To be honest, I don’t have an especially impressive track record as a seer. In 1999, I published a biography of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger containing four reasons why he could never be elected pope, and he went on to serve eight eventful years as Benedict XVI.
Recently, however, I got one thing right. On Sept. 15, I published a piece under the headline, “Annulment reform a smart bet at looming Synod of Bishops.”
The forecast was based on the idea that making annulments faster and simpler would offer a natural compromise between those wanting to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back to Communion, and those opposed. It allows each group to address its core concern: defending the permanence of marriage, and showing compassion for those in broken relationships.
An annulment is a finding by a Church court that someone’s first union wasn’t a sacramental marriage, because it didn’t meet a test for validity such as psychological capacity to understand the requirements of marriage. If granted, an annulment allows someone to get married again in the Church.
On cue, here’s the language from the synod’s final document, in paragraph 48:
“A great number of synod fathers emphasized the need to make the procedure in cases of nullity more accessible and less time-consuming,” it says. It ticks off three possible reforms: eliminating the requirement of an appeal to Rome, allowing bishops to issue annulments without the need for a Church trial, and an even simpler procedure to be used in cases where the grounds for the annulment seem clear.
The document added that not everyone was wild about those specific proposals, but the clear sense was that some reform is coming.
The inevitability of an overhaul actually was confirmed before the synod began, when Francis created an 11-member commission to work on a simplification of annulment procedures led by Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota, the main canon law court in Rome dealing with marriage cases.
Momentum was bolstered again last week, when Pope Francis reiterated his call for reform in a speech to the Rota.
“There was concern for speeding up the procedure for reasons of justice,” he said. “How many people wait for years for a sentence!”
Francis said the Church has a duty to say to people: “Yes, it’s true, your marriage is null,” or “No, your marriage is valid.”
Given that change is now almost as certain as the rising of the sun, here are two observations about how things might play out.
More negative than positive?
While many advocates of reform take for granted that a faster, simpler, and cheaper system will result in substantially more annulments, that’s not necessarily the case. In Italy, for instance, traditionally two-thirds of requests for annulments have been denied.
One possible outcome of encouraging more people to apply, therefore, is a larger crop of negative verdicts.
As things go forward, forces in the Church concerned with defending the integrity of marriage will be vigilant as to how a revised process functions. Note, too, that Francis did not suggest in his Rota speech that anyone is entitled to an annulment. What he said is that they have a right to an answer.
Anyone who knows canon lawyers understands that most don’t play fast and loose with the marriage bond, or any other requirement of Church law. It’s thus not a slam-dunk that the effect of reform will be to bring the rest of the world in line with American practice, where 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population is responsible for two-thirds of the Church’s 60,000 annulments every year.
If the idea is to grant more annulments, in other words, it will have to be the result of a policy decision, because simply expanding the present system may not produce that outcome.
A Golden Age for canon law
Over the years, canon law — the system of laws and legal principles of the Church to regulate its organization and direct the activities of Catholics — has been a specialty for a fairly small circle of initiates. In seminaries, future priests get a basic overview, but only a very small number go on for advanced studies. The same is true of lay people involved in Church affairs. Most dioceses and religious orders have a full-time canonist or two at headquarters, precisely because no one else really understands how the system works.
The clerical sexual abuse scandals have, however, prompted revived interest in the Code of Canon Law, especially Book VI dealing with sanctions and penalties. At the moment, a Vatican commission is working on a revision of that section, with the idea of requiring bishops to make more frequent use of it when accusations of misconduct arise.
Now the annulment system looks poised for expansion, with both the pope and the synod calling for training more experts, both clergy and laity, who understand the requirements of the code and who can dispense advice to people moving through the process.
The upshot may be a greater perceived need for canon lawyers at the diocesan and parish level, higher enrollments in departments of canon law at Catholic universities, and greater demand for experts on the lecture circuit and in the media. (I’ll leave it to others to ponder the irony that a pope who routinely rails against legalism may be inspiring a renaissance in Church law.)
If you’re a young Catholic eager to be where the action is in the Church today, studying canon law might be a smart move.