by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It’s no coincidence that Pope Francis chose Dec. 8 as the date for new norms for the annulment of marriages to take effect. It’s also the beginning of the Year of Mercy.
Pope Francis launched the reform of the marriage annulment process on Sept. 8, when he issued two letters “motu proprio” (on his own Initiative).
The letter to Latin-rite Catholics is entitled “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” (“The Lord Jesus, Gentle Judge”). The letter to Eastern-rite Catholics is called “Mitis et misericors Iesus” (“The Meek and Merciful Jesus”).
Pope Francis’ intentions in making these changes in the Code of Canon Law are to expedite the process, make it free and enhance the pastoral ministry.
“It is therefore the concern for the salvation of souls that, today as yesterday, remains the supreme objective of the institutions and laws, and drives the Bishop of Rome to offer to the bishops this reform document,” wrote Pope Francis.
“The drive to reform,” he continued, “has been fueled by the enormous number of faithful who, while wishing to be at peace with their consciences, are too often separated from the legal structures of the Churches due to physical or moral distance; charity and mercy therefore require that the same Church, as a mother, to be closer to her children who consider themselves separated.”
To be clear, the new norms do not change the grounds for annulling a marriage or make it “easier” for a couple to prove their marriage wasn’t a valid union. Rather, the process has been streamlined to clear up unnecessary delays.
The church’s teaching that a valid marriage is indissoluble remains unchanged. Also unchanged is the fact that a couple must first obtain a civil divorce before seeking an annulment. And the annulment process still begins with the couple’s pastor.
So what are the changes?
The first change is that it is no longer necessary to have two conforming sentences, according to Msgr. Gary Applegate, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. In other words, only one tribunal ruling is necessary. In the past, a decision of nullity — a decision to annul the marriage — by a tribunal would be automatically appealed to a higher court. The higher, or appeal, court usually confirmed the original decision, but not always.
After Dec. 8, appeals to the higher court are permitted — for example, should an annulment be denied — but they are not required.
“A person can appeal, and we would use the same appeal court we used in the past,” said Msgr. Applegate.
The time it takes to process a case is not expected to change much here in the archdiocese.
“The law still allows for a year for first instance cases,” he said.
Elsewhere, however, in foreign countries in which annulments have sometimes taken years and even decades, it will shorten the process considerably.
The second change is that the bishop is to take a more active role as a judge in deciding cases. This is the “Briefer Matrimonial Process,” which can be applied in cases where the nullity of the marriage in question is “sustained by arguments particularly evident,” according to the “motu proprio.” Both ex-spouses must agree that their marriage should be declared null.
“The judicial vicar sorts through the cases and any cases that seemingly have those characteristics he can take to the bishop,” said Msgr. Applegate. “Then, we collect all the evidence we need. The bishop has 49 days to make the judgment.”
People should not expect, even in the “briefer process,” that their case will speed through the tribunal in a few months, said Msgr. Applegate. In any case, unexpected variables and factors could occur, and thus lengthen the time.
The third change has to do with jurisdiction. Starting Dec. 8, a tribunal may still process an annulment case even if one of the two parties resides outside the diocese.
“If one of the parties lives in a foreign country and the other party lives in the United States, we don’t have to go to the tribunal in the other country for permission to hear the case in the United States,” said Msgr. Applegate. “We don’t need the other party’s consent. We’ll simply inform them that the case has been filed and they are free to participate.”
The fourth change is that Pope Francis called for all diocesan tribunals to process declarations of marriage nullity for free. In the past, petitioners were asked to make a donation — on an income-based, sliding scale — to help run the tribunal office. These donations helped to cover the expense of processing cases, which includes: first-class registered mail; office space, products and equipment; salaries for three secretaries and three retired priests; and fees charged by counselors for providing expert reports. After Dec. 8, fees will not be discussed. The tribunal will be funded by donations to the archdiocese. If an individual wishes to make a donation after their case is finished, it will be accepted, but not required.
The fifth change has to do with the number of judges hearing a case. In the past, the archdiocese used three judges to hear cases where the marriage endured 20 or more years. Now, in this archdiocese, all formal cases will have three judges, according to Msgr. Applegate. However, the new norms do allow for one judge to hear a case with two assessors who are experts in the law.
One question people may have concerns appeals.
If a former couple’s case for an annulment of their marriage has received a negative decision by a tribunal in the past, can they try again? Indeed they can, but this has nothing to do with the new norms.
The former couple can basically do one of the following:
First, if they haven’t already done so, they can appeal to a higher court — the appeal tribunal. If they do not agree with the decision of the appeal court, they can then appeal that decision to the Roman Rota.
Or, the former couple may petition the first court again if — and this is important — they have different or new grounds. Once a tribunal has made a ruling on a canonical impediment, the matter is settled as far as that particular impediment is concerned. Thus, there is a need for different grounds.