WASHINGTON — Ecclesiastical tribunals are an essential part of the Church’s saving mission; thus, changes to their procedures, including the annulment process, should be considered with great care, Cardinal Raymond Burke has said.
Understanding the Church’s tribunal system, Cardinal Burke said March 20, “requires an understanding of the service of canon law in general to the saving mission of the Church and its role in the Petrine ministry.”
Cardinal Burke is prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest tribunal court, which ensures the correct administration of justice in the Church, and he was delivering a lecture at The Catholic University of America.
Speaking to speculation over the possibility of changes to the annulment process, Cardinal Burke reinforced that the two-step annulment process “is not a mere matter of procedure, but that the process is essentially connected with the doctrinal truth” of the Church — which the current tribunal process helps to ensure.
During a Feb. 20 address to a consistory of cardinals on the family, Cardinal Walter Kasper had suggested that instead of questions of nullity being decided by a tribunal, perhaps “other more pastoral and spiritual procedures could also be possible. … As an alternative, one might think that the bishop could entrust this task to a priest.”
Speaking at Catholic University of America, Cardinal Burke explained “the necessity of canon law for the protection and promotion of the sacred realities which constitute our life in the Church, realities which include the rights and obligations of members of the Church.”
Referring to the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Blessed John Paul II, as well as the late pope’s writings about it, Cardinal Burke said these show that the Church is a “social and visible structure” and must therefore have norms governing it.
“The service of the Roman Curia, and therefore of the Apostolic Signatura, is intimately connected with the apostolic character of the Catholic Church … the salvation of souls.”
Because of this profound nature of tribunals, he said, any changes to the annulment process should “be studied by a commission of experts” and considered with great care.
Annulments are recognitions that what appeared to be marriages in fact were not; when a marriage is found to have been valid, couples are allowed to separate and seek a civil divorce, but remarriage within the Church is prohibited as long as one’s spouse is alive.
If a person has entered into a civil marriage after a divorce and without an annulment, that person is not allowed to receive Communion because he or her (first) marriage still exists, and the civil union is an extramarital living situation.
The Two-Court System
Catholics seeking an annulment must seek out a tribunal, generally located in their diocese, which makes a judgment on the case. A second tribunal then either confirms or denies the first tribunal’s judgment.
Explaining abuses that occurred before the two-court system was installed, Cardinal Burke warned that eliminating the requirement for a second judgment would lead to “grave damage.”
He continued, adding that the Apostolic Signatura has found that “the necessity of the double-conforming decision for an adequate process for the declaration of nullity of marriage is shown without any shadow of a doubt.”
Quoting Blessed John Paul II, Cardinal Burke warned that simplifying the process for procedural reasons would be a “false mercy, which is not concerned with the truth and therefore is not charity, which has as its only goal the salvation of souls.”
Any “further simplification of the process must respect its finality,” which is the “search for the truth.”
“It must be clear that the process in question is not a matter of procedure,” but that it is intimately “connected to doctrinal truth.”