Last week, The Catholic Messenger reported on Pope Francis’ decision to revise the marriage annulment process. Because the announcement was made on press deadline, we provided a synopsis of the announcement and chose to begin elaborating the facts of the document with this week’s issue.
Keep in mind that Pope Francis may be the family’s biggest cheerleader on earth. He talks about families on a regular basis in his general audiences in St. Peter’s Square and emphasizes marriage as a sacrament that provides the crucial foundation for families to thrive. The Catholic Church views marriage as a lifelong covenant between a husband and wife.
In some cases, however, couples enter a marriage that is invalid from the start because of an impediment, a defect of consent, or a problem in the form of the marriage celebration.
When a marriage is proven to be invalid, through the annulment process, the man and woman may marry someone else. An annulment, or nullity of a marriage, is an official declaration by the church that it has proven with moral certainty a given marriage was invalid from the start. When a marriage is actually invalid, declaring the nullity of the marriage is a good and just thing, the church teaches.
Pope Francis stressed that he is not favoring the nullity of marriages by making revisions, but seeking to speed up the process so that the faithful awaiting clarification of their marital status do not endure a long period of doubt.
Father Paul Appel, who leads the Diocese of Davenport’s Marriage Tribunal as judicial vicar, shares with The Catholic Messenger the following facts from the Holy Father’s document on the nullity of marriage. This information is based on a FAQ prepared by the tribunal of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin.
Why is Pope Francis changing the marriage nullity process?
Pope Francis teaches exactly what Christ taught: that marriage is indissoluble. Indissolubility is part of the Good News! It tells us that God wants us to love and be loved unconditionally, and that he made us capable of that kind of love.
Nothing that Pope Francis has said or done has changed or could change any of that. There is nothing merciful in finding a pretext for calling a marriage invalid when it is really just broken, or in declaring that a marriage is probably invalid even when real doubt remains, which is why Pope Francis prudently retains the principle that a marriage cannot be declared invalid unless it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. His concern is not to have more “annulments” regardless of the truth of the matter, but to eliminate any unnecessary, artificial or unduly burdensome barriers toward obtaining a just and expeditious judgment. He also wants to minimize as much as possible the amount of time people spend in a state of uncertainty while their case is pending. The existing marriage nullity process, when followed faithfully, is both effective and (under ideal circumstances and considering the complexity of the matter) relatively expeditious. Any human process can be fallible and should be reformed when necessary. Pope Francis, working with a commission of experts, has reformed the process to make it as accessible as possible, without undermining the integrity of the process.
How is the marriage nullity process going to change?
The document contains a number of “tweaks” to the process, but there are five major changes: (1) new rules for tribunal competence, (2) new requirements for tribunal personnel, (3) the elimination of the requirement for a second conforming affirmative, (4) a shorter and more streamlined process, judged personally by the diocesan bishop, for certain rare and exceptional cases, and (5) a change in the approach to recovering tribunal expenses.
When do these changes take effect?
The revised laws take effect Dec. 8, three months from their promulgation.
What is tribunal competence, and how will it be different?
Every diocese has a tribunal, but not just any tribunal can hear any marriage nullity case. The tribunal has to have some jurisdiction over the marriage in question. Currently, there are four ways that a tribunal can be competent: (1) if the marriage took place in that diocese, (2) if the Respondent party lives in that diocese, (3) if the Petitioner lives in that diocese and certain other formalities and requirements are observed, and (4) if for whatever reason the majority of the relevant evidence is located in that diocese and certain other formalities and requirements are observed. The formalities and requirements for numbers 3 and 4 involved seeking the consent of the judicial vicar of the diocese where the Respondent party lived. They were designed to protect the rights of the Respondent party, but increased mobility and mass communications made them practically obsolete; they could also be unduly time-consuming. Under the revised law, there will be three ways that a tribunal can be competent, and none of them require any of those extra formalities and requirements: (1) if the marriage took place in that diocese, (2) if either party lives in that diocese, and (3) if for whatever reason the majority of the relevant evidence is located in that diocese.
We will publish additional facts over a few weeks’ time. You can also view the document in its entirety on the websites of The Catholic Messenger (www.catholicmessenger.net) or The Diocese of Davenport (www.dioceseofdavenport.org.)