Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Locus of the Marriage Tribunal in the Local Church

It is a reality, though a sad one, that Marriage Tribunal is practically non-existent in many local churches in the Philippines, or, where there is, it is not as visible as to make a difference in the lives of couples and families whose relationships have been tautly strained due to some unresolved marital conflicts. And yet, it is one of the most important responsibilities of the particular Church to extend pastoral care to the family and protection to the marital tie which binds family together. Central to this responsibility is proclaiming the sanctity and permanence of marriage. And while scrupulously protecting the teaching of Jesus on marriage and its indissolubility, the Church also faces stark realities of tensions and stresses among married couples that ultimately end up in the tragedy of separation and even of annulment. The effect is oftentimes disastrous to many of these people, for their faith and their Church remain an important part of their lives.

The universal Church for her part does not abandon these people. In her pastoral concern, she provides that an ecclesiastical tribunal shall be established in every local Church. Its function is to evaluate the validity of the failed marriage in the light of scripture, tradition and the law of the church, to ferret the truth of marriage out of the messy realities of failed relationship, thus helping these people extricate from the marital strain that has been for years tearing out their lives. In dioceses where Marriage Tribunal is set up and functional, many cases have been heard and eventually resolved with a decree of invalidity. As such this nullity process helps many individuals to calm the pent-up anger and disappointment with one’s self and with one’s former spouse. It often brings closure to the hurtful memories, relieving them from the tensions that for a time have taken hold of them. It frees a catholic to marry again or to have a second marriage blessed by the church, thus restoring the catholic to the full sacramental life of the church.

Remembering that the ministry of Jesus was one of healing and reconciliation, the Tribunal is ever mindful of its call to continue that ministry to all who seek its help. Even if it is primarily part of the Church’s judicial system, it is not an impersonal office. It comes in direct contact with people whose lives have often been deeply scarred by the harrowing experience of a broken marriage. Hence, the personnel who are assigned to the Tribunal are expected to have practiced the highest sense of confidentiality, compassion and understanding. They need to be aware of the fact that they are often dealing with people who are still hurting deeply, people who at times feel very alienated from the Church, people who are laden with a great deal of guilt.

By and large, applicants to the Tribunal are mostly separated. But many of them acknowledge that having escaped from the shackles of an unhappy marriage they are now facing a new set of problems. Very often people who approach are more than one-time angry, depressed, disappointed, hurt, battered, unjustly treated. Not only have they had dreams shattered by a broken marriage, but often as they reveal their life-history, they speak of their parents’ unhappy and possibly, violent marriage, of childhood trauma, sexual abuse, of earlier broken romances, of exploitation. The story of the relationship and marriage in question can be filled with every kind of human suffering.

For a Catholic, there is an even deeper pain, given that the permanence and the sanctity of marriage is such a central part of Catholic teaching and living. There can be a heightened sense of failure, a feeling of having let the side down.

Separated couples very often feel a great deal of alienation from the church. This may be caused by unhelpful treatment from priests, family or fellow Catholics, but most often it simply arises from their own sense of shame or failure. The approach to the Tribunal can be the means of their being accepted by the official Church in a way which can help them once again feel “at home” in the life of the church. The increasing number of separated catholic can also help enormously in this regard. Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation on Family life “Familiaris Consortio” has written movingly on the pastoral care of the divorced and separated people. “The Church, which was set up to lead to salvation all people and especially the baptized, cannot abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage. The Church will therefore make untiring efforts to put at their disposal her means of salvation.” (Cf. Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II)

It would be worthwhile for Tribunal personnel to refer the clients to the local parish or community groups, organizations, ecclesial movements, or individuals who may be of help in the long yet necessary process of coming to terms with their life issues. It should be noted with utmost consideration that the Tribunal is not able to solve all the problems or heal all the hurts which flow from a broken marriage. Not every approach for an annulment will result in an affirmative decision. For those petitions which are successful there will be the opportunity for the parties to contemplate a new marriage or have an existing one validated and blessed by the Church.

For the unsuccessful, there will be the satisfaction of knowing that they have tried. Hopefully there will have been some healing through the whole process. Further pastoral care can be recommended to them by the Tribunal staff. Tribunal work can be tremendously pastoral and rewarding. As with any form of ministry, it can be very much a two-way process and most people who have worked in the Tribunal would acknowledge that they have learned a great deal from the people they have served. They witness at times untold heroism, a great effort to be faithful to God and to the Church even in the most trying circumstances. They see in many beautiful personalities and tremendous growth which has come about through accepting their suffering in union with Jesus. As my Judicial Vicar describes it: “It can all be a very humbling experience to have people share with us the deepest secrets of their lives.”