As reformed rules for marriage annulment cases came into effect, Pope Francis said the new norms are to be adhered to in order to help bring healing to failed marriages.
With the release of two papal documents in September, the pope rewrote a section of the Code of Canon Law with the aim of making the Catholic Church's marriage annulment process quicker and more pastorally sensitive.
"Things may be streamlined, but an annulment is a legal procedure for declaring a marriage null and void," said Father Daniel Jordan, judicial vicar and a Tribunal judge for the Diocese of Burlington, the office tasked with granting – or not granting – annulments. "Marriage is a sacrament; it's a serious, solemn commitment."
"An annulment is not a dissolution of a marriage, it is an examination by which an impediment may be evidenced. Example: a couple marry with one spouse having no intention to have children," Father Jordan explained.
It is essential for those who seek the assistance of the Tribunal that every effort is made to determine the truth relative to the marriage in question but that there are no guarantees of an affirmative decision being granted. Everyone must remember, especially priests and pastoral ministers working with individuals seeking an annulment, that the Church presumes the validity of each marriage and this presumption can only be overturned when the evidence allows the judge to reach moral certitude of the invalidity of the bond.
A juridical process is always necessary for making accurate judgments, and the new rules were not about promoting annulments, but rather about helping Catholic couples with the process so they would not be "oppressed by the shadow of doubt" for prolonged periods, he had said in the papal documents, "Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus" ("The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge") for the Latin-rite Church and "Mitis et misericors Iesus" ("The Meek and Merciful Jesus") for the Eastern Catholic churches. They went into effect Dec. 8, the opening day of the Year of Mercy.
According to Msgr. John McDermott, vicar general, moderator of the curia and a defender of the bond for the Diocese of Burlington, there has been some misunderstanding of the Holy Father's efforts to make the annulment process less cumbersome and time consuming. "Some have interpreted this action as the pope saying that people have a right to an annulment. Some people believe that Pope Francis has said that all they have to do is apply for an annulment and it will be given. This is not the case," he said. "No one has a right to an annulment, but everyone has the right to seek a determination of the validity of their marital bond in order to clarify their canonical status in the Church."
He said a disservice is done to individuals approaching the Tribunal if they are told that they will receive a declaration of nullity before the process has begun. "The formal process has been streamlined, but the proofs needed to overturn the validity of the bond remain and must make it clear that the exchange of marital consent was defective," Msgr. McDermott said.
Father Jordan – who works in the Tribunal office at the diocesan center in South Burlington on Thursdays – is pastor of St. Raphael Church in Poultney and St. Anne Church in Middletown Springs. He said some of the major annulment process changes are procedural so they might not be readily noticed by anyone other than Church workers. For example, in the past it might have taken at least a month to get permission to work on an annulment case from another diocese associated with the case. Now, the Burlington Tribunal can hear a case as long as the man and woman were married in the Diocese of Burlington, one of the parties lives here or a majority of the evidence is here.
Also, the requirement that ordinary cases automatically are reviewed by a second Tribunal – the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston in the case of Vermont – for a conforming decision has been discontinued, additionally streamlining the process.
Ordinary cases usually took 12-18 months to complete; Father Jordan expects with the new norms that the process may take less than 12 months.
There is now, too, a brief process that requires clear evidence from the outset of the "nullity" of the marriage and requires both ex-spouses to agree to seek the annulment. In these cases, the bishop is able to declare the marriage annulled.
These cases are expected to take a minimum of 120 days, Father Jordan said.
None of these briefer cases had been completed in the Diocese of Burlington as of Jan. 15.
The pope said the new norms were given to "carry out justice and mercy concerning the truth of the bond of those who experienced the failure of marriage" as well as to "harmonize" the updated procedures with the proper norms of the Roman Rota – a Vatican tribunal that mainly deals with marriage annulment cases.
The Diocese of Burlington completed and granted 54 annulments last year. In addition, 73 new cases were submitted during 2015 for examination.
