VATICAN CITY — Publication of Dignitas Connubii, a new instruction on annulment, will greatly aid the Church in promoting the true nature of marriage, said the head of the Vatican’s equivalent to the United States’ Department of Justice.

Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, said Dignitas Connubii (the dignity of marriage) will provide greater guidance for church tribunals.

The Church is clearly facing “a great pastoral challenge” regarding the sacrament, Cardinal Herranz said in a Feb. 16 interview. That challenge is particularly strong “in those cultures where hedonism and egotism seem to have the upper hand.”

Dignitas Connubii is the result of almost 10 years of work and exhaustive debates involving five offices of the Roman Curia. Called a “practical document” and a “handbook” for tribunal judges, it has been eagerly anticipated, especially in the United States and Canada where the number and proportion of annulments has risen sharply.

In 1968, the number of nullified marriages granted in the United States was 338. This is in striking contrast to 2002 when North American ecclesiastical courts issued 30,968 annulment decrees out of a world total of 56,236.

Teaching Document

Some canonists and bishops therefore hoped the document would tighten the requirements for annulments in the face of a deeply worrying trend. Others were hopeful that the document would speed up the annulment process, which many believe to be too lengthy. Both expectations, however, are unlikely to be fulfilled.

This is because the instruction is essentially a teaching document and a set of procedural norms; it creates no new laws. The Vatican’s primary aim with regard to the document is to help judges apply the principles of the Code of Canon Law adopted in 1983 and replace a previous 1936 instruction on annulments, Provida Mater, which reflected the provisions of the 1917 code.

However, there are some interesting additions and omissions to the text. What may be of particular interest to canonists is the document’s reference to the canonical principle of “conformity” in which two separate courts must rule in favor of an annulment, but only if they agree on the same point of law. Should that not be the case — for example, when one court favors an annulment on the grounds that the wife was insane, and another because the husband was impotent — then a third court would be required.

However, Dignitas Connubii instructs that an annulment can be granted without recourse to a third court even if the two decisions were based on different points of law (as long as they are rooted “in the same facts and the same proofs”). The instruction calls this “substantial conformity.” Some argue that this guideline might actually make annulments even easier to obtain.

In terms of preventing unnecessary delays and objections to the annulments process, the document aims to do this by giving more power to judges. To the disappointment of some bishops and canonists who wanted to see the process facilitated even more, the document has not incorporated two proposed reforms of a 2002 draft.

These changes would have dispensed with the testimony of third-party witnesses in order to prove the nullity of a marriage (proponents argue that proof is often hard to find in a marriage dating back many years). They also would have ended the need for a second court hearing in cases where both parties and the Church’s own canonist are in agreement.

Out of Control?

In sum, the instruction serves to “streamline” Church guidance on the procedure, but is unlikely to have an impact on the ever-growing number of annulments, according to one Rome canonist. This is a source of long-held frustration for some people involved in marriage tribunal work who see the annulments process as increasingly out of control.

One major problem, the canonist said, is that most tribunal judges and officials see the annulment process as a “healing” process as opposed to something “legal.” They are also answerable to bishops who, he said, are rarely willing to accept a negative decision and have thereby made tribunal courts “a rubber stamp.” They treat all negative decisions as “a failure,” he said.

This was a point recently highlighted by Pope John Paul II in a Jan. 20 address to the Roman Rota. Speaking on the subject of annulment, he called on judges to “abide by canonical laws,” stressing that Church law is equal to the Church’s magisterial teaching. Both, he said, have a binding force, and are not merely exhortative.

Cardinal Herranz stressed the responsibility of bishops to uphold the authority of the tribunal and not to entrust all the activity of tribunals to judicial vicars. But the problem, he said, has much to do with a “divorce mentality” that “mistakenly tries to equate a failed marriage with a null marriage and tries to manipulate the annulment process to sustain that view.”

Growing Secularism

Sister Sheila Richardson, director of a marriage tribunal in Charlotte, N.C., agreed that the root of the problem lies in society and the growing forces of secularism more than within the Church.

“We’ve been experiencing this cultural change for years,” she said. “It’s more a question of couples’ intentions when they marry.”

Many people get married, she continued, with the backdrop that divorce is readily available. “They hold these two ideas simultaneously — they want marriage for life but they also want to be able to divorce.”

Cardinal Herranz was also keen to emphasize that an annulment is not the same as a divorce. The former declares that a marriage never existed whereas the latter that recognizes the marriage as a failure.

“A declaration of marriage never breaks a true marital bond,” he said. “Rather, it is a determination, in the name of the Church, that such a bond never existed.”

However, this still leaves some deeply unsatisfied. “I don’t care if there are 50,000 annulments — the number doesn’t concern me,” said the Rome canonist. “What does concern me is that these annulments can be given when many of these marriages are still ontologically valid.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.