Pope Francis’ reforms to marriage annulment laws

At midday on 8 September, a press conference was held in the Holy See Press Office at which two letters issued Motu proprio by Pope Francis, “Mitis ludex Dominus Iesus” and “Mitis et misericors Iesus” were presented on the reform of canonical procedure for the annulment of marriage in the Code of Canon Law (CIC) and the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (CCEO) respectively. Links to these documents are:

The textual differences between the two Apostolic Letters reflect the different hierarchical structures with Latin and Eastern churches; the basic provisions are essentially the same. The changes, including the option without an obligatory automatic appeal, below, will be effective from December 8, the opening day of the Year of Mercy. However, unlike other features of this Year announced by Pope Francis on 1 September, notably those relating to the reconciliation for abortion and to absolution by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X, there is no time limit on these new provisions.

These reforms are the result of an expert group, chaired by the Dean of the Roman Rota, appointed on 27 August 2014 to study the current state of law and practice in the Church as far as marriage law is concerned. In the preface to these documents, Pope Francis explains that the reforms are guided by seven specific criteria which Vatican Radio has summarized in its own unofficial English translation:

That there be only one sentence in favour of executive nullity – It appeared opportune, in the first place, that there no longer be required a twofold decision in favour of marital nullity, in order that the parties be admitted to new canonically valid marriages: the moral certainty reached by the first judge according to law should be sufficient.

A single judge under the responsibility of the Bishop – The constitution of a single judge in the first instance, who shall always be a cleric, is placed under the responsibility of the Bishop, who, in the pastoral exercise of his own proper judicial power shall guarantee that no laxity be indulged in this matter.

The Bishop is judge – In order that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council be finally translated into practice in an area of great importance, the decision was made to make evident the fact that the Bishop, in his Church – of which he is constituted pastor and head – is by that same constitution judge among the faithful entrusted to him. It is desired that, in Dioceses both great and small, the Bishop himself should offer a sign of the conversion of ecclesiastical structures, and not leave the judicial function completely delegated to the offices of the diocesan curia, as far as matters pertaining to marriage are concerned.

Increased brevity in the legal process – In fact, beyond making the marriage annulment process more agile, a briefer form of trying nullity cases has been designed – in addition to the documentary process already approved and in use – which is to be applied in cases in which the accusation of marital nullity is supported by particularly evident arguments. In any case, the extent to which an abbreviated process of judgment might put the principle of the indissolubility of marriage at risk, did not escape me [writes Pope Francis – ed.]: thus, I have desired that, in such cases the Bishop himself shall be constituted judge, who, by force of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline.

Appeal to the Metropolitan See – It is fitting that the appeal to the Metropolitan See be reintroduced, since that office of headship of an Ecclesiastical province, stably in place through the centuries, is a distinctive sign of the synodality of the Church.

The proper role of the Bishops’ Conferences – The Bishops’ Conferences, which must be driven above all by the anxious apostolic desire to reach the far-off faithful, should formally recognize the duty to share the aforesaid conversion, and respect absolutely the right of the Bishops to organize judicial power each within his own particular Church.

[The re-establishment of vicinity between the judge and the faithful, in fact, shall not be successful if the stimulus does not come from the Conferences to the single Bishops, along with the necessary assistance, to put into practice the reform of the marital nullity process.]

Appeal to the Apostolic See – It is fitting that the appeal to the ordinary Tribunal of the Apostolic See, i.e. the Roman Rota, be maintained: this, in respect of a most ancient juridical principle, so that the bond between the See of Peter and the particular Churches be reinforced – having care, in any case, in the discipline of the use of said appeal, to contain any and all abuse of right, in order that the salvation of souls be given no cause for harm.”

It concludes “the prefatory remarks make clear from the very start, that the single most important principle guiding the Holy Father’s action and the work of reform undertaken, is that of salus animarum – the salvation of souls – which is the suprema Ecclesiae lex – the supreme law of the Church”.

Initial comments include:

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Pope Francis’ reforms to marriage annulment laws" in Law & Religion UK, 8 September 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/09/08/apostolic-letters-on-marriage-annulment-law/

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  1. Pingback: Religion and law round-up – 13th September | Law & Religion UK

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