By Elise Harris and Angela Ambrogetti
On Friday Pope Francis clarified a few points in his streamlined marriage annulment process and restored power to the Vatican’s main marriage court in order to prevent unnecessary procedural delays.
One of the key clarifications the Pope made was to reiterate that the new rules trump everything that came before them, including changes made during the pontificates of Pope Pius XI and John Paul II.
First announced in September, the new process went into effect Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the launch of Francis’ Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
With the streamlined process, more of a role is placed on the local bishop, who now acts as the judge in the process, automatic appeals have been dropped, and the process has been declared free of charge.
The changes were initially published in two motu proprio – or letters – issued by the Pope “on his own initiative.” The documents were entitled “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” (The Lord Jesus, a meek judge), which deals with modifications in the Latin Rite’s Code of Canon Law, and “Mitis et misericors Iesus” (Jesus, meek and merciful), which outlines changes for Eastern Churches who, although in full communion with Rome, have historically had a different process.
On Dec. 7, the day before the new process went into effect, Pope Francis signed a “rescript,” that is, a written answer to a question in which the primary subject of the question is clarified.
The move is a step in bringing the procedures of the Vatican’s main court, called the Roman Rota, in line with the new marriage annulment process.
According to the rescript text, the entry into force of the new process, which aims “to bring justice and mercy on the truth of the bond to those who have experienced the failure of their marriage,” requires, among other things, “the need to harmonize the renewed procedures for marriage annulment with the regulations of the Roman Rota, awaiting their reform.”
The new laws, it said, are “intended precisely to show the Church’s closeness to wounded families, desiring that the many who experience matrimonial failure are reached by Christ’s healing work through ecclesiastical structures.”
Francis affirmed the Rota’s jurisdiction as the ordinary court of appeal of the Apostolic See, and assured that it remains the point of reference in “safeguarding the unity of the jurisprudence,” as was laid out by St. John Paul II in his 1988 apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus.
With these two points in mind, as well as the desire to contribute “to the continuing formation of pastoral workers in the Tribunals of the local Churches,” Francis decreed that the new laws on annulment cases “repeal or waive any contrary law or regulation currently in force.”
The rescript also states that Pope Pius XI’s Motu Proprio “Qua cura” on regional tribunals in Italy is canceled.
In the text, the Pope clarifies that cases which reach the Roman Rota will now be judged according an old Latin formula: “An constet de matrimonii nullitate, in casu,” roughly translating as “Is there proof of the nullity of marriage in the case of…”
Basically, the formula allows the Rota to grant an annulment even if the grounds for doing so weren’t the ones originally specified.
For example, a person might seek an annulment on the basis that one of the parties didn’t believe in marriage indissolubility, that is, the fact that marriage is a lifelong commitment.
The court could rule that while that point couldn’t be proven, the marriage was obviously null for another reason, such as coercion, and declare it so.
This formula was previously used by the Rota, allowing them to grant an annulment on those grounds, however during his pontificate John Paul II required the court to judge the case only on the grounds originally specified, meaning that the person or couple seeking an annulment had to start the process over if their original claim was unable to be proven.
Francis’ move, then, can be seen as a continued effort to reach out to the Church’s “most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love,” as he said in the rescript text in reference to the most recent Synod of Bishops on the Family, which placed special emphasis on reaching out to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Of particular importance in the process is the principle of “generic doubt,” under which an a marriage can be declared null when the case off nullity is obvious, even without any specific grounds declared.
In the rescript, Pope Francis also clarified that “there shall be no appeal” against the decisions made by the Rota in matters of the nullity of sentences or decrees.
Under the new procedures, a first judgment is always made by the diocesan tribunal. However, if one or both of the spouses seeking an annulment disagree with the ruling, they may appeal to the Rota for a second judgment.
In the rescript, Francis established that if a cause of nullity arrives to the third degree of judgment, it cannot be proposed again “after one of the parties has contracted a new canonical marriage, unless the decision can be demonstrated to be manifestly unjust.”
It was also declared that the Dean of the Rota, then, “has the authority to dispense with the Norms of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota in procedural matters for a serious cause.”
Another aspect of the rescript, expressing the explicit wish of Eastern Church leaders, is that their local tribunals will now have jurisdiction over the “iurium,” or “human rights” aspects of marriage annulment cases that come before the Rota for an appeal.
This is particularly relevant for churches in the Middle East, where numerous countries have no civil law on marriage cases, and often depend on religious courts. This means that when cases arrive to the Rota from these areas, the court will also judge on questions such as alimony and child custody.
In his final point in the rescript Francis says that the Rota must offer to all “the principal of evangelic gratuity,” meaning that those seeking the annulment won’t have to pay the lawyer for the cause, but that the costs will presumably be absorbed by the Rota itself.
However, the Pope did say that wealthier parties have a “moral obligation” to make “a just contribution towards the causes of the poor.”