Not So Fast on ‘Fast-Track’ Annulments, Canonists Say
by JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
Pope Francis’ new directive on annulments has sparked headlines about a “fast-track” process for Catholics that has led couples to believe they can obtain a decision quickly.
But if the hopeful or the curious simply peruse a timely frequently asked-questions document (FAQ) posted on the Diocese of Madison’s website, the expectation of a speedy annulment will be deflated.
“The shorter process is designed only for those rare cases when it can be employed without injustice,” reads one portion of the document, “Frequently Asked Questions Re: Mitis Iudex, Dominus Iesus,” which clarifies Pope Francis’ motu proprio (document issued on his own initiative) on annulments that was released on Sept. 8.
To provide further context, the Diocese of Madison’s FAQ explained that of the 200 annulment cases processed in 2012, “only three or four appeared in retrospect to meet the qualifications for the use of the shorter process.”
The work of Tim Cavanaugh, a canon lawyer and the defender of the bond for the marriage tribunal in the Diocese of Madison, the fact sheet was designed to ground the faithful’s expectations in reality.
‘Bombarded With Questions’
“I tried to get the Q & A out as fast as possible, because we were being bombarded with questions,” Cavanaugh told the Register, noting that couples wanted to know if they qualified for a briefer process or whether the changes would affect their cases.
The Pope’s motu proprio does not change the grounds for declaring a marriage null. Rather, it modifies long-standing procedures for evaluating whether a marriage properly took place.
Mitis Iudex, Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, Merciful Judge) addressed the norms specifically for the Latin-rite Church. The Eastern-rite Church’s norms were addressed in Mitis et Misericors Iesus (The Meek and Merciful Jesus).
At present, even straightforward cases require an automatic appeal and a second witness. But, on Dec. 8, with the start of the Jubilee of Mercy, those provisions will be dropped, and there will be more flexibility for establishing the diocese has jurisdiction for hearing the case — an issue that has also caused delays.
But the provision that has drawn most attention is the new option for a speedier process adjudicated by the local bishop. This provision, according to some news reports, would take just 45 days, a time frame that was challenged by Church officials contacted for this story.
Meanwhile, canonists are concerned about the practical and technical hurdles that will make it difficult for a bishop to properly adjudicate such cases.
“I have 800-plus emails that represent the conversation that canonists are having on this worldwide,” Father Roger Keeler, the executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America, told the Register.
“They are trying to get their heads around this. But do we know what this will mean one week after the fact? No. Are we in the process of developing a strategy? Yes.”
In October, the Canon Law Society of America will hold its annual meeting in Pittsburgh, and Father Keeler and other canonists expect that Pope Francis’ proposed reforms will generate considerable debate. Vatican departments and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are also expected to offer further guidance, and a number of canonists contacted for this story argued that the deadline for implementation should be extended.
According to the documents issued by Pope Francis, spouses seeking a speedier process may petition the diocese. Diocesan officials contacted by the Register for this story said the judicial vicar, assisted by his staff of canonists and assessors, would likely decide which cases qualify for the speedier process.
The Diocese of Madison’s frequently asked-questions document outlines the three qualifications that would be most likely to secure a faster annulment.
“Both spouses have to petition for it together, or, if not, then the other party must at least consent to it,” the Q & A explained.
“The nullity of the marriage must be manifest,” the document continues, noting that it can be difficult for either party to testify with certainty about an “invisible, internal act of the will placed by the spouses, often several years prior.”
Finally, all “the facts that make the marriage manifestly null have to be readily available.”
Readers learn that it is especially “rare” for both the facts surrounding the matter of consent to be readily apparent and to have all the required documentation and testimony in hand.
- New Procedures, Same Grounds .....
- The Local Bishop’s Role ......
- No Appeals Tried Before .....
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