Any persons having presented themselves to others as married are presumed to have been married as the Church understands marriage. For that reason, any person having been married before must petition to a Church court to have the previous union investigated to see if there is a reason why the exchange of vows did not constitute a valid consent. Divorce in itself is a termination of the “civil union” of the couple; even then, in the Church’s understanding, parties are still married under Divine Law. A divorced Catholic can continue to receive the Sacraments as long as they have not entered into a subsequent union. Since they are considered to still be married under Divine Law, once the person enters into a subsequent civil union, they remove themselves from the sacraments.
Once an investigation shows there was not a valid consent according to Church Law, a written decision is issued. Please know that the priest or deacon assisting you in your preparations is not able, and not permitted, to set even a tentative date for a new marriage until you have a final and favorable decision, in writing, from the Tribunal. Either of the two parties of a previous union can petition the Church to consider declaring the union as not valid under Church Law. A union not valid under these conditions is considered “null”, i.e., there was not a valid consent. The Catholic Church’s declaration of a marriage being “null” has no effect on the status of the union under Civil Law nor does it have an effect on the status of children of the union.
When an individual decides to “petition” the Church Tribunal, it is submitted to the Catholic diocese in which they reside. If the petition needs to be handled elsewhere, the local Tribunal will assist in initiating the process. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, each petition is developed with assistance in the local parish. Any priest, deacon, or trained Case Sponsor can provide this assistance. Following an interview in the parish, initial data is obtained and submitted to the Tribunal. During the Tribunal’s evaluation, the case may be initially regarded as a Formal Case or an Informal Case; the timing varies for each of these types of cases.