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A just simplification of the annulment process

Hong Kong (SE): With two Apostolic Letters issued motu proprio (on his own initiative) on September 8, Pope Francis introduced reforms to streamline the Church’s legal process for obtaining a declaration of nullity of marriage, reported.

The documents, The Lord Jesus, Clement Judge (Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus); and Clement and merciful Jesus (Mitis et misericors Iesus) reform canons 1671-1691 of the Code of Canon Law of the Latin Rite Church and canons 1357-1377 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

In August 2014 the pope set up a special commission of Church lawyers and clerical experts to reform the process of granting a declaration of nullity of marriage and to simplify procedures that are viewed as arcane, bureaucratic and expensive.

In his preface to the documents, Pope Francis affirmed marriage as the cornerstone and origin of the Christian family, writing, “The new procedures do not favour the nullity of marriages, but the expedition of trials, as well as a just simplification.”

The pope noted “the huge number of faithful who, while wishing to provide for their own consciences, are too often dissuaded by the Church’s juridical structures deemed too distant both physically and morally,” thus the need to reform and streamline a process that has been “identical for three centuries,” since the reform of Benedict XIV, who was pope from 1740 to 1758.

Vatican observer, Robert Moynihan, writing for Inside the Vatican, notes that the reforms include making the annulment process free of charge; more streamlined— for example, when the invalidity of the marriage is evident, a brief case will be carried out under the supervision of a bishop; and that one judicial decision will be enough.

The reform also introduces the possibility of a single first instance trial judge to rule on individual cases as well as the option of an expedited procedure when evidence of nullity is abundant and both parties are convinced that their union was null.

Prior to the reforms, the procedure required declarations of nullity of marriage to be issued by a court of first instance and confirmed by an appellate court. 

Speaking to the Sunday Examiner on September 10, Father Francis Tse Kin-shing, vice-chancellor and judicial vicar for the Diocese of Hong Kong, observed, “Many who seek a declaration of nullity of marriage want to resume receiving the sacraments after separation or remarriage.”

He pointed out that the diocese already enjoys the faculty to have a sole judge in the court of first instance and added that the diocese only requests petitioners “for a small contribution to help cover part of the costs for running the tribunal.”

In The Philippines, Archbishop Oscar Cruz, head of the National Appellate Matrimonial Tribunal of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), told UCA News on September 9, “I agree with the Holy Father that the process for marriage nullity declaration can be shortened,” adding that the current practice is complicated and can take a year-and-a-half to be resolved.

The head of the CBCP, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, said in a statement, “(The pope’s) new apostolic letter reaches out to those Catholics who suffer quietly from the bond and obligations of what they thought was a marriage, when the truth is there was no marriage to speak of from the very start because the requirements for the valid reception of matrimony were not present.” 

He added, “The matrimonial tribunals must be brought closer to the people.”

Jesuit Father James Conn, ordinary professor of Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, explained to Vatican Radio that the reforms do not change Church’s understanding and teaching of the indissolubility of marriage, nor do they alter the basic purpose and scope of the Church’s judicial system. 

“It doesn’t change the standard by which nullity is judged, nor does it change the presumption of validity, so the nullity of marriage (still) has to be proved,” he said. 

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