Q. 1. It is my understanding that Pope Francis did some changes to the annulment process. Can you comment on that matter?
A. 1. On Tuesday, September 8, 2015, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis issued two new legal documents known as a “motu proprio.”
Going back in time, in August, 2014, the Pope appointed a commission to study the matter of annulments. There was a number of concerns related to annulments. Two of them were the high costs and the lengthy process, often taking over one year. The commission’s recommended reform of the annulment process came with unusual speed for the Vatican.
On September 8, 2015, Pope Francis released two documents related to annulments. The changes will go into effect on December 8, 2015, the opening day of the upcoming Jubilee Holy Year for Mercy and the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.
The Latin names of the documents are: “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” ("The Meek Judge, The Lord Jesus") and “Mitis et misericors Iesus” ("The Meek and Merciful Jesus").
The first document addresses and modifies the annulment procedure for the Latin Rite Code of Canon Law.
The second document, “Mitis et misericors Iesus” outlines changes for the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches who, although in full communion with Rome, have historically had a different annulment process.
Both documents are presently available only in Latin and Italian.
What is an annulment?
An annulment is a decree (a finding) by a Church tribunal (court) that a union (marriage) between a man and a woman, even if it was ratified with a Church wedding, was not a real marriage because it didn’t meet one of the traditional tests for validity, such as informed consent. In other words, the marriage was invalidly contracted.
“The Motu proprio arrangements do not favor the nullifying of marriages but the promptness of the processes, so that “the heart of the faithful that wait for the clarification of their state may not be oppressed for a long time by the darkness of doubt.”
The decree of an annulment is often sought by persons who are seeking to remarry in the Catholic Church.
The reasons for the changes:
The idea is not necessarily to grant more annulments, but simply to speed up the process that is taking too long in the eyes of many of the faithful. The lengthy process has discouraged many from applying for an annulment.
As stated by Pope Francis, the changes are designed to streamline the process out of “concern for the salvation of souls” while maintaining Catholicism’s traditional ban on divorce. To achieve the annulment changes that results in prompt decisions, more power is given to local bishops.
This change delegates power from the Catholic Church’s central command (the Vatican) to local prelates (bishops) around the world. This eliminates sometimes lengthy and redundant judicial procedures. It empowers local bishops to make judgments on their own in “particularly evident” cases.
Consequently the faithful will see that obtaining an annulment is faster, easier, and less expensive.
Changes that will take place:
The decree for the Latin Rite Churches effectively updates and changes canons # 1679 to 1691 in the Church’s Code of Canon Law. Attached to that decree are twenty new “procedural rules” for bishops dealing with annulment cases, these being offered as “other instruments” for tools in their work on those matters.
Pope Francis asked that bishops create some sort of structure in their dioceses that can guide and help separated Catholics considering divorce and/or annulment.
What are grounds for an annulment?
First, the changes speak specifically to the issue of nullity, or the question of whether a marriage was ever valid in the eyes of the Church. The annulment process “has to do with verifying, and not inventing, the eventual existence of any ground.”
There are a number of grounds that can result in a marriage being considered null:
• Marriages that weren’t conducted properly, before a priest and two witnesses.
• Marriages that suffer from some sort of “impediment,” meaning the husband and wife were too closely related.
• One spouse was too young.
• Marriages that suffer from “defective consent.”
• When one or both spouses do not believe marriage is an unbreakable, lifelong commitment.
• When there was a clear lacking of faith on the part of one of the persons consenting to the marriage.
• When one person was in another undisclosed relationship at the time of marriage.
• One spouse being mentally ill.
• If the woman had an abortion.
• If a spouse concealed children from a prior relationship.
• A past incarceration.
Under Philippine law, reasons can include:
• One or both parties having been below the age of 18 when they got married.
• Either party having an incurable sexually transmitted disease.
• In cases of polygamy (more than one spouse).
• In cases of mistaken identity.
The Cost of Annulments.
Among other significant changes in the decrees, Pope Francis mandated that annulment procedures be made free of charge around the world. I read somewhere that there may be minor exemptions to this rule, such being associated with the cost of obtaining legal documents.
The first appeals of annulment decisions are to be made at the local level instead of going to the Vatican.
The appeals from smaller dioceses, rather than going to the Vatican, will now be made at metropolitan archdioceses, which are the archdioceses that are normally closest to the diocese in question.
The reforms eliminates the mandatory second trial, except when one party disputes the nullity claim.
In the process of reviewing the application for an annulment, the judge would be composed of the bishop, that in the strength of his pastoral office is, with Peter, the best guarantee of Catholic unity in the faith and discipline.
Local bishops will be allowed to make their own judgments on “evident” cases of marriage nullity. The local bishop is given the authority to form his own tribunal to process incoming cases.
Only the bishop can be the judge in cases of annulments. Because of the heavy workload of some bishops in larger dioceses, he can establish a three member tribunal to oversee the application for an annulment. If a three member tribunal is established, it must have at least one priest, while the other two persons can be laypersons.