On Sept. 8, Pope Francis announced that he has decided to change some of the procedural norms which guide the process of investigating whether a marriage was null at the time the couple exchanged vows. These changes will become effective on Dec. 8, the same date that begins the Year of Mercy. The salvation of souls remains the supreme goal of the purpose of the Church and thus the canonical process too.
The reform of the declaration of nullity process is intended to respect the truth of the teaching of Jesus Christ concerning the indissolubility of marriage and to provide a more just response to the rights of people in the process used to clarify a couple’s marital status in the Catholic Church.
Although the tribunal personnel across the world are still reviewing the new norms at this time and planning for changes in their future practices, the following are a few changes to expect:
The role of the local bishop as judge will be emphasized in the new norms. This possibility was not present in the current canons but soon the local bishop may use an abbreviated process for cases in which both the man and woman are in agreement that serious problems preceded the wedding. If the facts which are gathered support this initial claim, then a decision may be made within 45 days of presenting the case. If the case is not clear in the early phase then it would continue on with the ordinary process.
Judges. The composition of the tribunals, where possible, should be collegial, having three judges. In the future, the local tribunal may be composed of three judges with the presiding judge being a cleric (a bishop, priest or deacon) and the other two may now be laity. This is a change from the present norms which do allow one of the judges to be a lay person. Similar to the present norms, if necessary, the bishop may appoint just one clerical judge. However, the new norms mention that this judge is to avail himself, if possible, to two assessors who are experts in legal and human sciences. The appeal tribunals continue to be collegial or composed of three judges.
Location. If a person lives in the diocese then the Tribunal can accept their case. In the present norms the local tribunal can accept a case if any of these circumstances exist: the wedding took place in the diocese; if the majority of the testimony will be coming from this diocese; if the other party, called the respondent, lives in the diocese; or if the person seeking to investigate their marriage, called the petitioner, lives in the diocese and the respondent lives in the same episcopal conference.
In this last category the respondent’s judicial vicar will be notified to consult the respondent, and then the respondent’s judicial vicar can give consent for the case to be opened at the petitioner’s local tribunal.
Practically, this meant the Diocese of Lincoln was unable to accept some cases of people who lived here. This happened when the person living here was married in another country, most of the witnesses lived elsewhere, and their former civil law spouse did not live in the territory of our episcopal conference, mainly the United States of America. After Dec. 8, it will be sufficient that the petitioner lives in the local diocese to open the case in that same diocese.
One tribunal. Most cases will only need the decision from one tribunal to become effective. In the present norms there must be two conforming decisions in favor of nullity by two different tribunals before a decision became effective.
In the Diocese of Lincoln, our appeal tribunal has normally been able to make a decision the next month. In some parts of the world, this second tribunal has found it very difficult to keep up so that their decisions were sometimes taking another year before the case could be clarified.
When the new norms become effective, the decision of the first tribunal will become effective, unless one of the parties appeals the case in a timely manner. If a case is appealed, the second tribunal must quickly look at the reasons for the appeal and decide whether the appeal has substance. If there is a substantive reason they will take the case for further review but if there is no substantive reason they will confirm the first decision without opening the case for further review. This will reduce the number of cases taken up by the appeal courts and should allow them to give a more timely response to those cases which they do investigate.
Cost. The motu proprio also mentions that the Holy Father would like the process to be free of charge. The present practice in the Diocese of Lincoln has been to request a stipend based on the type of case that was presented; the donations from the parishioners of the Diocese of Lincoln have borne 85% of the costs while the requested stipends met 15% of the costs. Monetary factors have never been a reason for rejecting or delaying a case. If a person does not wish to give a stipend, they do not have to do so.
Along with the announcement of these new norms, the Church is preparing for the bishops from around the world to gather in Rome for the second part of the Synod on the Family. Let us pray that Almighty God will guide their decisions and use it so that families will be supported to fulfill God’s plan and allow each person to grow in holiness.
- From the Lincoln Tribunal