PopeWatch: Catholic Divorce

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Father Z is disturbed by the changes ordered by the Pope yesterday for a declaration of nullity of a marriage:

Today we received the texts of the two Letters Motu Proprio from His Holiness Pope Francis which change the Codes of Canon Law concerning the procedures for declarations of nullity for both the Latin and the Eastern Church.  The texts are in Latin and Italian only right now.

Remember, we put “annulments” in “…”, because the Church doesn’t annul.  The Church determines, with moral certainty (we hope and pray) that there wasn’t a marriage bond, that it was always null.  So, properly, we talk about declarations of nullity, not “annulments”, though in shorthand and common parlance we resort to the inaccurate term.

After reading through the new rules and after reading the interventions of the presenters at the presser this morning, and after talking with two trusted canonists by phone and after reading a few reactions online, I have to take seriously the summation point made by the canonist Kurt Martens, professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America. He was cited in today’s WaPo.

Martens said that essentially the Church is providing a path that looks like the Catholic version of no-fault divorce.

In a nutshell, it is now possible to reduce the number of full judges in a tribunal to one cleric with the assistance of some lay people, who can now be in the majority. Diocesan bishops are encouraged by the new procedures to look at cases themselves (which would mean that – in their copious free time – bishops who aren’t canonists may be in over their heads and will have to rely on experts anyway… like a judicial vicar). Fees will be reduced (what do you want to bet the Rota will find a way to charge). There will be a streamlined procedure for ex-couples who are in agreement and where the situation seems evident (which is rare, because though a case might seem evident on the surface, all sorts of things can come out in the process) to take 30-45 days (and how that will work in cases when expert testimony is needed as in claims of psychological incapacity I can only guess). And, most troubling, the requirement of a conforming opinion of another tribunal is eliminated. There can still be appeals, etc.  Some Metropolitan sees will have to appeal to senior suffragan sees.

The elimination of the necessity of a second conforming judgment from a different tribunal will probably result in almost no submission of opinions to different tribunals.

It looks a lot like a return to the norms that were in place in the 70’s in these USA, which were catastrophic, and “annulments” were being handed out like aspirin to brides with headaches on their wedding days.

One canonist suggested to me that this reflects the personal frustration of Papa Bergoglio who, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, had to cope with seriously flawed tribunals in his region. One of the men on the commission was, I believe, his former judicial vicar.

It strikes me that, with rumors of the changes and the reduction of fees, cases (some frivolous) will multiply, thus driving up costs to the tribunals… to be offset … how?  I suspect tribunals will need more personnel.

Time to digest this is needed, but this seems like another antinomian blow leveled at Roman centralism.  I’ll add that we learned by watching Protestant chaos what happens when there is no oversight from an authority.

Justice has a deliberative nature to thwart corruption and arrive at the truth of cases, rather than a predetermined result.  This is why the Church developed over the centuries certain procedures.

Back to Martens in WaPo for a moment:

The changes move the church away from a set of 18th-century safeguards meant to make sure that the annulment process wasn’t subject to abuse, Martens said. Those changes, set up by Pope Benedict XIV, included a provision that would require a mandatory appeal of the lower court’s decision.

“What guarantee do you have for a fair trial if you take away those guarantees that were put in the past?” Martens said. “Sometimes you want to go so quickly, you miss elements and make mistakes. Procedure law takes time to unfold.”

Martens said the way Francis changed the annulment process was unusual, because he did not go through the Synod on the Family, as expected, in October. [It takes some things off the table for the Synod, which explains something of the timing of this.]

“If I were a bishop, I would be upset,” Martens said. “It’s a bit strange and even a sign of contradiction that a pope who is big on consultation and collegiality seems to forget that on something like this. It’s highly unusual for legislation like this to get through that way.”

Not to mention that this will create horrific work and pressure for bishops.

This all goes into effect 8 December.   That probably means that cases which are in limbo between tribunals with different judgments will have to still be sorted.

It could be worse, I guess.  They could have eviscerated the Defender of the Bond.

Go here to read the rest.  When this Pope talks about mercy, usually someone or some group not favored by the Pope is going to get kicked in the teeth.  In this case it is Catholics in troubled marriages who believe that the words of Christ actually amounted to something more than hot air.  Oh, and the baloney about how the Pope is all about decentralization and working with his brother bishops?  We can see how much that matters when the Pope really wants to do something.  The Catholic Church still teaches that Christ meant what He said, but now in practice the Church is acting as if Christ had His fingers crossed.  Well, at least the Pope isn’t backtracking on something really of importance to the contemporary Church, like global warming.


More to explorer

PopeWatch: Vigano

Archbishop Carlo Vigano has some questions about the Vatican Dog and Pony Sex Abuse Summit:   I am praying intensely for the


  1. The tiing of the Motu Proprio is somewhat disconcerting as this post notes. I would have thoguht that these would have been issued after the Synod on the Family and in a different form, one deonstrating collegiality. But this issuance is what a typical Marxist Peronist would do. I think that by doing this the Pontiff is telling the Synod fathers what he wants them to do.

