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Vatican: Pope Francis Reforms Marriage Annulment Process

Motu Proprio Shortens Process While Maintaining the Indissolubility of Marriage

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The Holy See released two Motu Proprio Apostolic Letters today written by Pope Francis that announce reforms to the canonical process of marriage annulment.

The Motu Proprio (Latin for “on one’s own initiative”) are entitled “Mitis ludex Dominus Iesus” (The Lord Jesus, Meek Judge) and “Mitis et misericors Iesus” (Meek and Merciful Jesus). The former details reforms on the canonical procedure for the annulment of marriage in the Code of Canon Law (CIC) while the latter explains the reforms in the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (CCEO).

The Apostolic Letter Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus states that in the history of the Church, the canonical process has been guided by the “supreme law of the salvation of souls.”

It is this concern for the salvation of souls, Pope Francis stated, that moved him to present to local Bishops the new reforms “because they share with him the task of the Church, that is, to protect the unity in faith and discipline regarding marriage, foundation and origin of the Christian family.”

In a press conference today at the Holy See Press Conference, the reforms were presented by a panel which included Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota and President of the Special Commission for the Reform of the Marriage Canonical Process, and Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Text and member of the Special Commissions. Several other members of the commission were also present at the press conference.

Msgr. Pinto noted the significance of the reforms, which is only the third in the Church’s history. The first was introduced by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741 and the second in 1908 by Pope Pius X. He also noted that Pope Francis wished to place more trust in the diocesan bishops, “calling on them to be servants along with him.”

“[Pope Francis] is a pope who came after the Second Vatican Council and is faithful to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council,” he said.

The reforms, while leaving the sacramental theology on marriage intact, streamlines the process for seeking an annulment and gives more authority to local bishops to decide cases rather than having to wait for lengthy appeals. The Pope also called on bishops to make the annulment process free of charge. Prior to the reforms, the declaration of nullity had to come from two different tribunals and required an automatic appeal. The Holy Father removed the automatic appeal but maintained the right of one of the two parties to appeal a decision on the nullity of marriage.

In an article published today by L’Osservatore Romano, Msgr. Pinto stated that “Pope Francis’ reforms, moved by the same spirit that sustained Benedict XIV and Pius X, is distinguished not only for a true refoundation of the canonical marriage process, but above all for the theological and ecclesiological principles that sustain it.”

Criteria of Annulment Reforms

The seven major criteria that guided the reform process are:

  • That there be only one sentence in favor of executive nullity

  • A single judge under the responsibility of the Bishop

  • The Bishop is judge

  • Increased brevity in the legal process

  • Appeal to the Metropolitan See

  • The proper role of the Bishops’ Conferences

  • Appeal to the Apostolic See

The second Motu Propio, “Mitis et misericors Iesus”, states the same reforms but is directed to the Eastern Church, who although are in communion with Rome, have a slightly different annulment process.

Bishop Dimitros Salachas, Apostolic Exarch of the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church, noted that the Holy Father’s reasons for issuing two Motu Propio was respect, saying that the Eastern and Western Churches are the two lungs of the Church: “one faith with different perspectives.”

* * *

Below is a Vatican Radio translation of the criteria for reforms cited by Pope Francis in his Motu Proprio, “Mitis ludex Dominus Iesus”:

  1. That there be only one sentence in favor of executive nullity – It appeared opportune, in the first place, that there no longer be required a twofold decision in favor of marital nullity, in order that the parties be admitted to new canonically valid marriages: the moral certainty reached by the first judge according to law should be sufficient.

  2. A single judge under the responsibility of the Bishop – The constitution of a single judge in the first instance, who shall always be a cleric, is placed under the responsibility of the Bishop, who, in the pastoral exercise of his own proper judicial power shall guarantee that no laxity be indulged in this matter.

  3. The Bishop is judge – In order that the teaching of the II Vatican Council be finally translated into practice in an area of great importance, the decision was made to make evident the fact that the Bishop is, in his Church – of which he is constituted pastor and head – is by that same constitution judge among the faithful entrusted to him. It is desired that, in Dioceses both great and small, the Bishop himself should offer a sign of the conversion of ecclesiastical structures, and not leave the judicial function completely delegated to the offices of the diocesan curia, as far as matters pertaining to marriage are concerned.

  4. Increased brevity in the legal process – In fact, beyond making the marriage annulment process more agile, a briefer form of trying nullity cases has been designed – in addition to the documentary process already approved and in use – which is to be applied in cases in which the accusation of marital nullity is supported by particularly evident arguments. In any case, the extent to which an abbreviated process of judgment might put the principle of the indissolubility of marriage at risk, did not escape me [writes Pope Francis – ed.]: thus, I have desired that, in such cases the Bishop himself shall be constituted judge, who, by force of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline.

  5. Appeal to the Metropolitan See – It is fitting that the appeal to the Metropolitan See be re-introduced, since that office of headship of an Ecclesiastical province, stably in place through the centuries, is a distinctive sign of the synodality of the Church.

  6. The proper role of the Bishops’ Conferences – The Bishops’ Conferences, which must be driven above all by the anxious apostolic desire to reach the far-off faithful, should formally recognize the duty to share the aforesaid conversion, and respect absolutely the right of the Bishops to organize judicial power each within his own particular Church.

  7. Appeal to the Apostolic See – It is fitting that the appeal to the ordinary Tribunal of the Apostolic See, i.e. the Roman Rota, be maintained: this, in respect of a most ancient juridical principle, so that the bond between the See of Peter and the particular Churches be reinforced – having care, in any case, in the discipline of the use of said appeal, to contain any and all abuse of right, in order that the salvation of souls be given no cause for harm.

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Junno Arocho Esteves

Newark, New Jersey, USA Bachelor of Science degree in Diplomacy and International Relations.

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