The Archdiocese of Louisville’s Metropolitan Tribunal has revised the declaration of nullity process — commonly called an annulment — to make the experience a little less difficult for those seeking the declaration.
Deacon Stephan Phelps, an assessor for the Tribunal, began the revision a few years ago after having accompanied hundreds of couples through the process, some of whom told him it was a painful one.
“The forms we were using had not been revised in years,” he said. “They were very cold; they were not pastoral. I got phone calls at night (from people) saying ‘I’m done, I’m not filling this out any more.’ And they’d say they threw it across the room.”
Among the paperwork, he noted, was a questionnaire that was a particular source of pain for couples.
That questionnaire asked every petitioner (the one who seeks the nullification) and their ex-spouse the same 64 questions. The questions delved into the most intimate details of their relationship, including some details that may not have been relevant to their case, Deacon Phelps said.
“The questions may not have been part of your case (for nullity), but since they were there, you felt like you had to answer them,” he said. “It was a one-size-fits-all questionnaire.”
One man, who sought an annulment about three years ago as he was entering the Catholic Church through RCIA, said during a telephone interview that the old paperwork “was unwelcoming.”
The confidentiality of the process prevents The Record from naming the man who sought the annulment for a marriage that ended in divorce decades ago.
But he said the process, especially the questions it involved, “was a thoughtless invasion of privacy.”
“I found it reprehensible,” he said, adding, “They ought to be proud of changing that, because it was such an egregious wrong.”
It was this man’s experience and that of others like him that motivated Deacon Phelps to make changes, Deacon Phelps said.
The new forms were created in the course of the last three years by Deacon Phelps with the help of the Tribunal’s associate director, Dr. Patricia Norris, and a review committee. The Tribunal began using them in January.
The paperwork begins with a brief checklist of canonically recognized problems that may have been present at the time of the marriage. The petitioner marks those that apply and then moves on to a longer checklist of specific problems that may have been present.
Some examples of these include “arguments while dating/engaged” and “immaturity at time of marriage” and “pre-marital pregnancy.” The questions vary widely and also relate to sexuality, family of origin and personality issues. The problems that don’t apply can be left blank and never mentioned again.
Then there’s a form that asks the petitioner to write a brief description of their marriage — about two-thirds of a page is reserved for this purpose.
“The entire process to fill this out would be certainly no more than an hour,” Deacon Phelps said. “Ninety percent (of our questions) will already be answered” at that point.
The petitioner may be asked to give a few more details about the marriage, but only in areas where the Tribunal needs clarification about a specific problem, he added.
The paperwork that’s sent to the former spouse (called the respondent) also has been revised significantly, Deacon Phelps said.
The old letter “was the coldest, almost nasty, legal document. It was a horrible letter,” he said. “And the 64 questions went with it.”
The new letter begins by explaining the process, saying the Tribunal has “received a petition from your former spouse requesting we review your marriage from the Catholic Church’s standpoint and teachings on marriage. This process is known as a Declaration of Nullity process (more commonly known as an annulment). Please know that this process is exclusively a church process and has no effect whatsoever on any children or your civil divorce.”
Another form asks the respondents to check a box indicating whether or not they choose to participate in the process. If they do want to participate they may do it by phone, by mail or in person. If they choose to participate, they receive the new checklist and the other paperwork that the petitioner received.
Deacon Phelps said the Tribunal was astonished by the result of this revision.
“Our respondent participation has gone through the roof,” he said. “It was much more than any of us anticipated.”
In the past, he said, about five percent of respondents took part. He doesn’t have any firm data since the revision, but he said the number is something that “makes us proud.”
“The Holy See has asked that we make every effort to get respondent participation,” he noted. “We are probably going to report to the Holy See this year a number that is going to be staggering.”
Overall, the process seems to have improved, he added. “We’ve tweaked it over the last six months, and we’re finding the process is moving quicker. We don’t have data on it, but the time frame is shrinking a lot” from the time a person petitions for an annulment to the time a judgment is made. “I’m convinced it’s because of this new process.”
By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor