Annulment process amended, shortened

By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – While a juridical process is necessary for making accurate judgments, the Catholic Church’s marriage annulment process must be quicker, cheaper and much more of a pastoral ministry, Pope Francis said.
Rewriting a section of the Latin-rite Code of Canon Law and of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, Pope Francis said he was not “promoting the nullity of marriages, but the quickness of the processes, as well as a correct simplicity” of the procedures so that Catholic couples are not “oppressed by the shadow of doubt” for prolonged periods.
The Vatican released Sept. 8 the texts of two papal documents, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge) for the Latin-rite church and Mitis et misericors Iesus, (The Meek and Merciful Jesus) for the Eastern Catholic churches.
The changes, including the option of a brief process without the obligatory automatic appeal, go into effect Dec. 8, the opening day of the Year of Mercy.
“While it is going to take some time to digest Pope Francis’ procedural reforms to the declaration of marriage nullity process, it is clear that the removal of some of the administrative processes will cut the time it takes for an average petition to reach final judgment,” said Father Jeffery Waldrep, Judicial Vicar for the Diocese of Jackson.
“Some of the significant ways, starting December 8, that the Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus directly effects the Diocese of Jackson’s Tribunal proceedings are: an automatic appeal to the Court of Second Instance is eliminated; it is normative that a single judge, under the guidance of the local ordinary, is to judge on a case; there is a possibility of an expedited process if explicit requirements are met,” he explained. Cases being heard here are currently sent to the Archdiocese of Mobile for the second instance.
One of the challenges in getting the new process up and running is that the decree is currently only available in Latin and Italian. “It is unfortunate that we do not have an official English translation of the twin moto proprios yet. When we do it is then that we can start working on the finer juridical procedural changes that will be taking effect starting December 8,” said Father Waldrep.
Pope Francis said the changes in the annulment process were motivated by “concern for the salvation of souls,” and particularly “charity and mercy” toward those who feel alienated from the church because of their marriage situations and the perceived complexity of the church’s annulment process.
“While Pope Francis has made some significant procedural changes, it is important to realize that in no way has he compromised the Church’s teaching that a lawful, consummated, sacramental marriage is a bond that cannot be broken by any force other than death,” said Father Waldrep.
The new rules replace canons 1671-1691 of the Code of Canon Law and canons 1357-1377 of the Eastern code. Pope Francis also provided a set of “procedural regulations” outlining how his reforms are to take place, encouraging bishops in small dioceses to train personnel who can handle marriage cases and spelling out specific conditions when a bishop can issue a declaration of nullity after an abbreviated process.
Those conditions include: when it is clear one or both parties lacked the faith to give full consent to a Catholic marriage; when the woman had an abortion to prevent procreation; remaining in an extramarital relationship at the time of the wedding or immediately afterward; one partner hiding knowledge of infertility, a serious contagious disease, children from a previous union or a history of incarceration; and when physical violence was used to extort consent for the marriage.
The reformed processes were drafted by a special committee Pope Francis established a year earlier. Among the criteria he said guided their work, the first he listed was the possibility of there being “only one executive sentence in favor of nullity” when the local bishop or judge delegated by him had the “moral certainty” that the marriage was not valid. Previously an appeal was automatic and a declaration of nullity had to come from two tribunals.
Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota, a Vatican court, and president of the commission that drafted the new rules, told reporters that Pope Francis asked for updates throughout the year, sought a review by four “great canonists” not involved in the drafting and in the end adopted the changes with “great seriousness, but also great serenity.”
The changes made by Pope Francis, particularly the responsibility and trust placed in local bishops, are the most substantial changes in the church’s marriage law since the pontificate of Pope Benedict XIV in the mid-1700s, Msgr. Pinto said. Even with the 1917 and 1983 new Codes of Canon Law, the process for recognizing the nullity of a marriage remained “substantially unchanged,” he said.
“Putting the poor at the center is what distinguishes the reform of Pope Francis from those made by Pope Pius X and Pope Benedict XIV,” Msgr. Pinto said.
In fact, Pope Francis ordered that the “gratuity of the procedure be assured so that, in a matter so closely tied to the salvation of souls, the church — by demonstrating to the faithful that she is a generous mother – may demonstrate the gratuitous love of Christ, which saves us all.”
Father Waldrep emphasized that streamlining the process does not water down the reality of marriage. “Many will be affirmed to know that the declaration of nullity process will be easier. Some of the administrative processes that caused significant delays have been eliminated. However, it is fundamental to note that the Church is still focused on discerning the truth according to the Church’s teachings on the nature of marriage. The process might be a bit less cumbersome in some instances but the reality is that nullity will still need to be proven in conscience and with moral certainty,” said Father Waldrep.
Pressed by reporters about how quickly the new procedures will go into effect in dioceses around the world, Msgr. Pinto said it will take some dioceses longer than others to adapt to the new norms and to find ways to finance their tribunals other than charging couples. Couples do not have to pay to request an annulment in the Diocese of Jackson, but they do have to pay if they appeal to Rome once the local process is exhausted.
Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, who also was a member of the commission, insisted the pope’s new rules were not about “annulling marriages,” but about recognizing and declaring the nullity of a marriage, in other words, declaring that it never existed as a valid sacrament.
Although the new rules remove the obligation that a declaration of nullity automatically be appealed, he said, it does not remove the right of one of the parties to appeal the decision. However, he said, “and this is a great innovation,” if the appeals court believes the appeal is “obviously a delaying tactic,” the appeals court can issue a decree confirming the nullity of the marriage without a full process.
Msgr. Alejandro Bunge, secretary of the commission and a member of the Roman Rota, said the new processes are motivated by recognition of the church as a “field hospital,” as Pope Francis has described it. “For those who have special injuries – a marriage null from the beginning – we will have intensive care” in the form of more rapid annulment procedures.
While many marriage cases will continue to require time in order to arrive at the truth, he said, the longer procedure will be reserved to those cases in which it is not obvious that the marriage was null from the beginning and in which the couple does not agree that a real marriage never existed.
Byzantine Bishop Dimitrios Salachas of Greece, also a member of the commission that drafted the new rules, said they were urgent for his Eastern church. Some 90 percent of his married faithful are married to a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, which permits second marriages under special penitential provisions.
Most Catholics who have divorced an Orthodox “don’t wait years and years” for the Catholic Church’s double declaration of nullity, he said. “They just leave,” finding it easier to follow the Orthodox Church’s procedures and begin a second union in the Orthodox Church.
The changes, he said, “were necessary, including to keep the Catholics” in the church.