WHEN POPE John Paul II delivered his annual address to the Roman Rota earlier this year, his words echoed far beyond the confines of the Catholic Church's highest judicial court. But in no country, perhaps, will his observations on canon law in general—and on annulment cases in particular—have greater impact than in the United States where 80 percent of the world's annulments are granted.
Although they can hear almost any case arising under canon law, nearly all ecclesiastical tribunals, including the Roman Rota, hear only those alleging the nullity of marriage. It was no surprise, therefore, that most of John Paul II's comments to the Rota concerned annulment cases.
More than once in his remarks, the Pope affirmed that the Church's fundamental teachings on marriage apply to all Catholics in all cultures. But, touching on a matter of some controversy, the Pope also stated that it is the judge's responsibility to determine precisely how those teachings were incorporated by the actual parties to the marriage before him.
“It is never a case of bending the objective norm to the satisfaction of private subjects,” John Paul II said, “much less of interpreting or applying it in an arbitrary way&hellips; . [But] since the abstract law finds its application in individual, concrete circumstances, it is a task of great responsibility to evaluate the specific cases in their various aspects in order to determine whether and in what way they are governed by what the law envisages.”
Noting the multi-cultural mix among rotal officers, the Pope specifically called on canonical judges to look “beyond preconceived mental categories, which are perhaps valid in a given culture and a particular historical period, but which cannot be applied a priori always and everywhere in each particular case.”
Finally, John Paul borrowed a theme from Pope Pius XII and urged the entire rotal staff “to cultivate the same goals” in their important work, which both popes have identified as the discovery of objective truth in a case, that is, determining whether the bond of marriage in a particular case is valid or null.
More than once in his remarks, the Pope affirmed that the Church's fundamental teachings on marriage apply to all Catholics in all cultures.
Opinions will vary on the ultimate impact in the U.S. of John Paul II's 1996 rotal address for at least two reasons. First, canon law, unlike Anglo-American common law, does not give higher Church courts direct authority over lower courts (1983 CIC 16). Thus papal instructions to the Rota are not understood as automatically applying to diocesan courts.
Moreover, American tribunals are already clearly bound by canons which require the prompt hearing of all cases, including marriage nullity petitions (Canon 1453), and presumably needed little reminding on that point.
On the other hand, the Pope is the Pope and the Rota is the Rota; what transpires at those levels inevitably has an effect on canonical cases at lower levels of ecclesiastical judicature. Certainly the Pope's words on the importance of weighing cultural influences in assessing the merits of individual nullity petitions will ring true in the U.S. where demographic factors have long been thought to play important roles in marriage nullity cases.
For the thousands of laity involved in marriage nullity petitions, perhaps the most important lessons in the Pope's words are the following. First, those filing nullity petitions should know that, despite the recent surge in annulments numbers (to more than 60,000 annually in the United States), there is no automatic right to an annulment and each case must be heard on its own merits. Second, for those opposed to annulments or critical of the process by which the cases are heard, there is no automatic right to a negative sentence and the fact that an annulment might be declared in one or many cases is not a sign of laxity in Church law. Third, all those involved in annulment cases have a right to a reasonably prompt adjudication of the case in accord with canon law, lest, as the Pope says, uncertainty about one's status in the Church be unduly prolonged.
Dr. Edward Peters is director of canonical affairs for the Diocese of San Diego, Calif. His latest book, 100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments, is due out from Basilica Press this summer.