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Vatican may simplify annulment rules


A new Vatican document, now in the working stages, could nudge the American Catholic church to a more rigorous approach to annulments. It will contain new rules for church courts that handle requests for declaring a marriage invalid.

Sources say the document may also resolve several procedural headaches, making the process easier for canon lawyers and ultimately for Catholics who seek to remarry with the church’s blessing.

Though the final text is not yet available, experts familiar with the document say a draft version contained a provision that will be of strong ecumenical interest. It would recognize the marriage law of other Christian churches -- especially the Orthodox and Anglican -- as part of Catholic canon law. Thus, if a marriage were nullified under Orthodox law, it would be considered invalid for Catholics as well, and a formal judgment of invalidity would not be needed.

The new document is formally known as an “instruction on the nullity of marriage,” and it will replace a previous set of rules for processing annulment requests, called Provida Mater, that dates from 1936, during the pontificate of Pius XI.

Specialists have known for years that a new set of rules was in the works, since John Paul II first requested the project in 1996. It is a joint project of three Vatican offices: the Roman Rota, which is the main ecclesiastical court in the Vatican; the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s supreme court; and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.

In January 1999, a draft of the document was sent to various bishops’ conferences around the world for comment. The three offices held a round of meetings in May and June 2000 to consider the responses.

In mid-March, Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda announced during a symposium at Rome’s Lateran University that the new instruction is now in an “advanced stage.”

Pompedda did not respond to NCR requests for comment on the document.

The United States produces by far the largest number of annulments in the world, some 60,000 a year. Supporters attribute this number to the high quality of American ecclesiastical tribunals, while critics fault the U.S. system for being too permissive.

In addition to Catholics who obtain an annulment, experts believe some 6 million American Catholics are divorced and civilly remarried without ever having attempted to go through the ecclesiastical process. The commonly accepted number among canonists is that only 10 percent of marriages of divorced American Catholics receive declarations of invalidity.

A Rome-based canonist said the document may address certain reservations Vatican officials have long harbored about the way the American church issues declarations of invalidity. These concerns include:

  • Use of psychological testing.
  • Gathering testimony in writing rather than face-to-face.
  • Settling certain appeals by simple decree rather than a “full process.”

All three are seen by some in Rome as biased in favor of an eventual decision for invalidity. It would not be surprising, the canonist said, if the new document “tightens up” on these points.

At the same time, the document is expected to clarify procedural matters that have long been vexing to canonists. One example is “prior bonds,” meaning a case in which someone requesting an annulment has more than one prior marriage. It has long been unclear in what order the prior marriages must be examined, and if they should be dealt with in one action or several.

By addressing such matters, sources say, the document could make the process faster and easier for many applicants.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002