On September 8 the Holy See released two documents by Pope Francis that address the way the Church handles annulments. While the Holy Father reaffirmed the “indissolubility of the marriage bond,” he also stated that “charity and mercy demand that the Church, as mother, be close to her children who consider themselves separated.”
The new procedures will go into effect on December 8, coinciding with the start of the Year of Mercy.
Much has been in the press about the revised procedures. Here, our province canonist summarizes the most significant changes. Fr. Dave begins by stating that “this is not a technical commentary nor is it intended to replace the assistance of a local pastor, but I hope that by reading this article the reader will have a sense of how these changes will concretely change the experience of those who request a declaration of nullity [annulment].”
Where can I file a petition?
Under the new process, the Pope has simplified where the petition to examine the marriage may be examined (can.1672). There are three options: where the marriage took place, the diocese where either the Petitioner or the Respondent (the former spouse) live, or where the majority of the proofs are to be collected.
This may seem like a small difference, but it is an important one. Prior to this time, if the Petitioner and Respondent lived in different dioceses, the diocese of the Petitioner could hear the case only if the following requirements were fulfilled: the two dioceses were in the same episcopal conference, the Respondent was located and solicited for objections, and the judicial vicar of the Respondent gave his consent.
For those whose former spouses lived in different countries, the change in the law allows the Petitioner to submit to the Tribunal of their own residence a petition. In addition, the process is shortened by removing the step of soliciting another Tribunal to contact a former spouse.
Who can act as a judge?
The Pope has changed the law about the composition of a Tribunal (can. 1673, § 3). Previously, a Tribunal was required to be composed of at least two clerics, the third judge being either a cleric or a lay person. The Pope has changed the law to allow a Tribunal to be made up of one cleric and two lay persons.
What about the Court of Second Instance?
Prior to Pope Francis’ changes, if a Tribunal found for nullity (annulment), canon law required that the case be sent to a second court for review. That second court could either confirm the decree or admit the case to ordinary examination (effectively, re-trying the case).
Pope Francis has changed the law to allow a single affirmative decree (that is a decree for nullity) to be sufficient. If a person disagrees with the judgment of the Tribunal, he or she maintains a right to appeal the decision to either the Court of Second Instance (usually the Archdiocese in the state where you live) or directly to the Roman Rota, an appeals court in Rome.
By not requiring a decision from a second instance court, most petitioners will see the time it takes to receive a definitive sentence shrink by six months to a year.
A Shorter Process
The Pope has allowed what he has called “The Shorter matrimonial process before the Bishop”. This format omits some of the more lengthy procedure elements of an ordinary case before the Tribunal. However, there are some requirements for this to be an option.
The first requirement is that both parties either request or consent to this shorter process. The second requirement is that the ground for nullity that the petition puts forth is clear and easy to see, that it does not require a more careful and full investigation. If these requirements are met, the case can be finished in as little as 45 days, with the right of appeal always being maintained.
What should I do if I have more questions?
If you have questions about your personal situation, contact your local pastor or Tribunal (information is at your diocesan offices). They are there to help and to serve you.