The Diocesan Tribunal of the Diocese of Colorado Springs is an extension of the Bishop’s judicial ministry to all the people of the Diocese of Colorado Springs who are entrusted to his care. The Tribunal is staffed and assisted by priests, deacons, and lay persons trained in Canon Law, and it helps assure that the provisions of Canon Law are implemented correctly and equitably, protecting the rights of all as well as determining the status of persons in the Church. Although the majority of the Tribunal’s work concerns petitions for declarations of marriage nullity, it deals with other legal matters that come before the Bishop as well. The officials, staff, and volunteers of the Diocesan Tribunal serve as ministers of justice in truth, love, mercy, and charity, always keeping before our eyes the goal of our Church—the salvation of souls. Furthermore, all Tribunal procedures are carried out in accordance with the Code of Canon Law of 1983 and other relevant instructions from the Holy See, such as Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Dignitats Connubii.
The ministry of justice and charity of the tribunal is one part of the Church’s effort to offer healing and hope to those whose marriages have failed and need to know their canonical standing in the Church. Once a person approaches the Tribunal inquiring about the validity of their marriage, the Tribunal investigates these cases to determine whether the Parties, in certain instances, may be declared free to remarry in the Catholic Church.
Faithful to Catholic Christ’s words, the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, and it cannot be dissolved at will by the spouses or anybody else. It is only when a careful investigation provides the necessary proof for the Judge to arrive at moral certainty regarding the nullity of the bond that a marriage can be declared null. Therefore, once the nullity has been established, the marriage is considered as never having existed. For this reason, when a marriage fails irreparably, and authentic marital life cannot be restored, the Church, following Christ’s merciful and charitable example, is open to examining whether the couple actually formed a true marital bond at the very moment of exchanging consent.
Since consent, freely and lawfully manifested, gives rise to marriage, we maintain the innate dignity of marriage and the Gospel’s prohibition against arbitrary and unwarranted divorce. At the same time, we recognize that we live in an imperfect world in which divorce is a common reality in our society, and at times, it affects the intentions of the engaged regarding marriage. Furthermore, we are cognizant of the fact that, at times, marriages fail because people enter into marriage, whether civilly or religiously, for reasons and goals foreign to the nature of marriage or without the necessary capacity to establish such a bond. For these reasons, among many others, people approach our Tribunal seeking clarification of the canonical status of their previous marriage(s). Thus, the members of the Tribunal carry out a careful investigation of these cases in accordance with the Code of Canon Law.
This process of investigation—seeking the truth of the marital bond—could lead to a declaration of nullity in certain cases, which would establish the freedom of both Parties from their former union. Furthermore, this process pertains to the ecclesiastical forum; therefore, although the marriage may be declared null before the eyes of the Church, this declaration of nullity does not affect the legitimacy of any children born of this bond. Please understand that during this process, we do not try to blame one or the other Party; instead, the process focuses on the reasons that caused the nullity of the marriage, and not on the possible faults of each Party.
At times, people believe that this process is simply a formality so that they can get married in the Church; unfortunately, this is a distorted understanding of the marital bond for when the investigation finds out that the Parties truly and freely intended to create a permanent marital bond, the bond cannot be declared null, and the marriage must be considered valid. As Pope Francis has explained, “Overcoming a distorted view of marriage cases, as if they were concerned merely with subjective interests, one must rediscover that all the participants in the process are called to contribute towards the same objective, to make the truth shine on a concrete union between a man and a woman, reaching the conclusion regarding the existence or not of a true marriage between them.” (Allocution to the Roman Rota, 27 January 2022). Therefore, the Parties and witnesses are expected to speak the complete truth in presenting their testimony. Furthermore, although the law tends to ensure the participation of both Parties, it does so in a way that useless controversies do not arise so as to avoid adding to the common suffering already experienced.
During this judicial process, the Tribunal collects statements, interviews the Parties and the witnesses, and assembles other evidence (i.e., arrest records, medical reports, psychological evaluations, etc.) that might show that, fundamentally, one or both spouses lacked the capacity or the will to establish a true marriage or that they were impeded in some other way. Catholics, those interested in becoming Catholic, or those (baptized or not) who intend to marry a Catholic need to have their previous marriages investigated to determine their canonical status in the Church.
It is essential to observe that in the canonical process for the declaration of nullity, all the participants have in common a bond toward the truth—which is the supreme aim of the canonical process—overcoming the specific desires of each of the participants and integrating all in a true unity of action in respect to their own procedural role.
Pastorally, it may be helpful to clarify to all who approach an ecclesiastical tribunal seeking a declaration of nullity that the true Respondent in the process is marriage itself; the participation of the Defender of the Bond testifies to this fact. The function of the Defender consists in safeguarding the juridical order through the protection of the public good; and, in the search for the public good, the Defender acts as a party in the process, having the specific task of asking the Judge for the exact application of the law. Another prerogative of the canonical matrimonial process is the participation of a college of three Judges, or a Judge and two Assessors, to protect against the danger of biased opinions; and, therefore, the participation of three Judges guarantees truth and justice while avoiding subjective interferences in judging.