Pope Francis continued his push to simplify the Catholic Church’s annulment process on Friday. In order to avoid procedural delays, the pontiff issued an edict restoring power to the Vatican’s main marriage court that had been restricted by St. John Paul II.
Experts caution, however, that the move won’t affect most people seeking annulments, since only a minority of cases end up on appeal in Rome. The new ruling is intended in large measure to bring the procedures of the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s main court, in line with a new law on annulments issued by Francis in August that took effect on Dec. 8.
Although around 50,000 annulment cases were introduced in Church courts worldwide in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, only a few hundred may ever reach the Rota, generally because one of the parties wants to challenge the result.
In the same ruling on Friday, Francis also made stipulations that experts believe could have practical impact in both Italy and the Middle East in terms of expediting the annulment process.
Under Catholic law, an “annulment” is a finding by a Church court that a sacramental marriage never existed because it didn’t meet one of the requirements for validity, such as informed consent.
Friday’s ruling, which came in the form of a “rescript,” specifies that cases are to be judged by the Rota according to a Latin formula that translates roughly as, “Is there evidence of the nullity of marriage in this case?”
Sources with knowledge of the Rota’s procedures, who spoke on background, told Crux that was the formula used by the court prior to 1994, which allowed it to grant an annulment even if the grounds for doing so weren’t the ones originally specified in the case under review.
For instance, someone may have sought an annulment on the grounds of coercion. The Rota could conclude that point hadn’t been proved, but that another test for invalidity had, such as willful exclusion of children.
Traditionally, the Rota was able to grant the annulment directly on those new grounds. John Paul II, however, required the Rota to assess only the grounds specified in the case, which meant the person seeking the annulment had to start the process again.
Observers say that decision reflected a desire in the 1980s and 1990s to tighten up the annulment process, as critics worried that making it too easy might undercut Church teaching on the permanence of marriage.
Francis’ restoration of the Rota’s flexibility in part appears intended to reach out to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, a major topic of conversation in both recent Synod of Bishops on the family.
Francis cited the synod’s final document in the opening of his rescript, saying the bishops wanted to do something for their “most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love,” in order to “restore trust and hope.”
In the opening section of Friday’s edict, Francis also specifies that his new laws on annulments supersede everything that came before it, including prior decrees of other popes applying to specific situations.
Experts say that’s mostly of importance in Italy, because new procedures issued by Francis place considerable importance on the role of the diocesan bishop. In Italy, however, Pope Pius XI removed jurisdiction over marriage cases from diocesan courts in 1938 and transferred it to regional tribunals, reflecting the situation in Italy at a time when there was no civil divorce and many dioceses didn’t have the resources to process complicated cases.
In effect, Francis has returned jurisdiction to the dioceses, meaning that Italian bishops may have to invest additional resources in developing their own courts.
Another element of the ruling specifies that, reflecting a desire of leaders of the Eastern churches, their courts will have jurisdiction over other elements of marriage cases that come before the Rota for a decision on an annulment.
That’s relevant in the Middle East, experts say, where many countries do not have civil law on marriage and rely on religious courts. The practical result is that when an annulment case reaches the Rota from the Middle East, a judge in Rome is sometimes also expected to handle questions such as division of property, alimony, and child custody.
Now those matters can be referred to a local Church court, which theoretically should speed up the process.
In its final point, Francis’ edict says that the Rota will judge cases on the basis of “evangelical gratuity,” basically meaning for free, although the pontiff also says that more affluent parties have a “moral obligation” to offer a “just contribution” to support the causes of the poor.
Observers say that probably won’t have a huge practical impact on the Rota, where cases from the Soviet bloc and Latin America already enjoyed a blanket exemption from fees, and where parties could always request a waiver if the costs imposed a burden.