The number of marriages declared null by the New Zealand Tribunal of the Catholic Church more than doubled in 2017 as against the figure in 2015, which was largely before Pope Francis simplified the process and the New Zealand Catholic bishops decided to provide the service for free. The number went up to 78 cases last year from the 42 cases recorded in 2015.

Judicial Vicar Msgr Brendan Daly, however, warned against making any kind of assumptions based on these figures.

“Clearly, providing the tribunal services free has had a big impact on the number of cases being processed,” he said. “However, we have to be careful about drawing conclusions because the reality is, in New Zealand, fewer people have been getting married since the 1970s and so that has an impact on the number of people applying for declarations of nullity.”

He noted that in the early 2000s, the tribunal had been processing around 90 cases a year. This number dropped in half when the NZCBC’s finance committee increased the charges for processing the declaration of marriage nullity cases from $900 to $2000.

One would think that more people would apply for declarations of nullity when the process was simplified and made free. But Msgr Daly said the reality is more complicated than that.

“You’ve got a lower number of white New Zealanders getting married. And then you’ve also got so many immigrants coming into the country,” he said. “There are a lot fewer cases of white people [wanting declarations of nullity] in the tribunal but more immigrants are seeking declarations of nullity.”

Auckland Associate Judicial Vicar Fr Anthony Malone, OFM, said a major factor in the declaration of marriage nullity is a lack of discernment.

“The major factor is the loss of a Christian sense of what marriage is: a partnership for life which is exclusive and open to the possibility of children in which both the husband and the wife administer a sacrament to each other so that the wife and the husband when they wish to encounter Christ, encounter him through each other,” he said.

He said in an increasingly secularised society, “many people move into a decision to marry having given less time in analysing what they are about to commit themselves to than they would if they were buying a house”.

“We, in the Catholic Church, have a deep theological  underpinning of what most New Zealanders see as merely a social contract,” Fr Malone said.

To counter this lack of discernment, he said the bishops have asked all priests in New Zealand not to officiate at a wedding unless the couple had done a pre-marriage course.

“This has an effect of making a couple think very seriously what they are taking on,” Fr Malone said.

Msgr Daly said there are a number of reasons why the Church considers a marriage invalid.

One is a lack of canonical form which means a marriage between two Catholics is considered invalid if  not celebrated before a priest and two other witnesses.

Another reason is a lack of proper consent because it is consent that makes marriage.

“That means people not really intending marriage but getting married because they want to get a resident visa, or people not intending to ever have children,” he cited as examples.

He said lack of consent can also mean one of the married couples was pressured into marriage by circumstances, or one of them is “unable to form a partnership of life, because of drinking or drugs or personality problems that cause violence or a very unhappy home”.

Msgr Daly said a third of the cases that go through the tribunal involves marriages between two Catholics, another third involves marriages between a Catholic and one belonging to another Christian denomination and the last third are the marriages of two people who are not Christians.

“People who aren’t Catholics may be applying for a declaration of nullity to marry a Catholic or as part of their preparation to be baptised or received into the Church. This is because they need to be in a marriage recognised by the Catholic Church before they are baptised or received into the Church,” he said. “The teaching of Jesus applies to everyone whether they are Catholic or not.”

Msgr Daly said people who wish to have their marriages annulled can start a case by getting in touch with the tribunal office of their diocese.

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