VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has implemented sweeping reforms to streamline the process of the declaration of nullity, making it easier, quicker and cheaper for the faithful to have their marriages annulled.

In two apostolic letters, issued motu proprio (on the Pope’s own initiative) Sept. 8, Francis decreed that declarations of nullity will require approval by only one Church tribunal, rather than two. Until now, any declaration of nullity granted by a Church court has had to be automatically reviewed by another group of judges.

An appeal will still be possible, but one of the parties must request it — a simplification used in the United States from 1970 to 1983, but with unsatisfactory results. In a further significant reform, the bishop will now ultimately be the judge of the first and only instance, unless one party appeals.

The apostolic letters, entitled Mitis Iudex, Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge) and Mitis et Misericors Iesus (Jesus, Meek and Merciful), respectively reform the canonical processes for the causes of declaration of nullity of marriage in the Code of Canon Law (Latin rite) and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (Eastern rite). Both documents are practically the same, with the main difference being that, instead of bishops, Mitis et Misericors Iesu refers to patriarchs and eparchies. At press time, the documents had been published in Italian and Latin only.

The new procedures, drawn up by a commission Francis instituted in August 2014, are to be introduced for the most straightforward cases, and access to hearings will not cost anything, the apostolic letters state.

For cases where the invalidity of a marriage is especially strong and both parties wish to have their marriage annulled, the local bishop will be able to grant a “fast-track” annulment in less than two months (the normal length of time in the U.S. has been around one year).

Recalling that the power of the keys entrusted to Peter the Apostle enables his successors to “bind and loose” the Church’s work of justice and truth, Pope Francis stressed in the apostolic letters that the Church must strive to communicate divine grace for the good of the faithful.

“Aware of this, I decided to put my hand to the reform of the process of nullity of marriage,” the Pope wrote, adding that he set up a commission to draft such reform.


‘Speed’ and ‘Just Simplicity’

The new procedures, he added, are “fed by the enormous numbers of the faithful who [are] too often alienated from the juridical structures of the Church.” He said the reforms are aimed at “speed” and a “just simplicity,” so that “the heart[s] of the faithful who await the clarification of their own state not be long oppressed by the darkness of doubt.”

The Pope went on to say that his reforms follow in the footsteps of his predecessors, who wanted causes of nullity to be treated through “judicial and not administrative” structures, in order to give maximum protection of the “sacred bond.”

Under the new procedures, a single judge will act under the responsibility of the bishop, but it is the bishop — “the guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline” — who will exercise pastoral care to ensure there is no indulging in any laxity, the apostolic letter states.

The Pope also said it is appropriate that appeals be restored to metropolitan sees, since this office of the head of the ecclesiastical province, “stable throughout the centuries, is a distinctive sign of the synodality of the Church.” He also laid emphasis on the importance of bishops’ conferences, which should, “above all, be driven by apostolic eagerness to reach the lost faithful” and must respect “the right of bishops to organize judicial power, each within his own particular Church.”

The Pope added in the letter that the episcopal conferences have a duty to ensure “the processes are free, since the Church, in a matter so closely linked to the salvation of souls, demonstrates the gratuitous love of Christ by which we have all been saved.”

The apostolic letter underlined that appeals are still to be made to the Roman Rota, the Church’s highest appeals court, so that “the bond between the See of Peter and particular churches be strengthened.”

Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota and head of the papal commission for annulment reform, told journalists it was Benedict XIV who introduced the necessity of two “instances” for annulments three centuries ago and that the new rules will supersede that procedure.

The reforms come into force on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the opening of the Year of Mercy. Father Pinto noted the Marian dates linked to the reform: The motu proprio were signed by Francis on Aug. 15, the Assumption, and presented on the feast of the Nativity of Mary.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and a member of the papal commission on annulment reform, stressed that the reforms concern the “canonical process for the declaration of nullity” and are not “a process leading to the annulment of marriage.” 

Archbishop Luis Francesco Ladaria Ferrer, secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pointed to the first paragraph of the apostolic letter, in which the Pope says the authority of pastors of particular churches is reinforced. “The power of the keys of Peter remains unchanged,” he maintained. “Also, in this process, the appeal to the Apostolic See is open to everyone, because it confirms the link between the See of Peter and the particular churches.”


Possible Logistical Burdens

Canonist Marc Balestrieri, president and senior canonical counsel for Plymouth, Minn.-based Canonical Aid, Inc. and a former official of the Roman Rota, told the Register that the modifications “are significant” because the reforms “dramatically” curtail the time required for the “judicial processes of nullity to become legally effective.”

But he added that the new procedures “risk creating added logistical burdens for the local diocesan bishop to handle” if he accepts the newly created “more-rapid process.”

Balestrieri noted there is “some attempt” to balance the Pope’s innovations with past papal allocutions, such as underlining the “moral certitude required for a judge to prove nullity of marriage” and that it be constituted “solely by proof beyond any positive and probable doubt of the nullity of the marriage.”

But the move to let bishops adjudicate cases personally is of some concern to critics, who argue that not all bishops have specialized knowledge of canon law. They may also not be wholly impartial, the critics point out, and the faithful may be perplexed (and a bishop’s authority possibly undermined), should an appellate court reverse a local bishop’s first-instance decision.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, opposed streamlining annulments and doing away with the second instance. In his contribution in the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ, which focused on this subject, the U.S. cardinal said that, in the judicial process for the declaration of nullity, it is “essential to the discovery of the truth” that what appeared to be “true marriage consent was, in fact, null.”

“Given the complexity of human nature and its reflection in most cases of marriage nullity, the only way in which to know, with moral certitude, the truth about such a claim is the dialectic that the judicial process provides, and that has been carefully articulated and developed in the history of the Church’s discipline.”

He wrote that, from the “rich experience of the Apostolic Signatura,” the necessity of the double-conforming decision (two judgments) for an adequate process for the declaration of nullity of marriage “is shown without any shadow of doubt.” He added that, just by studying the annual reports of the tribunals, the “wisdom and importance” of the double sentences “is more than evident.”   


Surprising Timing

Although a majority consensus of synod fathers supported streamlining the process of declarations of nullity during the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family last year, observers were surprised that the Pope took the decision to announce the reform one month ahead of the ordinary synod, due to take place in October.

Father Pinto told the Register that the decision was a unilateral one, taken by the Pope, who is free to do as he wishes. “The Pope is the Pope,” he said.

Some critics also wondered why the press conference was announced only 24 hours before it took place — usually such events are given nearly a week’s notice — and why the embargoed texts of the apostolic letters were, also unusually, not posted online prior to Tuesday’s release.

Reflecting on the reforms, Francis insisted the reforms have been made out of “concern for the salvation of souls.”

“Today as yesterday,” he wrote, “remains the supreme objective of the institutions and laws — and drives the Bishop of Rome to offer to the bishops this reform document, insofar as they share with him the task of the Church to protect unity in faith and in discipline regarding marriage, the cornerstone and origin of the Christian family.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.