Stephen Garbitelli, Archdiocese of Portland Tribunal Director
Stephen Garbitelli, Archdiocese of Portland Tribunal Director
The tribunal is charged with reviewing petitions for declarations of nullity. The declarations make it possible for someone who had previously and unsuccessfully attempted marriage to wed in the Catholic Church.

SENTINEL: There is meaning in calling this a “declaration of nullity” instead of the commonly used “annulment.” Can you explain that?

GARBITELLI: The main reason is that the Code of Canon Law, the church’s primary legal text, uses the term “declaration of nullity” not “annulment.” “Declaration of nullity” is more precise because it emphasizes that church tribunals only declare what is proven in fact. We’re not in the business of annulling marriages at will but investigating and declaring the truth about a given marriage if it can be known.

SENTINEL: Why must the church get involved in these investigations and declarations?

GARBITELLI: Our Lord spoke directly and succinctly about marriage being indissoluble. The church gets involved in marriage cases to ensure fidelity to our Lord and at the same time be responsive to the pleas of the faithful. Accepting that marriage is for life, the faithful still have a right to ask, “Did I have a marriage?” “Am I free to marry again?” The church strives to answer those questions with faith and reason.

SENTINEL: How many investigations per year does your tribunal do?

GARBITELLI: Each year, the Tribunal receives several hundred new marriage cases in addition to many cases still under investigation.

SENTINEL: Why should a couple with a situation to address get involved in this process?

GARBITELLI: There are many reasons why a person may seek a declaration of nullity. Usually it is because a new marriage is contemplated following divorce. Again, it comes down to trying to remain faithful to the Lord’s teaching on marriage. Whatever the circumstances, someone considering this should discuss his or her situation with the pastor or his delegate for these cases. We advise in the strongest terms that there be a guided discernment before proceeding further. First and foremost, it must be clear that there is no prudent pathway for reconciliation between the divorced spouses. Next, is there a possible basis for wondering whether the marriage had a sound foundation from the beginning? Is the petitioner prepared to cooperate with an investigation, including providing witnesses and formal testimony, if need be? Would a declaration of nullity, if granted, change the person’s standing in the church, in terms of ability to receive the sacraments or participate in the life of the church more generally?

SENTINEL: Is it emotionally painful?

GARBITELLI: There are different case types we handle, and the emotions associated with the investigation often depend on case type and the nature/duration of the required investigation. Formal cases are the most in-depth and involve the Tribunal seeking much information about the marriage in order to decide whether what seemed on the surface to be valid was not. Formal cases are time-consuming and ask those involved to examine themselves and their marriage in detail. Some find this cathartic, while others struggle mightily. It can be very painful to recall past wounds, and it is for this reason that we advise strongly that petitioners work through their parishes for support from start to finish. We also strive to ensure that a respondent — the other spouse in the case — has access to parish-based support or even a professional advocate, if desired.

SENTINEL: What are some of your best outcomes and stories?

GARBITELLI: We hear so many sad stories! So much suffering and so much heartbreak. Amazingly, however, we often find examples of people who rise above their traumas and find consolation in their faith with gratitude for the goodness in their lives and hope for the future. It is a consolation to see God’s grace at work.

SENTINEL: How does it make you feel about marriage, dealing with these all day?

GARBITELLI: We know that we only deal with broken marriages and at times the worst offenses against love. And yet, marriage remains a holy institution, a gift to humanity which is central to God’s providence. We don’t get to hear the many good stories of lifelong, loving marriages that build up society and the next generation of faith-filled families. Keeping that in perspective helps us to avoid becoming jaded or cynical. It is crucial to maintain a strong spiritual life and to be grateful for the ways that God blesses us through our own families and loved ones.