A member of the Vatican council charged with interpreting Church law says the increased role of bishops in the annulment process is a positive step that will ensure the procedure is done responsibly.
Placing a greater emphasis on the role of bishops “will strengthen, and not weaken, the purpose of the process,” Father Cuong Pham told CNA Sept. 9.
New changes to the annulment process were published yesterday, Sept. 8, in two motu proprio – or letters issued by the Pope “on his own initiative” – presented in news conference in the Vatican press office.
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.
Fr. Pham explained that bishops often rely heavily on others to do the work, and noted how many are not personally involved with the day-to-day process of their tribunal.
“By placing emphasis on their involvement and their role as chief judge of the local Church, the changes will help ensure that the rights of all are served with diligence.”
Fr. Pham is an official of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, whose work is focused on interpreting the laws of the Church.
The council’s president, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, was part of the special commission established by Pope Francis last year to simplify and streamline the nullification process while safeguarding the indissolubility of marriage.
In key changes, Pope Francis has declared the process free of charge and has dropped the mandatory appeal when once a first judgment on marriage nullity has been reached.
Now, only one judgment will be needed. However, in the case that it is appealed, the Pope said that appeals can be done in the nearest metropolitan diocese, rather than needing to go to Rome.
He is also allowing local bishops to make their own judgments on “evident” cases of marriage nullity, and has given them authority to form their own tribunal to process incoming cases.
The bishop can be the only judge in the case, or he can establish a three-member tribunal to oversee it. If a three-member tribunal is established, it must have at least one cleric, while the other two members can be laypersons.
In a brief introduction to the motu proprio, Pope Francis the Pope recognized that the streamlined process, particularly the new procedures surrounding the decisions made by bishops, could raise concern over the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage – meaning that marriage lasts forever and is incapable of being dissolved or undone.
“It has not escaped me how an abbreviated judgment might put the principle of indissolubility of marriage at risk,” he said.
“Indeed, because of this I wanted that in this process the judge would be composed of the bishop, so that the strength of his pastoral office is, with Peter, the best guarantee of Catholic unity in faith and discipline.”
The Pope also explained that he wanted to offer the new process to bishops so it can be “applied in cases in which the accused nullity of the marriage is sustained by particularly evident arguments.”
In his remarks, Fr. Pham said that allowing bishops to be judges of cases in their own dioceses is a way to clearly manifest the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on collegiality, hierarchical communion, and the proper relationship between pastors and the faithful while not taking away from the bishops’ prerogatives “in appointing suitable and qualified individuals to assist him in the task.”
However, he noted that some bishops might hesitate to get involved in the process due to the demands of their workload and a lack of experience in canon law.
“Naturally, the changes will cause much anxiety and uneasiness as a great number of our bishops are not canonists at all, besides being so overburdened with other responsibilities already in the Church,” he said.
On the other hand, the priest stressed that when the issues at hand become clearer and once they are given more concrete directives on how to implement the changes, “bishops will find these new structures to be quite helpful in addressing the urgent needs of many faithful today.”
The priest also pointed out that the exclusion of marriage indissolubility, meaning when one or both spouses do not believe marriage is an unbreakable, lifelong commitment, is always a ground for annulment.
Declaring the nullity of marriage therefore consists “in seeing if any of those conditions exists that may render the marriage null from the beginning,” he said.
He said it’s important to remember that the process “has to do with verifying, and not inventing, the eventual existence of any ground.”
“Consequently, the changes introduced do not alter the doctrine in any way, it is instead quintessentially pastoral in nature and consists in rendering the procedures for the declaration more quick and agile for the sake of the faithful who find themselves in such situations.”