The Catholic Church believes that marriage is a lifetime exclusive partnership between a man and a woman, who give and receive mutual help and love and from their union bring forth and rear children. When Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians marry according to the requirements of their churches, and when people of other religions marry according to the requirements of civil law, the Catholic Church presumes that they marry validly. If both spouses are baptized, the Church also considers their marriage to be a sacrament and believes that once consummated it cannot be set aside by any human power, not even a civil court.
Because it is a lifetime commitment, the decision to marry is one of the most serious decisions most people ever make. Since so much of the person is invested in this decision and since so much is expected in terms of time, energy, emotion, and resources, when a couple marries, divorce is unthinkable. Yet the unthinkable does happen to many couples; thus the Catholic Church seeks to minister to divorced people.
While supporting the permanence of sacramental marriage, the Church offers to review the broken marriage to determine whether there could have been something defective from the beginning. Perhaps on the wedding day the marriage lacked one or more of the elements, which the Catholic Church considers essential for valid marriage. If that can be proven, the Church can declare the marriage null, indicating that it never had the permanent binding force of marriage. A church declaration of nullity, then, is a decision by the Church, based on proof, that on the wedding day a particular union lacked some element essential to marriage. Such decisions are sought and given through the Tribunal, the Church Court established in a Diocese to assist the Bishop in giving timely judgment to individuals requesting declaration of nullity.
In studying and deciding petitions for declarations of nullity, the Tribunal seeks only the spiritual good of the people involved. The Tribunal makes no attempt to assign blame for the breakup of the union. There are no civil effects to a Church annulment. A decision for nullity does not make children illegitimate. It cannot be used to question a child's paternity. It will not influence a civil court to set or change terms of civil divorce, child custody, and support or property settlement. If a marriage is declared null by the Tribunal, the spouses so far as that marriage is concerned, are free to marry others in the Catholic Church once all stipulations placed by the Tribunal have been fulfilled. As a result of that freedom, the Catholic spouse or spouses in the new union are able to participate fully in the life of their Church.