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Annulments: What is really changing?

September 24, 2015
Msgr. Michael Padazinski

On Sept. 8, 2015, Pope Francis issued “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” (“The Lord Jesus, Gentle Judge,”) a document revising the marriage nullity process. The mass media, including even some Catholic news outlets, have reported a great deal of misinformation about the changes. What follows is a reflection on the new legislation in question-and-answer form that was composed mainly by a fellow canonist in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. I have adapted parts of this series to fit our local circumstances. It is my hope that this will help to clarify some misinformation about the new legislation while reassuring the faithful of the Archdiocese of San Francisco that our own metropolitan tribunal, which is comprised of wonderful canonists and other canonical officials, will do all it can to ensure the proper, just and timely implementation of these new norms governing our universal church.

It is important to state at the outset, that there are still questions abounding among canonists and what follows will hopefully be of assistance to any who are interested in the new laws regulating the marriage nullity process while acknowledging that further guidance from Rome to assist local tribunals with the new praxis is anticipated.


1. What is the marriage nullity process and why does it exist?

Jesus taught that marriage is indissoluble. Once people get married, they are married until one of them dies, even if they someday separate, justifiably or otherwise. Since they remain married for life, if one of them goes on to live in the manner of husband and wife with someone else, then he or she is living in an ongoing state of adultery. A married person’s vocation is to lifelong fidelity to the marital covenant, even when (in cases of abandonment or necessary separation) that means living as though celibate. Christ knew our human nature and he knew that this was a hard teaching. He was already challenged and ridiculed for it in his own time, but he did not back down from it one bit.

With that being said, there are certain marriages that are invalid from the start. They have the outward appearance of a marriage and are usually entered into in good faith, but because of some impediment, some defect of consent, or some problem in the form of the marriage celebration, they are never really marriages at all. If there was really no marriage at all, and if that fact is publicly proven, then those two parties are free to marry someone else. The Church and society as a whole have the responsibility to uphold and support couples in their marriage vows even when (especially when) one or both of them no longer want to be married, which is why there has to be proof of nullity before a new marriage could be recognized.

The spouses themselves, let alone one of them, cannot simply decide privately that the marriage is invalid and that they are free to move on. The marriage nullity process is a judicial process developed over the centuries to allow people who believe that their marriage was invalid to attempt to prove that fact, all the while safeguarding the rights of both parties and upholding the dignity and indissolubility of marriage. A declaration of nullity does not and cannot dissolve an existing marriage; rather it is an official declaration by the Church that it has been proven with moral certitude (more than beyond a reasonable doubt) that a given marriage was invalid from the start. When a marriage is actually invalid, declaring the nullity of the marriage is a good and just thing.


2. Why is Pope Francis changing the marriage nullity process?

Pope Francis teaches exactly what Christ taught: that marriage is indissoluble. Indissolubility is part of the Good News! It tells us that God wants us to love and be loved unconditionally, and that he made us capable of that kind of love. Nothing that Pope Francis has said or done has changed or could change any of that. There is nothing merciful in finding a pretext for calling a marriage invalid when it is really just broken or failed marriage; or in declaring that a marriage is probably invalid even when real doubt remains, which is why Pope Francis very prudently retains the principle that a marriage cannot be declared invalid unless it has been proven by the judge achieving moral certitude of the fact. His concern is not to have more “annulments” regardless of the truth of the matter, but to eliminate any unnecessary, artificial, or unduly burdensome barriers toward obtaining a just and expeditious judgment. He also wants to minimize as much as possible the amount of time people spend in a state of uncertainty while their case is pending. The existing marriage nullity process, when followed faithfully, is both effective and (under ideal circumstances and considering the complexity of the matter) relatively expeditious. But like any fallible, human process it can and should be reformed when necessary. Pope Francis, working with a commission of experts, has reformed the process in order to make it as accessible as possible, without in any way undermining the integrity of the process.

Msgr. Padazinski is the chancellor of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and judicial vicar of the metropolitan tribunal of the archdiocese.

Editor’s note: The entire article containing 21 questions and answers has been posted online at www.catholic-sf.org – click on “Digital Paper.” This is the first of five installments scheduled to appear in the print paper. Later installments will cover how the marriage nullity process is going to change; elimination of automatic appeal; the abbreviated process; and fees and implementation of the new law.

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