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How the marriage nullity process is changing

October 1, 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. In question-and-answer format over the next few weeks, I would like to reflect on various aspects of this new “motu proprio” responding to some logical questions which have been raised since publication. 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 canonicals officials, will do all it can to insure 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.


3. How is the marriage nullity process going to change?

The document contains a number of “tweaks” to the process, but there are five major changes: (1) new rules for tribunal competence, (2) new requirements for tribunal personnel, (3) the elimination of the requirement for a second conforming affirmative, (4) a shorter and more streamlined process, judged personally by the diocesan bishop, for certain rare and exceptional cases, and (5) a change in the approach to recovering tribunal expenses.


4. When do these changes take effect?

The revised laws take effect on Dec. 8, 2015, three months from their promulgation.


5. What is tribunal competence, and how will it be different?

Every diocese has a tribunal, but not just any tribunal can hear any marriage nullity case. The tribunal has to have some jurisdiction over the marriage in question. Currently, there are four ways that a tribunal can be competent: (1) if the marriage took place in that diocese, (2) if the Respondent party lives in that diocese, (3) if the Petitioner lives in that diocese and certain other formalities and requirements are observed, and (4) if for whatever reason the majority of the relevant evidence is located in that diocese and certain other formalities and requirements are observed. The formalities and requirements for numbers 3 and 4 involved seeking the consent of the judicial vicar of the diocese where the Respondent party lived. They were designed to protect the rights of the Respondent party, but increased mobility and mass communications made them practically obsolete; they could also be unduly time-consuming. Under the revised law, there will be three ways that a tribunal can be competent, and none of them require any of those extra formalities and requirements: (1) if the marriage took place in that diocese, (2) if either party lives in that diocese, and (3) if for whatever reason the majority of the relevant evidence is located in that diocese.


6. How do the changes in the rules for competence affect me?

If your case is already pending, or if you introduce it before Dec. 8, 2015, they don’t. If you introduce your petition on or after Dec. 8, 2015, you may have one or more additional options for where to introduce your petition.

7. What are the requirements for tribunal personnel, and how are they going to change?

Marriage nullity cases are normally tried before a “college” of three judges, all of whom meet to decide whether or not the marriage is proven invalid, but only one of whom (the judge “ponens”) is responsible for most of the day-to-day handling of the case. Only one of these three can be a layperson. The college of three judges will remain the norm under the new law, but now up to two of them can be laypeople.


8. How will the new personnel requirements affect my case?

Very likely they won’t, whether your case is already pending or is yet to be introduced. Already, you were only likely to meet in person an auditor or with one of the three judges, who might be a priest or a layperson; that will remain the same. In certain infrequent circumstances where one of the judges has to recuse himself or herself due to a conflict of interest, it will give the tribunal more flexibility in finding a substitute, which can help avoid delays. In the long run, it will make it easier for the tribunal to remain adequately staffed, which is the single most important factor in handling cases in a just, thorough, and expeditious manner.


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 full 21-point question-and-answer article titled “Annulments: What is really changing?”has been posted online at http://www.catholic-sf.org/files/digital_paper_201509185030.pdf. This is the second of five installments scheduled to appear in the print paper. Later installments will cover elimination of automatic appeal; the abbreviated process; and fees and implementation of the new law.


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