For this series of teaching editorials, writers will focus on the “Francis Effect,” especially in light of recent issues that our Holy Father has addressed.
With the issuing of his “motu proprio” letter “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” (“The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge”), Pope Francis has introduced several significant changes in the procedural laws governing the process by which declarations of nullity are made. In so doing, the Holy Father has again captured the attention of a great number of people, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. These changes will no doubt improve the effectiveness of the annulment process when they go into effect on the first day of the upcoming “Year of Mercy,” on Dec. 8, 2015. Likewise, they demonstrate a deep concern for those who have experienced the pain of divorce.
It is important to note, however, that the changes introduced by Pope Francis affect the process by which decrees of nullity are made and not the content of our teaching regarding marriage. From the outset of the motu proprio, Pope Francis reiterates Catholic teaching regarding the essential elements and obligations of marriage: that it is a permanent and binding union open to life wherein the spouses mutually express and manifest the love of Christ.
Because the consent of the parties establishes marriage, the procedural laws regulating annulments establish a process aimed at discerning the content and capacity of the parties to offer valid consent. This process is an investigative one, conducted by an ecclesiastical tribunal. This investigation involves collecting all the pertinent documents related to the marriage (baptismal documents, marriage license, divorce decree, and so on) and gathering testimony from the parties and the witnesses they provide (usually family members and close friends) who can speak to their decision to marry. In short, we seek to gather all the things that could possibly shed light upon the consent of the parties concerning marriage. In the end, the testimony is collected and reviewed by a judge to determine whether the evidence supports that valid consent was in fact given. The changes introduced by Pope Francis relate specifically to this process of gathering and evaluating evidence.
Many people have asked the question: “why have these changes been made?” The answer to this question, in my estimation, is related principally to communication. Gathering evidence for an annulment case can be a burdensome process. Locating the necessary documentation, interviewing witnesses, and all that is required to gather the necessary information for the judge to render a decision can be time consuming. With recent technological improvements in communication, however, this process has become less burdensome. Not too many years ago, witnesses were required to make sometimes-lengthy journeys to be interviewed by tribunals, and mail was considered to be the only other reliable means of communication. With advancements in technology, however, a broader number of witnesses can now participate as far more convenient and efficient modes of communication have become available. Likewise, gathering documentation is typically far less cumbersome than in years past. In short, the majority of changes in procedural law instituted by Pope Francis have come about as a direct result of the enhanced communication and connectedness of people in the world today.
Beyond the practical advancements in technology that have made these changes in canon law possible, we shouldn’t lose sight of the pastoral outreach that these changes represent to those who make use of these church processes. Indeed, the focus of the world Synod of Bishops on the family, taking place this month in Rome, has as its primary focus the promotion of the family in the church, and in society in general. Such promotion involves fostering the ability of the Christian faithful to embrace more fully the life of the church.
For many, this entails participating in the annulment process to address former failed relationships.
The changes implemented by the Holy Father serve to make this process more accessible to those who need it. Also, we do well to remember that the law regarding annulments applies to the entire world, and not just to Catholics in the United States. The relaxation of some laws that require large numbers of personnel with very specialized training means that more dioceses in developing parts of the world will be able to raise a functioning tribunal. This, certainly, is good news to the millions of Catholics who live in areas where tribunals do not exist and for whom the annulment process simply is not available.
The Very Reverend R. Paul Beach, JCL
Archdiocese of Louisville