I am late today as I had a doctor’s appointment this AM. He assured me that I am in good health but that I might be making the blog readers sick.
It has been a few days now since we all got the news that Pope Francis had issued formal statements on the procedures involving the annulment process. My guess is that you have had access to news summaries by now; the official site of the U.S. Bishops finally has a fairly good summary, admittedly buried somewhat at the site. I sometimes refer to the pope as “Clever Francis,” and his new annulment procedures (which supplant a portion of the 1983 Code of Canon Law) are another example of outstanding pastoral wisdom and compassion without changing an iota of moral doctrine. The essentials of a sacramental marriage remain intact—in fact, I would argue that the marriage sacrament is enhanced—by reformed procedures for proving that an ill-advised union did not meet the Church criteria for a full sacramental marriage, and by enabling couples to live in true sacramental unions with appropriate catechesis, healing, and reflection.
Speaking from two decades of parochial work, I can give some idea here of where the system was working and a number of places where it was not. Typically, a parish priest would get a call from someone who “wished to get a marriage blessed in the Church.” In many cases these would be inquiries from Catholics who had already attempted civil marriage outside of the Church setting, and neither had a previous marriage partner. Pastorally, this is rather uncomplicated: the couple presents Baptism certificates, receives appropriate spiritual and premarital counsel, and then pronounce the Church marriage vows in a relatively modest church exchange of vows called a “convalidation;” that is, the Church, through a validly ordained priest or deacon, is witnessing the sacramentalizing of an existing civil union. It is very common for catechumens to have their marriages “blessed” during their formative year. I might add here that as a pastor I found that convalidations were a splendid opportunity for evangelization and many such couples became very active in the Church.
However, there are many times when seeking to make things right with the Church is much more complicated, when a Catholic is married to a Protestant and one or both parties have married before. The law is a bit confusing; if the Catholic party’s first marriage was celebrated outside the Church, then the Catholic—bound to Canon Law—is not considered sacramentally bound and does not need a full annulment, only a “defective form” affidavit. But if the Catholic’s husband, a baptized Methodist for example, was previously married to a baptized Presbyterian, he is considered sacramentally married by the Catholic Church because (1) as a non-Catholic, he was not bound to Catholic laws of procedure at the time of his first marriage, and (2) the Church defines marriage as a sacrament between two baptized persons, period. If you think of it, there would be great scandal if the Catholic Church taught that marriages between Protestants were invalid. But, the case of a second marriage involving a Catholic, it is often the non-Catholic who actually needs to embrace the annulment process and ends up doing the heavy lifting.
Another very common scenario for a parish priest is the divorced Catholic who is seeking to enter a second marriage. The “petitioner” or divorced Catholic always comes in good faith. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to marry outside the Church? But in cases of this sort we have a Catholic (or just as likely two Catholics) who by approaching their pastor have already made a statement of sorts that they wish to conform to the sacramental and moral beliefs of the Catholic Tradition in undertaking their marriage. Pope Francis sees no reason to add to their burdens with procedures that, while instituted to protect the sanctity of the marriage sacrament, take the appearance of assumption of bad faith on the part of the petitioner and punitive intent on the part of the Church. I might add here the inclusion of couples, both Catholics, who married civilly and without recourse to the annulment process(es) for whatever reasons in the past and who now wish to join full communion. Again, the Pope’s directives on mercy and solicitude make it clear that the prejudice here is to mercy.
Annulments are hard work for all involved. I once processed a case where the original marriage took place in the 1920’s! In general, the “petitioner” for an annulment writes a detailed psychosocial history with emphasis upon state of mind and the condition of the relationship in the time leading up to marriage. An annulment sets out to prove that at least one party did not have the moral or psychological capacity to make a marriage vow as the Church understands it, and thus that the marriage never actually took place as a sacrament. Annulments are not divorces. As a sidebar, I recommend that those of you in Church ministry, when asked about annulments, recommend sooner than later after the civil divorce. Memories are fresher, and when annulments are processed competently, annulment ministers can assist petitioners to seek the appropriate spiritual and psychological healing of a failed marriage, so that a future union will have a better chance of success. The petitioner submits the names of several witnesses who knew the couple well at the time of the marriage. The other spouse in the marriage in question, the “respondent,” must be contacted by the Diocesan Tribunal and given full rights to present his/her assessment of the marriage, and may also provide witnesses on his/her behalf.
None of these steps have been changed as far as I know. The major adjustments have been made in the Church’s administrative handling of petitions. In current practice, if a petitioner’s request is found to be with merit, the diocesan tribunal’s affirmative determination needs to be appealed to the region’s larger metropolitan diocese. For example, here in Orlando we had a highly competent tribunal that believed “justice delayed is justice denied.” But in the 1980’s, I believe, Pope John Paul II established the rule of automatic appeal, which meant that all of our cases were shipped down to Miami for a second review. Pope Francis has terminated this second review except if the respondent appeals. In addition, the pope has returned to local bishops the power to make determinations on procedures, appeals, etc. that were formerly handled by the Roman Rota or high court.
In short, Pope Francis wished to shorten the process considerably. But I think there is more to his thinking here: he wants annulments to become moments of mercy and evangelization. He sees them connected to full sacramental communion and has conveyed to priests his desire that petitioners be treated in this respect. I also suspect that he would like to see less time and energy invested in the legal paperwork and much more in the catechesis of marriage and support of couples and families.
To be a true Christian means being forgiving, kind, humble, gentle, generous, merciful and very patient with one another, Pope Francis said in a morning homily. Priests must be especially merciful, he added, saying if that they weren’t, then they should ask their bishop for a desk job and “never walk into a confessional, I beg you.” “A priest who isn’t merciful does much damage in the confessional. He berates people,” the pope said Sept. 10 during the Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae. However, if snapping at people is caused not by a lack of compassion, but by being high-strung, then “go to a doctor who will give you a pill for your nerves. Just be merciful,” he said.