Procedural Changes to the Annulment Process

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by Fr. Peter Mangum, Judicial Vicar

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has consistently encouraged the Church to be a welcoming and missionary community of faith which goes out to those who live on the fringes of our communities – physically as well as spiritually. There are many causes for varied degrees of separation from the Church; among them are the challenges that are encountered by those who have experienced divorce and would like to marry another.

Divorce in itself neither excommunicates nor deprives a person of the sacraments. If a Catholic divorces and remarries outside the Church, without an annulment, he/she is not to receive Holy Communion since the Church continues to recognize the bond of the first marriage even after a civil union has ended by divorce. In order for a divorced person to validly marry in the Catholic Church and remain properly disposed to receive the Sacraments, any previous marriage must be reviewed by the personnel in our Tribunal, a part of our Office of Canonical Affairs, who will guide the petition for annulment through the appropriate process for their particular situation. (The same process is used for a divorced and remarried person who wishes to enter the Church).

The Tribunal’s ministry, in this regard, is to determine whether or not serious factors or circumstances existed at the time of the wedding which would indicate that the union was lacking essential qualities that are necessary for the union to be recognized as valid in the eyes of the Church. If this is determined to be the case, an annulment may be granted. If the evidence is insufficient, however, the annulment must be declined. If an annulment is granted, that decision never affects the legitimacy of any children born of that legal union.

On September 8 of this year, Pope Francis issued an important document, reforming some procedures used for obtaining a declaration of nullity (i.e, annulment). This document, entitled Gentle Judge Lord Jesus (Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus) becomes effective on December 8, 2015, at the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The reforms are procedural, and do not touch upon the nature of marriage or related doctrinal matters. The Church continues to uphold the doctrine of indissolubility, namely, that marriage endures until the death of a spouse.

A person seeking an annulment must still fill out appropriate paper work, submit the petition to the Tribunal, and receive an affirmative decision before entering a second marriage (or before being received into the Catholic Church in the case of a remarried non-Catholic participating in the RCIA.) An ecclesiastical judge reviewing the annulment petition must still arrive at moral certainty before rendering a decision.

The reforms only change the process used to arrive at that moral certainty. As a result Pope Francis has not made it easier to get an annulment, but rather, potentially quicker to get an annulment.

Two of the changes made by Gentle Judge Lord Jesus will significantly impact those seeking a declaration of nullity here in the Diocese of Shreveport. The first eliminates the need for a second decision in favor of the nullity of the marriage in question. In other words, after December 8, an affirmative decision rendered by our tribunal will become executive, that is, final unless one of the parties or the defender of the bond feels aggrieved and appeals to a higher court.  As such an appeal is rare, this change alone should shorten the process by several months.

Second, Pope Francis has introduced a new shorter procedure which can be used when the following two criteria are met: 1) both parties are in favor of a declaration of nullity and 2) the circumstances manifestly suggest the nullity of the marriage and therefore do not require an involved investigation. This is the so-called “45-day annulment” which has received attention in the press. Based on cases received in the past, only about five to ten percent of the petitions presented would meet these two criteria.

Our Holy Father has also expressed a desire that annulment cases be of little or no direct cost to the parties of the case so that “and the church, showing herself to be a generous mother to the faithful in a matter so closely linked to the salvation of souls, might manifest the freely-given love of Christ by whom we all have been saved” (art. vi, unofficial translation).  With this in mind, Bishop Duca has graciously declared that cases submitted during the Jubilee Year of Mercy will not require the requested donation.  Meanwhile, please, be generous toward the Diocesan Appeal and your parish!

In the weeks before these new provisions take effect, our Tribunal has continued to process cases swiftly and has become fully prepared to implement the new procedures.  If you are interested in pursuing a declaration of nullity, please contact your pastor or our Tribunal, the Office of Canonical Services.  May we all come to know and trust our Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge.

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