that when a Christian man and a Christian woman enter into marriage for the first time, intending to bind themselves until death and open to the possibility of children, then the Sacrament of Matrimony has been celebrated and that sacrament generates a bond that will last until death. However, what if one of those conditions for matrimony is missing? After the tragic break-up of a marriage, spouses frequently contend that one or another was missing. In order to respond to that, these Matrimonial Tribunals, with trained Church lawyers and judges, will hear a case, study it and give a verdict. This is not a pleasant work area. The Tribunals are dealing with a marriage that has failed, the charges and counter-charges have a great deal of pain and disappointment and I am sure that those serving on the court wish that the issue would go away. However, the fact is that people do have a right to attempt to prove that a failed marriage was not sacramental and therefore that they are not bound to it. This is all fairly straightforward if everyone involved is a Catholic. It can really get difficult when mixed religious backgrounds are involved. While the Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament and therefore the Church has jurisdiction over sacraments, the fact is that marriages are public events in civil society and the state has some jurisdiction as well!
This is far too complicated to deal with in a one day session so I am going to take up different cases where the Church, after thorough investigation, will declare a marriage to be null and void from the beginning. Remember, the Church teaches that a sacramental marriage binds until death so the general use of the term divorce does not exist. However, if an essential component of the Sacrament of Matrimony was missing from the beginning, then the Church will issue a declaration of nullity or an annulment.