On September 8, 2015, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic letter Motu propio, titled Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus, Clement Judge”), initiating a reform in the Church’s procedures for determining the nullity of marriage cases. Here is what you need to know:
What is a Motu proprio? “Motu proprio” is a descriptor attached to certain Church documents indicating a project which was undertaken at the Pope’s own personal initiative. In the Motu proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, we see Pope Francis’ personal concern for Catholics in irregular marriage situations who desire to be reconciled with the Church.
Did Pope Francis change doctrine? No. Although some aspects of doctrine might be further clarified over time, the Church’s teachings have been handed down to us from Christ through the Apostles and their successors, and as such are unchangeable. In Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, Francis was careful to articulate this. Specifically, he confirmed the Church’s teaching that a lawful, consummated, sacramental marriage is a bond that cannot be broken by any force other than death. What Pope Francis did change, however, were some of the Church’s legal procedures for determining when to issue a declaration of nullity.
What is a declaration of nullity? A declaration of nullity is often popularly called an “annulment.” But this is not a very accurate term, since the Church is not actively making a marriage null, but is merely recognizing the fact that the marriage was actually already null from its very beginning. There are some situations where a couple might have appeared to have entered into a marriage, when in reality some essential element to a real—that is, a “valid”—marriage was missing.
If a married couple has reason to believe that their marriage might be invalid, they have the right to approach the Church for a clear answer on the truth of their situation. The Church in turn makes itself available to provide such answer through canon law (the Church internal legal system) and local diocesan tribunals (the Church’s courts).
The details of the canonical process for determining validity of a marriage can be complex and technical, but essentially it involves a tribunal: determining a possible reason why the marriage might have been invalid; collecting objective evidence—such as witness testimonies, documents, or professional opinions from experts such as medical doctors or psychologists—which would either support or rule out that proposed reason; and then coming to an impartial judgement on whether or not the marriage was valid. If the marriage was determined to be invalid, the tribunal issues a “declaration of nullity,” and the parties are considered by the Church as free to marry.
Why did Francis make changes to this process? The legal process for determining the validity of marriage has developed over the centuries in order to meet the twofold goal of respecting the sanctity of marriage, as well as protecting the rights and dignity of everyone involved. However, many of the safeguards in place have had the side effect of making the process longer and more complicated than was strictly necessary. Many bishops believed that some of these legal safeguards actually did more harm than good in terms of protecting the rights of the faithful, because they made the whole process more burdensome and tribunals more difficult for the faithful to approach in the first place. This latest document is Pope Francis’ attempt to tailor the process to the specific pastoral needs and circumstances of today’s Catholics.
What specific changes did Pope Francis make? Some of the more notable changes include:
- Allowing lay canonists (people with advanced degrees in canon law) to take on a greater role as judges in tribunals. Prior to Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, cases were ordinarily judged by a “college” of three judges which needed to consist of at least two ordained clerics. Now, two of the three judges may be laypeople.
- Making it simpler to determine where a trial can be held. Previously, special permission was needed in order to have a trial anywhere other than the diocese where the wedding took place, or the diocese where the respondent (the spouse who did not request the trial) was living. Now, the trial may be held in the diocese where either party is resident, or in the diocese where it would be easiest to collect the evidence.
- Eliminating the need for an automatic appeal. Before this Motu proprio, if a tribunal was to decide in favor of granting a declaration of nullity, it was required that the regional appeals court (called “second instance”) examine the case in order to confirm the original decision. This automatic appeal was meant to ensure that the sanctity of the marriage bond was protected and to prevent potential abuses of laxity. However, it often added additional weeks or months to the final decision. Now, one or both of the parties may still request an appeal to the metropolitan archbishop of their region if they disagree with the original decision, but an appeal is no longer mandatory.
- The possibility of an expedited process. In certain cases where both parties agree to seek a declaration of nullity and the particular circumstances of their case make the likelihood of the invalidity of their marriage especially obvious, the parties can now opt to have the bishop judge their case directly, instead of going through the ordinary tribunal process. The parties will still need to present enough solid evidence for the bishop to make a confident determination of the status of their marriage, but in many cases this will be a quicker and simpler process.
Did Pope Francis make it easier to obtain a declaration of nullity? Yes and no. “Yes,” in so far as some common delays and complications will be avoided in many cases, which will (hopefully!) make the process more accessible to more people.
But in another sense, no, it will not be “easier.” The process for determining the validity of a marriage is still focused on discerning the truth according to the Church’s teachings on the nature of marriage. Even if the truth is proved through slightly different means, it will still need to be proven in conscience and with moral certainty.
Jenna M. Cooper is a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York. She completed a licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 2014.