Early in the Church’s life, the need was recognized for some sort of structure to adjudicate questions of justice raised by its members. Jesus outlined the order to be followed when one Christian follower had a complaint against another including the need for witnesses and possible punishment (Mt. 18: 15-17). St. Paul rebuked early Christians for bringing lawsuits against each other in civil courts rather than approaching the Church first. He writes, “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” (1 Cor. 6:2). Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church continued to build on the foundation set by Jesus and spread by the apostles believing that the Lord had given His Church the power of loosening and binding.
Today, centuries after apostolic times, the Church recognizes the authority of many civil courts in most areas of life. But the Church, as a society of believers, claims the exclusive right to answer questions that involve spiritual matters (e.g. sacraments), members’ rights, and violations of Church law. In a more formal way, this is done through the Church’s own court or legal system. At its most basic level, this court system exists in every diocese through a tribunal. The Metropolitan Tribunal of Atlanta is the first level or instance of the multi-tiered court system of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Atlanta Tribunal conducts ecclesiastical trials involving Catholics or those persons in relationship with Catholics. An ecclesiastical trial is similar to its civil counterpart in that it is conducted in order to discover the truth, but it is dissimilar in that the dramatics of some civil trials are not present. There are three possible objects of any Church trial, all with an ultimately pastoral purpose: (1) to prosecute or to vindicate the rights of physical or juridic persons; (2) to declare juridic facts; (3) to impose or declare the penalty for offenses against Church law.
Most often, a person (Petitioner) asks the tribunal to make a declaration concerning the juridic fact of a marriage, that is, the Petitioner wants the tribunal to answer the question: “Did the binding quality of marriage occur when I exchanged marital vows with my former spouse?” Or, to put it another way, “Was my marriage valid or invalid?” This question is asked by the previously married Petitioner who wants to know whether he or she is now free to enter a future valid marriage in the Catholic Church. If the tribunal, following a complete investigation of the facts, finds that a previous marriage was invalid, a Decree of Invalidity is issued.