By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published September 17, 2015
ATLANTA—Bishop Luis R. Zarama said he hopes simplifications in annulment case procedures announced by Pope Francis Sept. 8 will bring more people to the Tribunal in the Atlanta Archdiocese seeking to reconcile their marriage status with the church.
“I hope so,” he said, when asked if the changes will increase the court’s caseload.
“I hope the people see this as a gift of the church to help heal and fix their situation and be in full communion with the life of the sacraments of the church,” said Bishop Zarama, who is also judicial vicar of the Tribunal.
He cited several canonical changes that will impact people of the archdiocese. The changes take effect Dec. 8, 2015.
One is that it will no longer be necessary for a person seeking an annulment whose former spouse lives out of the country to start the process either in the diocese where their marriage took place or where the former spouse lives.
That had been a hardship, or impossible, for people living in Georgia who were married in their native countries, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin and Central America.
They will now be able to begin the annulment process in the Atlanta Tribunal if they live here, regardless of where the marriage took place or where the former spouse lives.
It won’t change the necessity to show that there are legitimate grounds to declare the marriage null. But it will make the process possible.
“I hope that with this we can serve more people and help them to fix the past and help them to live the present in their married lives,” the bishop said.
“Many couples couldn’t participate fully in the life of the church because of their previous marriages and that was painful for them,” he said.
“The process was so demanding that it made it seem almost impossible to them that an annulment was possible,” he said.
A divorced Catholic whose former spouse is still alive and who remarries without having that earlier marriage declared null can no longer receive Communion in the church. An unmarried Catholic who marries a divorced non-Catholic whose previous spouse is still alive and who hasn’t sought an annulment may also be unable to receive Communion.
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament and a covenant relationship, which both people must be free to enter. A church decision that a marriage is null reflects that, when it was entered into, one or both people did not approach it with all the capacity or intention to live the sacrament of marriage faithfully.
“Many people don’t have any understanding of what a sacrament means. … The lack of understanding of what a sacrament means—that creates the grounds for nullity. A Catholic marriage is not a civil contract. It is a covenant between two people who give themselves completely, each to the other,” Bishop Zarama said.
Archbishop states no fee will be charged after Dec. 8
Another change in the annulment process is that Pope Francis has asked dioceses to make the process free, if possible.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has announced that no fees will be charged in the Archdiocese of Atlanta as of Dec. 8, 2015.
Bishop Zarama said the Tribunal has been heavily subsidized by the archdiocese for many years so that it did not depend on case fees to pay the full cost of its operation. Its past fees, posted on the Tribunal website, ranged from $500 for a formal case to $25 to $100 for a range of cases which are simpler to resolve. The site also stated that no one would be turned away because of an inability to pay.
“We didn’t say no to any case. (The fee) was very low. In some cases you could pay in increments,” Bishop Zarama said. Fees helped “cover a little” of the cost.
“No longer does anyone have to have the awkward conversation of approaching the church tribunal to say, I would like to have my marriage declared null, but I cannot afford to pay for it,” said Marist Father Paul Hachey, judicial vicar of the Provincial Court of Appeals.
Court of Appeals will receive fewer cases
The process will also be shorter. Until now, when a formal annulment case was decided affirmatively, there was automatically an appeal; a panel of three judges in the Provincial Court of Appeals reviewed the decision. Affirmative decisions were required at both the Tribunal and the Court of Appeals for a marriage to be declared null.
The change announced by Pope Francis makes one court decision sufficient to declare a marriage null.
This is expected to have a major effect on the Provincial Court of Appeals, located in Atlanta, which serves as the second court, reviewing the affirmative decisions from marriage tribunals in Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, South Carolina, and Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I think the impact will be there—how great, we will see,” Bishop Zarama said.
In an email response to questions, Father Hachey said, “The number of marriage cases coming to the Provincial Court of Appeals will decrease as of December 8, 2015.”
However, he emphasized, “The reform process did not do away with the Court of Appeals.”
The remaining appeal cases will be when one of the parties in the marriage appeals a Tribunal decision, whether it was affirmative or negative, or where a Tribunal member whose formal role is to defend the validity of the marriage chooses to challenge the first court’s ruling.
“The only people appealing to the Court of Appeals will be the petitioner, the former spouse, the Defender of the Bond or the Promoter of Justice,” Father Hachey wrote.
“On an average year the Court of Appeals receives a few appeals from one of the parties. The preponderance of appeals come from the Defender of the Bond who questioned the affirmative decision (one in favor of nullity),” he wrote.
“The Court of Appeals will remain open because it has to” for the appeal rights of petitioners, former spouses and those with the specified roles in the Tribunal of Defender of the Bond and Promoter of Justice, Father Hachey said.
“Our Court of Appeals will remain for the whole province. How it is going to look remains to be seen,” he said.
Father Hachey said that he felt “very positive” about the changes made by Pope Francis. In addition to the removal of a fee, he said, it is good that the geographic obstacle is removed and cases can be heard in Atlanta where there is a Tribunal staff in place rather than be redirected to another part of the world where fewer resources may be in place, automatically slowing resolution of a marriage case.
He also noted that the changes will make it permissible for one judge rather than a panel of three judges to decide a case and for a three-judge panel to be composed of two qualified lay people with one cleric.
Pope’s concern ‘is the good of the people’
Another change as of Dec. 8 will permit the local bishop to review certain cases himself and have the authority to declare that a marriage is null.
In this type of case, both people in the marriage would have to agree in writing to seek the annulment and agree on the grounds on which an annulment will be sought, Bishop Zarama said.
“You need to have a couple who keep in touch and keep talking. Both need to find the grounds,” Bishop Zarama commented. “I think it is few (who would meet this criteria). But it is a new opportunity. It is a new door.”
The changes are going to impact the structure of the Tribunal, he said, and the process has just begun of studying the changes in canon law and making adjustments in response.
Pope Francis has asked that the changes be in effect Dec. 8, the beginning of the Holy Year of Mercy.
“We will try to be ready, but we will need to be making adjustments,” Bishop Zarama said.
“People need to be a little bit patient until all the pieces fall into place. The Tribunal is here to serve the people—all the people.”
“I think the pastoral concern of the pope is the good of the people—the salvation of souls. … The pope is not saying marriage is nothing. The law protects the sacrament of marriage. But for many different reasons a couple was unable to live the demands of married life. Now how can we help them?”
“We keep studying the documents and looking at all the new things that are there to be able to respond to the wishes of the Holy Father to help the people who want to be part of the sacramental life of the church.”