VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ decision to establish a commission aimed at streamlining the annulment process is to be welcomed if the procedure is carried out properly, a professor of canon law has said.
“Making the procedure faster is not something bad; the real issue is to do things properly,” Luis Navarro, professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, told the Register.
On Sept. 20, the Vatican announced that, on Aug. 27, Pope Francis had established a commission to study reform of the annulment process. Chaired by Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota, the commission will “focus on the preparation of a proposal for reforming the marriage-annulment process, seeking to simplify and streamline the procedure, while safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of marriage.”
The Vatican has yet to give details on what the commission might decide, but observers say one option could be to scrap the current two-tier Church decision-making system on annulments, leaving just one tier in place, unless the annulment is contested by one of the spouses.
After one tribunal finds a supposed marriage to be null, the case must be sent to an appeals tribunal to affirm the decision — a so-called “mandatory appeal” or “second instance” — before it is official. If the second opinion is different from the first, the case must be referred to the dean of the Roman Rota.
“The main thing that can be improved is the second instance, to see if it’s always needed or not,” said Navarro. “There can be cases in which there’s no need for a second instance.” He added that this procedure can be changed “because it’s not divine law.”
Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, wrote in a Sept. 22 blog post that a mandatory appeal “seldom results in reversing affirmative decisions made in the first instance and amounts, therefore, in a many-month delay in completing cases for no obvious reason.”
“Besides,” he added, “if one does not trust the officers of the first instance to reach a sound result, why should one trust the officers of the second? While they sit on different cases, they are often the very same people.”
The proposed changes are also necessary because there are too few people well prepared to be fully effective in this area, according to Opus Dei Father Joaquin Llobell, also a professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
In addition, Father Llobell said it’s clearly not possible to identify the failure of a marriage with an annulment. “To prove that a marriage has broken down is very simple,” he said. “But it’s more complicated for an investigation to lead a court to ‘moral certainty’ over nullity.”
In an address to the Roman Rota in January, Pope Francis stressed the need for an ecclesiastical judge to show justice but also mercy and pastoral charity. He should be a “servant of justice, called to treat and judge the condition of the faithful who turn to him in trust, imitating the Good Shepherd, who takes care of the wounded sheep,” the Pope said. “Because of this, he is animated by pastoral charity, that charity that God has poured into our hearts.”
But it was Benedict XVI who first hinted at the need for reform to help those who may have entered into marriage without adequate awareness of the sacrament or were not in possession of an authentic faith.
In 2011, L’Osservatore Romano published some notes of Benedict XVI on the theme, in which he wrote: “Particularly painful is the situation of those who were married in [the] Church but were not really believers and did so because of tradition. Then, finding themselves in a new, invalid marriage, they convert, find the faith and feel excluded from the sacrament of the Eucharist.”
He added that this is “really a cause of great suffering, and when I was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I invited various episcopal conferences and experts to study this problem.”
The announcement of the new commission came amid preparations for the Oct. 5-19 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on “The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
One issue that had taken precedence prior to the synod is that of holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Some have suggested the Pope’s commission announcement may be one acceptable solution to the problem and an alternative to Cardinal Walter Kasper, who, according to Peters, appears to favor banishing the annulment process altogether.
But concerns remain that such a move, although acceptable to many, can make it seem as if the Church is making annulments easier and that the Church is “lowering the bar” at a time when marriage needs to be strengthened and upheld.
Navarro stressed he did not know what the commission will study or conclude. But he argued that “if a marriage is valid, you cannot say it’s invalid — that’s very clear, whatever procedure you use.” He added that any proposals of changes to the process that say there’s “going to be an answer in two days without studying the case, then, of course, that is wrong.”
“I am simply saying if the procedure can be done properly, there is nothing wrong with making it faster,” he said.
Members of the new commission headed by Msgr. Pinto will also include Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. Both are synod fathers for the Vatican synod on the family. Professor Llobell said, in view of this, it will “not be difficult to have a fruitful exchange of information and cooperation” on this issue during the Oct. 5-19 meeting.
In a recent interview with Catholic News Agency, Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, stressed that the Church has to have an “apt process” to establish whether or not a marriage has been null. And he rejected the view of having a so-called “pastoral process” instead, one in which “people simply tell their story to a priest,” who then makes the decision with regard to their reception of the sacraments. “How does that respect the truth of Our Lord’s teaching about marriage?” he said.
“The marriage-nullity process is the fruit of centuries of development and by various expert canonists, one of the great ones being Pope Benedict XIV,” the cardinal said. “For us now simply to say we don’t need that anymore is the height of pride and therefore foolishness.”