Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Vatican City

Vatican Issues New Instructions To Marriage Courts

By CINDY WOODEN, CNS | Published February 10, 2005

Vatican officials said new instructions for church marriage tribunals are designed to ensure church law is followed, to defend the sacrament of marriage and to ensure the efficiency that justice requires.

The new handbook for Latin-rite diocesan and interdiocesan tribunals, “Dignitas Connubii,” (“The Dignity of Marriage”), provided step-by-step procedures for accepting, investigating, judging and appealing marriage cases.

The document was released Feb. 8 at a Vatican press conference.

Before accepting a request to begin an annulment procedure, the document said, a judge must “employ pastoral means” to try to convince the husband and wife to stay in their marriage and “re-establish conjugal life.”

“If this cannot be done,” it said, “the judge is to urge the spouses to work together sincerely, putting aside any personal desire and living the truth in charity, in order to arrive at the objective truth, as the very nature of a marriage cause demands.”

Approved by Pope John Paul II, the final draft was the responsibility of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. The congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and for Divine Worship and the Sacraments worked on the instruction, as did two Vatican tribunals—the Roman Rota and the Apostolic Signature.

The instruction, while encouraging tribunals to work efficiently and not unduly prolong judgment, insists that no shortcuts be taken in determining the validity of a marriage.

The document reaffirmed existing church law—a law many canon lawyers had hoped would be set aside—that an initial declaration of nullity issued by a diocesan court must be reviewed by a second court.

Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the council for legislative texts, told reporters that the instruction was designed to be a practical handbook for tribunal staff members, pulling together norms from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, rulings issued by his office over the past 20 years and judgments issued by the Rota and the Signature, the church’s highest court.

The cardinal said the instruction was meant to help local tribunals function better and to ensure that they were acting in full conformity with the laws and doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding marriage.

“Even if this requires going against the current,” Cardinal Herranz said, the dignity of marriage must be defended.

The Catholic Church’s annulment process does not involve dissolving marriages, but determining whether a valid, indissoluble marriage existed from the beginning, he said.

In societies where there is a “divorce mentality,” Cardinal Herranz said, “even the canonical process of nullity can easily be misunderstood, as if it were nothing other than a way to obtain a divorce with the apparent approval of the church.”

Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, secretary of the congregation for worship and sacraments, said, “No one, not even the pope” could dissolve a valid marriage.

Unlike a civil divorce proceeding, he said, the annulment process “does not aim at dissolving a valid marriage, even if it has failed irreparably, but at verifying the hypothesis that despite a formal celebration, it never existed because essential conditions were lacking.”

Cardinal Herranz told reporters, “The present instruction confirms the need to place the question of the validity or nullity of the marriage of two faithful before a truly judicial process.”

Some canon lawyers have criticized church annulment procedures as an excessively formal way of agreeing with a couple that the marriage has failed, he said. But because a Catholic marriage is a sacrament of the church, he said, allowing a couple in crisis simply to declare the nullity of their marriage “would obscure in practice the very sacramentality of matrimony.”

Bishop Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Apostolic Signature, said that in 2002, local church tribunals issued 46,092 decrees of nullity. Of those, almost 31,000 were issued in the United States and Canada, while close to 9,000 were issued in Europe.

While saying the tribunals “in some cases may be proceeding too rapidly,” the bishop said the first reason for the large numbers is that with widespread secularism, even many Catholics do not understand the sacrament of marriage and are not in a position to enter into a valid marriage.

Second, he said, “a more precise understanding of the psychology of the human person” makes it easier for tribunals to identify situations in which the necessary level of consent was missing.

And third, he said, more and more Catholics who are divorced and would like to remarry in the church apply for an annulment.

Cardinal Herranz said the new instructions would not necessarily lead to a decreased number of annulments granted.

He said the instruction should help tribunals work “more efficiently and quickly,” particularly because it should resolve many questions regarding procedure, allowing the tribunals to focus on the merits of the cases presented to them.

Cardinal Herranz and Archbishop Sorrentino called for a greater pastoral outreach to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who, because they have not obtained an annulment, may not receive the Eucharist.

“This certainly must not legitimize divorce nor introduce it surreptitiously, making the annulment process a parallel and masked divorce proceeding,” Archbishop Sorrentino said.

However, the archbishop said, the church has an obligation to provide special care to “persons wounded and suffering because of unhappy marriage situations.”

Cardinal Herranz said divorced and civilly remarried Catholics “are not excommunicated” nor excluded from the Christian community, although they may not receive the Eucharist as long as “their sin persists and is known in the community where they want to receive.”

At the same time, he said, “they can and must participate in the life of the church.”