  2. How active have Defenders of the Bond been in recent years? One can never know since it is rightly a private process but from the outside decrees of nullity seem to go more to those who know the right things to say while those, perhaps equally worthy, but not in the know go without.

    Btw, I saw a piece whic I cannot find now “Think of the Lawyers!”. It looks like canon lawyers will be completely cut out of the new process.

  3. “Remember, we put “annulments” in “…”, because the Church doesn’t annul. The Church determines, with moral certainty (we hope and pray) that there wasn’t a marriage bond, that it was always null. So, properly, we talk about declarations of nullity, not “annulments”, though in shorthand and common parlance we resort to the inaccurate term.”

    This is so well said bringing clarity to the situation and to people’s lives. When people turn to God with all their hearts in the Sacrament of Penance, trusting in God, even null marriages will be healed. This requires good will.

  4. Ed Peters in a second look at the new changes sees a problem with agreeing spouses getting fast track treatment as though their agreement had any bearing at all on the truth of what should be a judgement by someone else:

    ” First, New Canon 1683 n. 1 declares eligible for expedited processing petitions that are presented by both parties to the marriage or by one party but with the “consent” of the other. This provision is unsettling.

    If the older canonical tradition wrongly assumed that a respondent necessarily opposed an annulment, this new norm wrongly, I think, makes relevant a respondent’s “consent” to an annulment petition. While a respondent’s participation in the tribunal process is always sought and is usually helpful in adjudicating marriage cases, his or her consent to a nullity petition is never necessary for the Church to exercise jurisdiction over a case and, more to the point, it is not indicative of the merits of the petition. Making mutual agreement to a petition an element of hearing that petition quickly risks confusing two things that the Church has long sought to distinguish, namely, the parties’ laudable cooperation with the tribunal’s search for truth and their collusion with each other toward a specific outcome. Treating nullity petitions in which the parties agree radically differently from those wherein they disagree, sends a dubious message.”

  5. I know a couple of folks who were entered a marriage that was…. we’ll just say “very different from what the Church recognizes,” and they were denied recognition of nullity; in all of those cases, it drove the people away from the Church. One was my husband’s godparent, and is now a rather strident opponent of all things Catholic.
    The only person I know who did get one is an aunt whose husband was so abusive he bounced her face off the bumper of their car after dinner with her folks, and even that is probably largely because she’s that stubborn, she had family support, and he was that bad.
    This might be bad; on the other hand, it may be a recognition of how incredibly broken our marriage formation environment is.

  6. From the few translated excerpts published in our diocesan paper, I’m looking forward to the release on 15 SEPT of “11 Cardinals on Marriage and Family”. It appears that their essays are not in the Cardinal Kasper mode.
    Contributing Dutch Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk of Utrecht, who was elected to the synod, said it is neither pastoral nor merciful for the Church’s ministers to pretend that without an annulment a civil remarriage is anything other than “a form of structured and institutionalized adultery.”

  7. The cardinals also admit that most marriage prep has been abysmal and stress the need for better education on the marriage vocation and the meaning of vows.

    With more homosexuals feelings less stigma about coming out of the closet, hopefully there will be fewer marriages wherein the double gated partner married for cover.

  8. “It looks a lot like a return to the norms that were in place in the 70’s in these USA, which were catastrophic, and “annulments” were being handed out like aspirin to brides with headaches on their wedding days.”

    As a Protestant in the past, These type situations gave me reason to mock & belittle the Catholic Church.

  9. The real protection against abuse of the process is Can. 1643 “Cases concerning the status of persons, including cases concerning the separation of spouses, never become res iudicata.”
    It is pointless to employ fraud or collusion to obtain a decision that can always be revisited.

    Thus, a subsequent spouse can always seek to reverse a declarator of nullity and set up the first marriage as an impediment to the second.

  10. With more homosexuals feelings less stigma about coming out of the closet, hopefully there will be fewer marriages wherein the double gated partner married for cover.

    That’s never been a common problem.

  11. It may or may not be common; however, statistics are no comfort if you are the one in such a marriage. It can have a devastating effect on the straight spouse and children. My ex sister-in-law is bisexual, but she was also a bigamist so bigamy was the public reason. I am also aware of one lesbian and two homosexual cases in long term marriages. Until very recently coming out could cost their job, their security clearance and their retirement and for that reason couples either were in misery or quietly divorced on different grounds rather than seek an anullment.

  12. >>>This pontificate is one long series of Chinese curses. We have not seen the worst of it I’m sure.>>>
    Nope. October is coming.

  13. CAM, you have a strange circle of acquaintances. And people are quite capable of being ‘in misery’ in middle age for all manner of reasons, without regard to whether disordered sexual impulses are present.

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