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Streamlined annulment process announced: one sentence, one judge, “brevity”

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 09/08/15

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The official word, via Vatican Radio:

Pope Francis issued two Apostolic Letters motu proprio on Tuesday, by which he introduced reforms to the legal structures of the Church, which deal with questions of marital nullity. One of the Letters motu proprio, known by its Latin title, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus – or “The Lord Jesus, Clement Judge” – reforms the Code of Canon Law (CIC) governing the Latin Church, while the other, Mitis et misericors Iesus or “Clement and merciful Jesus” – reforms the Code of Canon Law for Oriental Churches (CCEO). According to the prefatory remarks attached to both Letters, the reforms are the result of an expert group appointed to study the current state of law and practice in the Church as far as marriage law is concerned. The Holy Father goes on in the preface to explain that the reforms are guided by seven specific criteria, ample excerpts of which Vatican Radio offers below in its own unofficial English translation: That there be only one sentence in favor of executive nullity – It appeared opportune, in the first place, that there no longer be required a twofold decision in favor of marital nullity, in order that the parties be admitted to new canonically valid marriages: the moral certainty reached by the first judge according to law should be sufficient. A single judge under the responsibility of the Bishop – The constitution of a single judge in the first instance, who shall always be a cleric, is placed under the responsibility of the Bishop, who, in the pastoral exercise of his own proper judicial power shall guarantee that no laxity be indulged in this matter. The Bishop is judge – In order that the teaching of the II Vatican Council be finally translated into practice in an area of great importance, the decision was made to make evident the fact that the Bishop is, in his Church – of which he is constituted pastor and head – is by that same constitution judge among the faithful entrusted to him. It is desired that, in Dioceses both great and small, the Bishop himself should offer a sign of the conversion of ecclesiastical structures, and not leave the judicial function completely delegated to the offices of the diocesan curia, as far as matters pertaining to marriage are concerned. Increased brevity in the legal process – In fact, beyond making the marriage annulment process more agile, a briefer form of trying nullity cases has been designed – in addition to the documentary process already approved and in use – which is to be applied in cases in which the accusation of marital nullity is supported by particularly evident arguments. In any case, the extent to which an abbreviated process of judgment might put the principle of the indissolubility of marriage at risk, did not escape me [writes Pope Francis – ed.]: thus, I have desired that, in such cases the Bishop himself shall be constituted judge, who, by force of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline. Appeal to the Metropolitcan See – It is fitting that the appeal to the Metropolitan See be re-introduced, since that office of headship of an Ecclesiastical province, stably in place through the centuries, is a distinctive sign of the synodality of the Church. The proper role of the Bishops’ Conferences – The Bishops’ Conferences, which must be driven above all by the anxious apostolic desire to reach the far-off faithful, should formally recognize the duty to share the aforesaid conversion, and respect absolutely the right of the Bishops to organize judicial power each within his own particular Church. There-establishment of vicinity between the judge and the faithful, in fact, shall not be successful if the stimulus does not come from the Conferences to the single Bishops, along with the necessary assistance, to put into practice the reform of the marital nullity process. Appeal to the Apostolic See – It is fitting that the appeal to the ordinary Tribunal of the Apostolic See, i.e. the Roman Rota, be maintained: this, in respect of a most ancient juridical principle, so that the bond between the See of Peter and the particular Churches be reinforced – having care, in any case, in the discipline of the use of said appeal, to contain any and all abuse of right, in order that the salvation of souls be given no cause for harm. Indeed, the prefatory remarks make clear from the very start, that the single most important principle guiding the Holy Father’s action and the work of reform undertaken, is that of salus animarum – the salvation of souls – which is the suprema Ecclesiae lex – the supreme law of the Church.

Also: the pope is mandating that the process be free of charge.

The reforms take effect on December 8, 2015, the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and the 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican II.

CNS has a good write-through: 

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. 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 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.” Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Commission 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.

AP adds: 

Francis’ biggest reform involves a new fast-track procedure, handled by the local bishop, that can be used when both spouses request an annulment or don’t oppose it. It can also be used when other proof makes a more drawn-out investigation unnecessary. It calls for the process to be completed within 45 days. The longer, regular process should take no more than a year, officials said. Another reform is the removal of the appeal that automatically took place after the first decision was made, even if neither spouse wanted it. An appeal is still possible, but if one of the sides requests it — a simplification that was used in the United States for many years.

It will take a while to have canon lawyers pore over all this and give us a clearer picture of what it means and how it will impact people in the pews. Stay tuned.

Meantime, some early analysis…

From NCR: 

The changes announced by Francis modify the procedures for obtaining annulments in two key ways: Eliminating a sometimes lengthy process requiring a second judgment on all annulment decisions and allowing local bishops a so-called “shorter” process to personally judge on cases considered particularly straightforward. They also, in a new take on a since abandoned practice, allow any first appeals of annulment decisions to be made at the local level instead of to the Vatican. In his introductory letter for the decree altering the processes for the Latin-rite church — the church community most recognizable throughout the world as Roman Catholic –the pontiff states that he recognizes the new procedures, especially those allowing decisions by bishops, might worry those concerned about Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. But the pope says he wanted to offer the new process to bishops so that it can “be applied in cases in which the accused nullity of the marriage is sustained by arguments particularly evident.” “It has not escaped me how an abbreviated judgment might put at risk the principle of indissolubility of marriage,” the pope continues. “Indeed, for this I wanted that in this process 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.”

From Crux:

Describing his reform as “no less than a just simplicity,” the pontiff says his aim is that “the heart of the faithful awaiting clarification [of their marital status] is not long oppressed by the darkness of doubt.” Prior to this point, the system required annulments to be issued by one court and confirmed by another, a stipulation that critics blamed for unnecessary delays, especially in cases in which no one contested the results. Under the changes approved by Francis, the process will now need only one sentence unless an appeal is made. In case there is an appeal, Francis also ruled that it can be handled by the nearest archdiocese, technically known as the “metropolitan see,” rather than having to come to Rome. The pontiff decreed that the annulment process will be free of charge, and that every diocese in the world has the responsibility of naming a judge or a church tribunal to process requests, with the possibility of the bishops acting as judges.

From John Allen: 

The decision will recalibrate the discussion at October’s second edition of the Synod of Bishops on the family, likely reducing the emphasis on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and creating space for other issues to emerge. Francis has expressed concern several times that the synod shouldn’t become focused on a narrow canon of contentious issues, but should instead consider the broad range of challenges to family life, including the impact of poverty, war, and forced migration, and should also focus on how the Church can support families where they’re thriving. The possibility of that actually happening looks like less of a long shot in the wake of this decision than before it.
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