Metropolitan Tribunal

Work of tribunal is unsung ministry

Archbishop Daniel M. BuechleinThere is an unsung aspect of Church ministry. The archdiocesan tribunal is little understood and too little appreciated.

It may help to situate this aspect of the Church’s ministry in context. We
believe that the Church was divinely instituted by Christ to carry on his teaching and healing mission on the way to salvation in the kingdom. Thus the Church is the custodian of the treasury of sacred Scripture and the sacraments instituted by Christ and other means for receiving the gift of salvation. Implicit in the Church’s missionary role is that of safeguarding through all the ages the treasure that it has received from Christ.

While the Church is divinely instituted and guaranteed to have Christ’s divine protection to the end of time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the members of the Church, in every age, are human. In view of the humanity of Church leaders and members alike, like other human organizations, institutional structures have evolved to ensure that Christ’s teaching, healing mission and sacraments remain intact in the Church through the ages.

We believe that the apostolic and hierarchical structure of the Church was given its essential form by Christ precisely as a way to sustain his Mystical Body in its mission to the world. Under the guidance of the Spirit, almost 2,000 years of the Church’s experience has shaped this structure.

One institution that has evolved through the centuries is that of a tribunal, which oversees the integrity of the Church’s mission and sacramental life and is to protect the rights of all members of the Church. This, of course, is largely accomplished under Church law. Most people are at least vaguely aware that there is a Code of Canon Law that governs the pastoral administration of the Church and its juridical procedures. Acting in the name of the bishop, a vicar judicial oversees the tribunal of a local diocese and is assisted by a qualified staff. While the nature of the ministry in a diocesan tribunal is juridical, its purpose is eminently pastoral. The tribunal participates in the mission of the local Church in proclaiming the Good News of Christ and in the pastoral mission of saving souls.

The archdiocesan tribunal is largely known for its handling of procedures related to the sacrament of marriage. More precisely, our tribunal oversees a very careful and complex procedure that adjudicates petitions from people who are seeking a declaration that, for particular reasons of fact, theirs was not a marriage in the first place. In these cases, the first obligation of the tribunal is to safeguard the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage with an objective eye. While doing this, the tribunal ensures that the rights of all parties are safeguarded. After viewing the facts of the case, a declaration is rendered concerning the validity or nullity of marriage.

Invariably, the process of investigation and adjudication about the validity of a previous marriage is painful for all parties involved, particularly the parties petitioning for a declaration. But it is also painful for the advocates, defenders of the bond of matrimony, the judges and other tribunal staff members. Often they are the recipients of people’s frustration and anger. Theirs is a most difficult and often thankless apostolate!

Misunderstanding further aggravates an already painful situation. First of all, seeking a decree of annulment is not another name for a complex divorce procedure. In fact the Church doesn’t grant an annulment (or a divorce); it doesn’t grant anything in these cases. The Church’s procedure (in response to a request by one or the other party of a marriage) is a juridical investigation to determine whether or not in fact there was a marriage. The conclusion of that judicial process results in a decree of nullity or the impossibility of such a decree. Mistakenly, some people believe that if they apply for a declaration of nullity, they have a right to receive it. Or, not realizing the gravity of their request, or the thoroughness that the Church requires as a result, some become upset if they do not receive a declaration in short order.

And there are so many cases these days! Why? Because society trivializes the institution of marriage, its sacredness, responsibilities and challenges. Witness the number of “celebrities” who don’t bother to marry. Witness “institutionalized” immaturity, e.g., promiscuity as a way of life. Witness the prevalence of cohabitation before marriage. Witness a society that often tends to consider children to be inconvenient burdens rather than gifts.

At a time when the sacredness of marriage is in jeopardy, the ministry of our archdiocesan tribunal assumes even greater importance. We pray for unfortunate people who enter invalid marriages. Let’s also pray, gratefully, for the conscientious ministry of our tribunal personnel. †

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