Father Pat Travers serves as the judicial vicar and judge for each of the three separate tribunals in Alaska’s three dioceses — Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Normally, each diocese worldwide has a tribunal, the official court of the church, which deals in matters of canon law.
As Father Travers explains it, a tribunal is often the place where people bring the most raw and human of emotions to be probed and examined.
Was my marriage valid? What element was missing from my marriage, which may have rendered it null? Will I be able to remarry in the church? Can I satisfy my deep yearning for the sacraments in my present situation?
Although a tribunal can deal with any matter of canon law, Father Travers said “99.9 percent” of the issues brought before the Archdiocese of Anchorage tribunal are questions of marriage validity.
“The process brings out a lot of emotion,” he observed. “It can be very difficult because it requires an account of the most intimate and worst moments of people’s lives. But it can also be very freeing.”
The person who comes before the tribunal with hopes of obtaining an annulment is called the petitioner. The term “annulment,” however, is widely misunderstood.
Nothing is made null through the process; instead, the tribunal seeks to examine whether the marriage, which was initially thought to be valid according to church law, actually fell short in one or more of the essential elements comprising a sacramental marriage. The church bases its teaching on marriage on Jesus’ teaching that marriage is a lifelong bond. Therefore, unless a spouse has died, the church requires a declaration of nullity before a divorced spouse can marry again.
One of the most common reasons for a declaration of nullity is a “lack of due discretion,” Father Travers said. Essentially, this means one or both of the parties “lacked the ability to make a true consent, perhaps due to immaturity or not taking the decision seriously.”
The inability to make a true commitment is rampant in today’s culture, he said, where relationships and attitudes towards commitment are often casual and not well thought out, resulting in a lack of true consent.
“In almost all cases, lack of due discretion is one of the grounds,” Father Travers said.
Other factors might include the unwillingness of one partner to welcome children, or pressure from parents or other outside parties.
Although Father Travers is a priest of the Diocese of Juneau, he is able to serve both the Anchorage Archdiocese and the Fairbanks Diocese by traveling every few months and by maintaining an efficient tribunal staff in each diocese.
“We have four full-time staff in Anchorage, and much of the work can be done from a distance.
Two other canon lawyers, Deacon Bill Finnegan, who spends part of each year in Anchorage, and Father Scott Garrett, the pastor of Holy Rosary in Dillingham, can also serve as judges in marriage cases.
When looking at a marriage’s validity, the tribunal focuses on the engagement, wedding and honeymoon periods and how decisions were made during this crucial time.
In 2015, Pope Francis issued reforms, which, while not changing church doctrine in any way, streamlined the process, particularly when both parties to the marriage are in agreement about the validity issue. The hope is that the process can become more efficient. In some countries, the annulment process could drag on for years and be quite expensive.
Father Travers said it is a misconception that annulments are costly for petitioners.
“Even before the reforms by Rome, we did not make it mandatory to pay” in the archdiocese, he said. However, it definitely is expensive for the local church to run a tribunal, with adequate staffing and travel required. So, at the conclusion of the process, participants are asked for a voluntary donation.
OTHER ISSUES TRIBUNALS ADDRESS
Father Travers said that from 2002 and after, issues of priestly sexual misconduct took up a great deal of tribunal time.
“Fortunately, we now have no cases of this kind pending,” he said.
Another example might involve a dispute between two parishes – “although this is purely hypothetical and hasn’t happened here,” the priest stressed. A parish might loan vestments to another, and somehow a disagreement evolves on the terms of the loan. Theoretically, the dispute could end up at the tribunal.
The tribunal also helps the local bishop draft documents that are in accord with canon law, perhaps on the sale of church property or on the appointment or retirement of a pastor. The tribunal is available to advise bishops and pastors on all matters of canon law.
Pope Francis started a vibrant conversation within the Church in 2016 when he issued the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love. A reflection on family life, the document discussed some of the painful situations of Catholics whose marriages cannot be declared null, but have subsequently fallen apart.
An example might be a young spouse whose partner has walked out on her and left her with small children, said Father Travers. If a declaration of nullity is not possible, her options are a lifetime of permanent celibacy or exclusion from the sacraments. Pope Francis posed the question of how the Church can pastorally deal with people caught in these situations.
“It’s a discussion the church will be having for some time,” Father Travers said.