The annulment process is meant to be a healing process, Father Jordan emphasized. "Divorce isn't an easy thing. It's horribly hard for a lot of people. I wouldn't minimize that."
The new procedures are easier for the petitioners, thus offering more pastoral sensitivity. And as a judge, Father Jordan hopes to help ex-spouses find "some sort of closure."
The pastoral outreach in the annulment process is most easily shared at the parish level, Msgr. McDermott said. "It is our hope that individuals seeking the assistance of the Tribunal are receiving support and counsel at the local level from their pastors and/ or other pastoral ministers. However, I believe that our Tribunal staff always treat those who seek our assistance with great respect and care. A number of people over the years have commented positively on their interactions with the Tribunal staff."
The Catholic Church has three basic processes that are used to assess the binding nature of a person's prior marital bond and to determine that person's freedom or lack thereof for any subsequent marital bond. The processes are called documentary cases, privilege cases and formal cases.
There are two basic types of documentary cases. The first is for circumstances in which a baptized Catholic, without obtaining dispensation from the Church to do so, exchanged marital consent in a setting outside of that which is required for Catholics by canon law (the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon, and two witnesses). These are called Lack of Form cases.
The second type of documentary case typically deals with situations in which one or both parties re considered not to have been free to enter marriage at the time of the wedding because he/she was still bound by a prior marital bond that had never been proven null. These are called Ligamen cases.
Privilege cases concern circumstances in which at least one of the parties to a marriage was not baptized. The granting of these dissolutions require proof of the lack of baptism on the part of one or both parties and proof that the person requesting the dissolution was not the primary cause of the breakdown of the relationship.
In formal cases, the focus of the investigation is centered on the period of time leading up to the wedding and seeks to discern the truth concerning the state of mind, intentions and capacity for consent, which each party possessed at the time of the wedding. Later developments in the couple's relationship may or may not shed light on these issues. The mere fact that a couple's marital relationship broke down is not proof that incapacitating or invalidating factors existed at the time of the wedding.
No new marriage date may be scheduled in any Catholic parish until the entire process is complete and a declaration of nullity has been granted.
The recent Synod of Bishops on the Family expressed "a strong call" for the Church to kneel before "its more fragile children, marked by a love that's wounded and gone astray" in order to restore confidence and hope, the pope said. "The laws that now go into effect aim precisely to show the Church's closeness to wounded families, desiring that the large number of those who experience the drama of a failed marriage be touched by the healing work of Christ" through the Church to then go on to be "new missionaries of God's mercy towards other brothers and sisters for the benefit of the institution of the family."
The new rules replace Canons 1671-1691 of the Code of Canon Law and Canons 1357-1377 of the Eastern code. The changes made by Pope Francis, particularly the responsibility and trust placed in local bishops, are the most substantial changes.
The norms include a set of procedural regulations outlining how the papal reforms are to take place, encouraging bishops in small dioceses to train personnel who can handle marriage cases and spelling out specific conditions when a bishop can issue a declaration of nullity after an abbreviated process.
Those conditions include: when it is clear one or both parties lacked the faith to give full consent to a Catholic marriage; when the woman had an abortion to prevent procreation; remaining in an extramarital relationship at the time of the wedding or immediately afterward; one partner hiding knowledge of infertility, a serious contagious disease, children from a previous union or a history of incarceration; and when physical violence was used to extort consent for the marriage.
Though some believe annulments to be costly, in Vermont there has been no charge for annulments since about 2007, according to Father Jordan: "Bishop (Salvatore R.) Matano (previous bishop of Burlington) and Bishop (Christopher J.) Coyne (current bishop), are very supportive of that."
The ministry of the Tribunal is supported by the annual Bishop's Fund.
"The Holy Father was asking for a reduction or elimination of fees as much as possible, and a number of diocese are going this way," Father Jordan said. "The financial status of an individual should not be an obstacle to seeking the assistance of the Tribunal."
Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff reporter, and Catholic News Service.