VATICAN CITY — In investigating the validity of a marriage, ecclesial judges should consider whether the decision to marry was made in the context of values and faith, Pope Francis said on Friday.
Pope Francis opened the judicial year of the Roman Rota, the highest appellate tribunal of the Church, addressing them Jan. 23.
Among its competencies, the Rota is the highest appellate court for cases of the declaration of nullity of marriages, and this is why Pope Francis' address was a reflection on “the human and cultural context in which matrimonial intention is formed.”
In his speech, Pope Francis maintained that an understanding of the nature of marriage is a criterion by which to judge the validity of a marriage; asked for an increase of the number of canon lawyers available at local tribunals; and requested that the availability of services free of charge be increased.
In his address, Pope Francis stressed that “the crisis of values in society” is not a recent phenomenon, quoting Blessed Paul VI’s 1974 address opening the Rota’s judicial year, in which he said that modern man “at times, wounded by a systematic relativism that bends to the easiest choices of circumstance, of demagogy, of fashion, of passion, of hedonism, of selfishness, so that externally he attempts to dispute the mastery of the law, and internally, almost without realizing, substitutes the empire of moral conscience with the whim of psychological consciousness.”
Pope Francis added that, “in effect, the abandonment of the perspective of faith leads inexorably to a false understanding of marriage, which does not lie without consequences for the maturation of the nuptial will.”
He reflected that the Church is able “to rejoice in the many, many families who, sustained and nurtured by a sincere faith,” partake of the goods of marriage and participate in it with “fidelity and determination,” but he added that the Church also knows the pain of many families that “collapse, leaving behind the rubble of relations, projects, common expectations.”
A tribunal judge, Pope Francis said, “is required to perform his judicial analysis where there is doubt regarding the validity of marriage, to ascertain whether there was an original shortcoming in consent, either directly in terms of a defect in the validity of intention or a grave deficit in the understanding of marriage itself to the extent of determining will.”
‘Widespread Worldly Mentality’
The Pope made reference for the first of two times in his speech to Canon 1099 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that “error concerning the unity or indissolubility or sacramental dignity of marriage does not vitiate matrimonial consent, provided that it does not determine the will.”
He continued, saying, “The crisis in marriage, indeed, not infrequently, has at its root the crisis in knowledge enlightened by faith, or, rather, by adhesion to God and his plan of love realized in Jesus Christ.”
Pope Francis asserted that “pastoral experience teaches us there is today a large number of faithful in irregular situations, whose histories have been strongly influenced by the widespread worldly mentality,” citing his words in Evangelii Gaudium about “spiritual worldliness” as a temptation faced by pastoral workers.
“It is evident that, when people adopt this attitude, faith is deprived of its normative and orienting value and leaves open a space for compromises with selfishness and with the pressures of the current mentality, which has become dominant through the mass media.”
“Therefore, the judge, in evaluating the validity of the consent given, must take into account the context of values and faith — or their deficiency or absence — in which the marriage intent was formed.”
Again citing Canon 1099, he said “the lack of knowledge of the contents of faith may lead to what the code describes as an error determining the will.”
According to Pope Francis, this kind of error is not to be “deemed as exceptional as in the past, given the frequent prevalence of worldly thought over the magisterium of the Church.”
Such an error “threatens the stability of marriage, its exclusivity and its fecundity, as well as marriage’s orientation to the good of the other, of conjugal love as a ‘vital principle’ of the consensus, of mutual giving to establish a lifelong union,” Pope Francis stressed.
The Holy Father therefore exhorted the members of the Rota “to a greater and passionate diligence in your ministry, offered in the service of the protection of the unity of the jurisprudence of the Church.”
“Here, too, there is a need for pastoral conversion on the part of ecclesiastical structures, to be able to offer the opus iustitiae [work of justice] to all those who turn to the Church to shed light on their matrimonial situation,” he said, referring again to Evangelii Gaudium.
The Missionary Option
He made reference to Paragraph 27, in which he wrote, “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
“This is the great difficulty of your mission, along with judges in every diocese,” he told the members of the Rota — “not to keep the salvation of persons enclosed within the straits of legalism.”
“The function of law is guided toward the salus animarum [salvation of souls] on the condition that, avoiding sophisms distant from the living flesh of people in difficulty, it may help to establish the truth of the moment of consent: whether it was faithful to Christ or to the deceitful worldly mentality.”
Pope Francis also cited a 1973 address of Blessed Paul VI, in which he noted that the supreme goal of law is the salvation of souls.
Pope Francis also urged an increased presence of canon-law experts in every diocese to “counsel about a possible cause for a declaration of nullity” and for the presence of “stable court-appointed attorneys,” so that “real access for all the faithful to the justice of the Church’s justice” is assured.
He added, “I would like to underline that a significant number of cases dealt with before the Roman Rota are enabled by legal aid granted to those whose economic situation would not otherwise allow them to engage the services of lawyer.”
“This is a point I would like to stress,” he concluded: “Sacraments are free of charge. The sacraments give us grace. And marriage processes touch on the sacrament of marriage. How I would like all marriage processes to be free of charge!”
According to data, 53% of the processes adjudicated at the Rota are free, and the contribution to the expenses of the procedures consists in a onetime fee of $650.
Bishops’ conferences have also addressed the issue. The Italian bishops' conference, for example, has a defined payment structure for canon lawyers, who cannot be paid more than $3,610 or less than $1,870.
The possibility of lack of faith as a potential cause of nullity was also discussed by Benedict XVI.
In a 1998 paper, republished by L’Osservatore Romano on Nov. 30, 2011, Pope Francis’ predecessor also considered the possible expansion of the canonical recognition of the nullity of marriages celebrated “without faith” by at least one of the spouses, even if they are baptized.
And in his final address inaugurating the Rota’s judicial year, Benedict XVI said on Jan. 26, 2013, that “one must not … disregard the consideration that can arise in the cases in which, precisely because of the absence of faith, the good of the spouses is jeopardized, that is, excluded from the consent itself. … With these reflections, I certainly do not intend to suggest any facile automatism between the lack of faith and the invalidity of the matrimonial union, but, rather, to highlight how such a lack may, although not necessarily, also damage the goods of the marriage, since the reference to the natural order desired by God is inherent in the conjugal pact.”
In the same address, similarly to Pope Francis, Benedict had noted that “the principle that the salus animarum is the supreme law in the Church must indeed be borne in mind and every day must find in your work the strict respect that it merits.”