New 'Fast-Track Annulments' May Be Rarer Than Expected

Dioceses across the United States have been bombarded with questions about the annulment news from the Rome.  

In short order, the Diocese of Madison, Wis. has already released a very timely document (Frequently Asked Questions Re: Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesusthat should prove helpful to Catholics seeking an annulment and Church leaders concerned about setting realistic expectations. Naturally, other dioceses will be issuing their own guidance that may well conflict with aspects of this document.

Here's how the diocese handles the so-called 'fast-track annulment process' that has stirred up a furor among some canonists, but also generated excitement among couples hoping to circumvent what can be a drawn-out process:

Who qualifies for the shorter process?

Answer: The shorter process is designed only for those rare cases when it can be employed without injustice. Three strict qualifications have to be met. (1) Both spouses have to petition for it together, or if not, then the other party must at least consent to it. (2) The nullity of the marriage must be manifest. Most marriage nullity cases deal with a defect in marital consent, i.e., with an invisible, internal act of the will placed by the spouses, often several years prior. Clearly, it would be exceptional for such a defect to be patently obvious today. (3) All the facts that make the marriage manifestly null have to be readily available. Unlike the documentary process, the shorter process can involve the questioning of both parties and knowledgeable witnesses, but this is to be done all in one session when possible. In general, the first criterion is not uncommon, but the second and third are both rare, especially in conjunction. The fact that the diocesan bishop has to oversee the process personally is an indication of just how rare and exceptional Pope Francis envisions the shorter process to be.

Do I qualify for the shorter process?

Answer: Statistically speaking, probably not. Based on a cursory review of the cases heard since 2012 (about two hundred cases in all), well over half eventually received an affirmative, but only three or four appeared in retrospect to meet the qualifications for the use of the shorter process. If your case is pending and the tribunal has not already contacted you about the possibility of the shorter process, it means you don’t appear to qualify. In any case, no one needs to be overly anxious to qualify for the shorter process: as it is, the cases that would qualify for the shorter process are already the cases that are completed the fastest, and qualifying for the shorter process is no guarantee of an eventual declaration of nullity.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canon Law Society of America and the Holy See are all expected to provide additional clarification. After that, as one canonist told me, "It will be up to the local bishop" to maintain the integrity of the annulment process.

You can find the Diocese of Madison's Q&A here.