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Changes to Annulment Process

On September 8, 2015, Pope Francis issued two new motu proprii amending canon law as it pertains to the procedure for a declaration of marriage nullity, often called the annulment process. The first, entitled Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, The Gentle Judge), was directed at the Latin Code of Canon Law. The second, entitled Mitis et misericors Iesus (The Gentle and Merciful Jesus), amended the text governing those Eastern Churches in full communion with the Roman Church. Both documents were signed by the pope on August 15. The changes addressed by the motu proprii will take effect on December 8, 2015, the opening date for the Jubilee Year of Mercy and the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

So what WILL change?

At the time of this report, the official English translations of the two motu proprii had yet to be released. However, the Latin and Italian versions indicate that the marriage annulment process will be streamlined. CNA/EWTN correspondent Elise Harris reported on September 8 from Vatican City that the reforms included the local bishop taking a more active role in hearing and deciding cases, dropping automatic appeals, and declaring the process free of charge.

This means, going forward, the local bishop can consider if certain evidentiary criteria has been met that allows him to judge the case according to the norms of the shorter process. In an interview with Catholic News Agency on September 9, Father Cuong Pham, an official of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, explained the added emphasis on the role of the bishop and his role as chief judge of the local Church “will help ensure that the rights of all are served with diligence.” Father Cuong also indicated the move manifests the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on collegiality, hierarchical communion, and the proper relationship between pastors and the faithful.

At the same time, bishops retain the authority to appoint suitable and qualified individuals to assist him. For example, the bishop has the option to establish a three-member tribunal consisting of at least one cleric to rule on a case rather than exercising his sole judgment.

Changes to the appeal process also will have a dramatic effect on the time it takes to process an annulment. In the past, once a decision was made on the nullity of a marriage, there was an automatic appeal to a local second instance court if a party or tribunal official had chosen not to appeal. This automatic appeal process has been blamed for unnecessarily delaying the annulment process. Beginning on December 8, this automatic appeal process will be eliminated, a move that many anticipate will substantially decrease the wait time for a decision. However, when an appeal of a case is deemed necessary, the appeal can still be made to the locally established second instance court or to the Roman Rota in Rome.

Finally, Pope Francis declared that the annulment process will now be free of charge. While this has been the case in many dioceses already, the motu proprii make this condition universally applicable.  

And what WILL NOT change?

In his introductory remarks, Pope Francis acknowledged these changes to the annulment process “might put the principle of indissolubility of marriage at risk.” However, he went on to note the possibility of this risk led to the decision that the local bishop take a more active role “so that the strength of this pastoral office is, with Peter, the best guarantee of Catholic unity in faith and discipline.”

In other words, the new annulment process doesn't change doctrine. The Church will continue to view marriage as a permanent union and an indissoluble bond.

Instead, the changes reflect the desire of last year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which called for a faster and more accessible process. In addition, Pope Francis indicated in the motu proprii that the new process resulted from the concern “for the salvation of souls” and that the adjustments called for “do not favor the nullifying of marriages but the promptness of the processes.” He continued by explaining the changes were also required due to the “enormous number of faithful who … too often are diverted from juridical structures of the Church due to physical or moral distance,” adding that “charity and mercy” require the Church as mother to draw close to her children.

Did you know?

A motu proprio (literally “of his own accord” or “on his own impulse”) is a document issued by the pope on his own initiative, that is, not on the advice of others and for reasons he himself deems sufficient, and personally signed by him. It can be addressed to the whole Church, to part of it, or to some individuals.

The first motu proprio was issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. The motu proprio is commonly used to establish institutions, to make minor changes to law or procedure, and to grant favors to persons or institutions.

What is an Annulment?

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an annulment, or declaration of nullity, does not really nullify anything. It is a declaration by a Church tribunal that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union. In other words, it does not deny that a relationship existed, but simply states that the relationship was missing something the Church requires for marriage.

Annulments - The Data

A  June 4, 2015 posting on Nineteen Sixty-four, a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, cited a CARA report on global trends in the Catholic Church from 1980 to 2012. The study revealed that Church marriages had declined by 34% in that period while the Catholic population grew globally by 57%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of annulments also fell by 43%, though the U.S. still claimed the lion’s share with 49% of the world total. (Note: in 1980 there were 85,606 new annulment cases introduced and 84% of these were from the Americas. However, nearly 80% of the world’s annulment cases introduced that year came from the United States.)