Statement by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki
Pope Francis’ Reform of Canonical Procedure for the Annulment of Marriage
Pope Francis issued a document, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Gentle Judge, The Lord Jesus”), on Sept. 8 calling for reform of canonical procedure for the annulment of marriage in the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. These modifications address the procedures to be followed when a person petitions for a declaration of nullity of marriage. I, along with the college of Catholic bishops throughout the world, am happy to see to it that these modifications will be put into effect in our diocesan tribunals on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, the opening day of the “Year of Mercy” proclaimed by Pope Francis.
The Catholic Church continues to teach that a marriage, once validly entered, is permanent and cannot be dissolved by the mere will of one of the parties. We understand that marriage comes to be through the spouses’ act of consent to bind themselves to one another in a marriage bond which is in accord with God’s plan for a permanent, exclusive union, open to the possibility of the generation of children. We presume in favor of the validity of all marriages, but we recognize, in our theology and law, that a party’s marriage consent may have been insufficient in some fundamental way. Therefore, we enumerate reasons for possible nullity of marriage, and we apply legal procedures by which a party, following a civil divorce, might seek to prove the nullity of a marriage and, having proved this fact, proceed to enter a new marriage which can be recognized by the Catholic Church.
Our current procedures are designed to allow parties to proceed carefully toward determining the truth about a marriage which has broken up, and with the protection of the rights of both parties. In our diocesan tribunal, we have for over thirty years made use of a provision which is now being made normative for the whole world: that cases are usually to be judged by a single judge who is an ordained person, instead of by a panel of three judges. Our procedures are to be streamlined further as the directives of Pope Francis take effect. One outstanding new provision is the sufficiency of one decision in favor of nullity; no longer will there be a requirement for two decisions in favor of nullity from two Church courts. Our system of courts of appeal will, however, remain in place.
Pope Francis has directed local tribunals to provide their legal services at no cost to parties. We are happy to do this. Formerly, we have had the custom of asking petitioners, as far as they are able, to contribute to the meeting of the expenses of the diocesan tribunal, and we have never delayed the administration of justice because of non-payment on a petitioner’s part. We rely upon the continued generosity of Catholic Christians so that we may meet the expenses associated with this judicial work.
The directives of Pope Francis will require careful study by our tribunal officials as we prepare to put them into effect. As we do so, we recognize and hold in prayer the numerous people who have endured great pain as the result of the break-up of a marriage. We pray that the whole People of God will be dedicated to the task of fostering healthy marriages and encouraging the healing which we all require, as we rely upon the Lord Jesus, the Judge who gently leads us into growth as human beings.