On the bishops’ discussion slate: Steamlining annulments

The opening report for the bishops’ synod on the family touched on the process of annulments, noting that reform is being asked by many who often misunderstand the indissolubility of marriage.
General relator Cardinal Peter Erdo said the synod’s Instrumentum laboris — or “working document” — shows a “broad consensus in favor of simplifying marriage cases from the pastoral point of view and recounts increasing instances of a divorce mentality in the valid celebration of the Sacrament. ”
“With this in mind, it does not seem hazardous to believe that many marriages celebrated in the Church may be invalid,” he said in an Oct. 6 press conference.
Synod discussions will address the responses to the questionnaire released by the Vatican last year, in which many said they feel that the annulment procedure lacks “an effective and streamlined process.”
An annulment, officially called a Decree of Nullity, is the finding by a church tribunal that on the day spouses exchanged their wedding vows, at least some essential elements for a valid marriage was lacking.
Essential elements for a valid marriage include, but are not limited to, if one of the spouses did not intend to make a lifelong commitment to the other person, or if one or both of the spouses did not intend to have children.
As divorce is not allowed in the Catholic Church due to the indissolubility of the sacrament of matrimony, a couple may only obtain permission to separate and re-marry through obtaining an annulment, which declares the marriage invalid from the start due to the lack on one of these essential elements.
The so-called “divorce mentality” is often fostered by civil courts or tribunals, Cardinal Erdo observed, who frequently grant divorces to couples without many questions asked.
This practice “frequently leads parties to enter into a canonical marriage, while reserving the right to divorce and to contract another wedding should difficulties occur,” he said in a Catholic News Agency report.
“Even without their being fully aware of the ontological and canonical aspects,” this idea renders a marriage invalid, he continued.
However, “To prove that a person did not consider marriage indissoluble, the party who went through this simulation of marriage needs to admit and attest to the circumstances and other elements.”
Cardinal Erdo then explained how the faith of a married couple seeking an annulment must also be evaluated “according to authoritative proposals,” primarily because the church’s general principal holds “that the validity of a sacrament requires that the party intends to do what the church does.”
“This via extra-giudiziale — a solution outside the juridical process — according to them could provide a manner to know, discern and thoroughly examine whether, because of invalidating circumstances, the process could conclude with a declaration of nullity by the diocesan bishop,” the cardinal observed.
The bishop, then, would “also propose a way to raise consciousness and conversion in the concerned party in light of a possible future marriage, where this simulation would not be repeated.”
Under particular fire in the annulment process is the church’s requirement for having two appeals confirming the declaration of nullity of the marriage bond, the cardinal noted.
Beginning in the couple’s diocesan court, the appeal for an annulment currently must be sent to the court of the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota — the highest appellate tribunal in the Catholic Church, after it has been accepted by the diocese.
In the “Rota,” the appeal of the couple currently requires the approval of two judiciaries, who recognize the marital bond as being invalid.
One proposal in the renewal of this process calls for only one appeal in the “Rota” rather than two, with the second being required only if “within a defined framework, there is no appeal from either or both (spouses) or from the defender of the bond,” who is the official in the case charged with arguing for the validity of the marriage bond, Cardinal Erdo explained.
“A possible solution of this kind should, in any case, avoid any type of mechanics or impression of granting a divorce,” he went on.
“Nevertheless, in some cases, other guarantees might be necessary, for example, the obligation of the defender of the bond to make an appeal so as to avoid solutions which are unjust and scandalous.”
A commission to study a reform of the process of annulment was established by Pope Francis on Aug. 27. They are currently researching instances when only one appeal is required versus the usual two.
Also on the table for discussion regarding marriage are the topics of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation and civil marriages, which are considered to be areas posing particular challenges in terms of pastoral care.

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