Breaking down Pope Francis’ recent annulment reforms

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Earlier this month, the Holy See released a pair of documents by Pope Francis that reform the way the Church will handle annulments effective December 8, the start of Pope Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy, a year-long jubilee during which the pontiff hopes to emphasize the merciful side of the Church.

A Catholic needs a Church declaration of nullity to remarry in the Church, and a divorced Catholic who remarries civilly without an annulment is considered an adulterer living in sin and cannot receive Communion. Jesus Christ taught that if two people divorce and then remarry, they are committing the grave sin of adultery: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12). 

The rules governing annulments are mainly found in two documents, the “Code of Canon Law” (which governs the Latin Catholic Church) and the “Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches” (which governs the Eastern Catholic churches). 

Prepared by a group of legal experts at the Vatican at Pope Francis’ direction, Pope Francis has issued two documents, each a motu proprioMitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge), and Mitis et Misericors Iesus (Gentle and Merciful Jesus); at the time of this writing, both documents are available only in Latin and Italian, though Google can produce a rough, machine translation of the Italian version.

The declaration of nullity is a ruling that a particular Marriage was null from the beginning, that something was wrong at the time the wedding vows were made and it prevented the Marriage from being valid. Reasons for granting annulments vary, including that the couple never intended the Marriage to last or that one spouse didn’t want children.

Father Jeffrey Cabral, J.C.L., judicial vicar for the Fall River Diocese (, had heard through the grapevine that something was in the works, “but I didn’t realize the extent of what it would be,” he said, adding that he’s trying to catch up on all the changes while in the middle of a move to Mansfield and getting acclimated to a new parish. “It’s wonderful for those who will be going through the process. It will certainly reduce some of the time on certain issues.”

Since the new reforms don’t take effect until December, Father Cabral knows that he will be learning from seminars and conferences: “In October, the Canon Law Society of America has its annual convention, so I’m sure they’re going to mention something and I’m already going to that. I’m sure I can learn something there.”

Customarily, an annulment process takes 18 months, and in some cases can take up to two years to resolve. The new law has created a fast-track procedure that can see the process completed within 45 days, barring any issues that may arise during the proceedings. From what Father Cabral has read for the short process, “it seems that both parties — the husband and wife — are applying for the nullity of their Marriage,” which helps speed up the process since with both parties applying, it lessons the chance for one to appeal and drag out the process.

The fast-track procedure can also be used when other proof makes a more drawn-out investigation unnecessary, such as medical records indicating that the wife had an abortion, that one spouse hid infertility or a grave contagious disease from the other, or that violence was used to coerce a spouse into Marriage.

Having both parties file is not that common, said Father Cabral: “In 90 percent of our cases, it’s [usually] just one party.”

Though the new law is not retroactive, Father Cabral said that some current cases could be ruled under the new law: “For current cases going on right now, once we collect all evidence for a certain case — we call that being ‘published.’ In cases that are published after December 8, you can go through [the new] process. For those cases that have already been published or are in the midst of writing the sentence, or are already at the second instance court, then they still have to go through the old process.”

Though Father Cabral has yet to sit down and talk to the bishop, Bishop Edgar da Cunha, S.D.V., will play a larger role in the new process.

“This has given a greater role to the bishop in tribunal work,” explained Father Cabral. “If you look at canon law, the bishop is the one who has all the power — the legislative power, administrative power and judicial power. Traditionally the bishop has always used his legislative and administrative power, yet he’s never used his judicial power [except through the tribunal], so this gives the bishop a role as the primary judge of the diocese in this type of process.”

Another big change that cuts down the time is the tribunal office no longer has to reach out to another diocese to see who would be viewing the case: “When we first get a case at the tribunal, we have to determine competence, who can hear it — will it be our diocesan tribunal or another diocese?” said Father Cabral. “In the new law, we can hear any case where the Marriage took place in our diocese, and where either party (petitioner or respondent) have a domicile (permanent residence) or quasi-domicile (three-month type of residence), or most of the witnesses are in the diocese. In the old law, in certain aspects, I would have to get permission of the judicial vicar of another diocese before I could hear it in our diocese. Now the pope has eliminated that step. Right there, that saves a month or two.”

And those who have emigrated from another country also have recourse when looking to annul his or her Marriage, said Father Cabral.

“Another thing I noticed he eliminated from the current code, especially when it’s asking for that permission, is it used to be that they had to live in the same conference of bishops, which means the same country. Now, a lot of our immigrants who live in our area, say they got married in their home country and maybe their ex-spouse lives in their home country — now they can petition our tribunal because that whole requirement of their having to live in the same country has been eliminated.

“That is huge — in our area, some Brazilians or Hispanics, perhaps some of the Portuguese immigrants who want to petition for an annulment, possibly can now.”

Father Cabral continued, “Another big change, whenever we give an affirmative to a sentence and we find that a Marriage is now null, it automatically goes to our second instance court, which is the Diocese of Springfield. The pope has eliminated that step, except if one of the two parties does appeal. If neither party appeals in 15 days, the annulment will be executed. That cuts down a couple of months.”

There are some changes the pope has proposed that are already being done in the Fall River Diocese.

“He’s calling for more single-judge cases, because the norm is to have three judges on each case,” said Father Cabral, “but in our diocese we do more single-judge cases because of lack of personnel. We have done some three-judge cases on more complicated cases or on Marriages that last 25 or 30 years, and when we need to take an extra good look at it.”

And while the words “free” and “no charge” seem to be bandied about when discussing annulments, Father Cabral said the true wording of “fair remuneration of the workers and the gratuity of cases” should be considered, especially since the tribunal had its own overhead costs.

“We have not raised our fees in 20 to 25 years,” he said. “We currently charge a total of $275, with an additional $300 if they see one of our court psychologists. We’re very modest and it certainly doesn’t pay for everything, it’s more for administrative fees like postage, supplies, phone calls, Internet, etc. The fee we charge isn’t to make money.”

In the document announcing the new law, Pope Francis notes that Marriages remain indissoluble unions and that the new regulations aren’t meant to help dissolve them. Rather, he said, the reform is aimed at speeding up and simplifying the process so the faithful can find justice. The overall goal, he said, “is the Salvation of souls.”

In canon law, “Salvation of souls” is found in the last phrase, said Father Cabral: “When you think of the last thing in the law, it’s what [Pope Francis] is being guided by; ‘that the Salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law of the Church, must be kept before one’s eyes.’ That’s his guiding force.”

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