Workshop helps Tribunal advocates prepare cases

By Thomas Howard

Guest Correspondent

In August, people from Austin, Dallas and as far away as Oregon gathered at Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center in Belton for the annual Advocates Training Workshop. The diocesan Office of Canonical and Tribunal Services sponsors the workshop, which is designed to help those who help people who are seeking an annulment.

The workshop began eight years ago when the Judicial Vicar, Father Christopher Ferrer, invited advocates from around the Diocese of Austin to come and learn how to be better advocates. He thought it was very important to teach advocates how to prepare their cases for presentation to the Tribunal.

"By doing so, the Tribunal is better able to process nullity cases in a timely fashion and, more importantly, arrive at the correct decision in each case," Father Ferrer said.

This year, three experts in canon law made presentations: Father Roger Keeler, doctor of canon Law and Judicial Vicar of the Court of Second Instance in San Antonio; Father Matthew Iwuji, doctor of universal and canon law and judge of the Tribunal of Austin; and Father Jozef Musiol, SDS, doctor of canon law and Adjutant Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Austin.

Each presenter focused on a different aspect of canon law to describe various reasons why a declaration of nullity (annulment) might be granted. The premise of a declaration of nullity is that the marriage never occurred in the first place (ab initio) due to a lack of canonical form, an impediment or a lack of valid consent.

Father Keeler began by reminding attendees that the church has clearly defined marriage as a "covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring (Canon 1055)." Then he spoke of lack of consent caused by various incapacities on the part of one of the parties.

Father Musiol talked about two different aspects of a defective consent. The church insists that consent to marriage be unconditionally and freely given. Placing conditions on a person’s consent to marry is incompatible with the self-giving of the spouses to establish a partnership for the whole of life. Further, freedom in choosing a partner for life is a basic human right recognized by the church. Without this freedom to choose a spouse, a fundamental element of this communion of life and love is lacking. Therefore, if force or grave fear is used to induce consent, the validity of the consent is called into question.

Father Iwuji covered one impediment to a licit marriage, impotence. In distinguishing impotence from sterility, he defined this impediment as an inability to complete the conjugal act, a necessary part of a marriage covenant, which is directed to the good of the spouses and procreation of children.

He then discussed another of the defects in consent, that of an individual mistaken about the person whom they are marrying. This error can be a result of either an error in judgment or may be caused by fraud or deceit. By way of clarification, he said that such an error must be about whom the person is or a very important quality in that person. He added that the error must be intentional.

During the workshop, there were breakout sessions in which participants discussed real cases that have come before Tribunals in the past. Groups of attendees discussed cases, suggested possible grounds for nullity and formulated an argument to support those grounds. The breakout sessions helped participants put into practice what they had learned from the various presentations. The attendees also received a binder of extensive reference materials to use in their ministry when they return home.

The workshop concluded with Mass celebrated by Bishop Joe Vásquez. In his homily, the bishop thanked the participants for work in their various Tribunals around the state and the country. He reminded everyone that they are dealing with people whose lives are broken and who want and need help. He encouraged each attendee to continue to do their work remembering that they are involved in a healing ministry directed at bringing people back to full communion with the church.

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