The news that the Pope has set up a commission to oversee the streamlining of the annulments procedure, as reported by Vatican Radio, is to be welcomed by all. Indeed, many of us will think “At long last!” and greet this as the first and very welcome fruits of the forthcoming Synod.
The annulments process in the Catholic Church has long been a matter of concern – and not for the usual reasons so often given. Contrary to what some people (who ought to know better) claim, handing over envelopes stuffed with cash to monsignori in Rome will not procure you an annulment, and people who make this claim are irresponsible, and speaking without evidence, and maligning a lot of hardworking Church officials who receive little reward for their labours.
Those who criticise the annulments procedure might like to do a reality check. Most people who work on annulments do so as volunteers.
So, what needs to be streamlined? What might the Pope’s new commission be dealing with? They certainly have their work cut out for them, and here are some of the things they will surely have to confront.
• Anyone who seeks an annulment has to do so at local level, in their own diocese. This means that if your diocese has not organised a tribunal, you have no chance of getting an annulment. Believe it or not, there are numerous dioceses where there is no tribunal to deal with matrimonial causes. Many millions of Catholics, particularly in Africa, are effectively denied any recourse to justice.
• In some dioceses, an annulment can take years. I have heard it said in Britain that no annulment should take more than two years, and I know that many do take a lot less, but the truth remains that some take considerably longer than two years, and there is no good reason for this – it is mainly a matter of poor administration, and, incredibly, poor communications i.e. not answering letters.
• Some annulments are open and shut cases. For example, cases where a Catholic has married a divorcee in a registry office; yet these cases have to be referred to a tribunal. Surely they could be dealt with by parish priests? Such cases are particularly time-consuming when they cross diocesan and national boundaries, which, with globalisation, is increasingly common. Waiting for letters and documents to come back from the Philippines, let us say, can take months.
• There is a huge variation in the way annulments are administered from country to country. In some places it is hard to get an annulment, and in others it seems much easier, or so statistical imbalances would indicate. There needs to be a coherent approach.
• The single biggest problem facing us all is ignorance on the Church’s law concerning marriage, particularly among the laity, and even among the clergy. Many people could get annulments if they but knew it, and many are not canonically married in the first place. We need clear and coherent teaching. And we also need training for lay people, who could make a great contribution in staffing diocesan tribunals.
I am cheered that the Vatican is at least tackling this problem, and I note with satisfaction these words:
“The work of the commission will start as soon as possible and will have as its goal to prepare a proposal of reform of the matrimonial process, with the objective of simplifying its procedure, making it more streamlined, and safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of matrimony.”
The last phrase is the most important of all!