The Pope has published two documents today which lay down important reforms in the annulment process. Just how important this may be, only time will tell, but all the indications are that this is a major innovation, and a welcome one.
The two motu proprio are available on the Vatican website so far only in Latin and Italian, but there is a summary of the main points here from Vatican Radio, and there is penetrating commentary, as ever, from the Vaticanista John Allen.
This move by the Pope – and a motu proprio has the force of law for the Church – will make a huge difference to people who up to now have suffered greatly under the present dispensation. I am thinking of those, in the United Kingdom, for example, who have been forced to wait up to five years for the process to play out, even though the outcome of that process has been clear from the beginning. And I am thinking of those in Africa (and there may be other places too) where there is no diocesan tribunal, and who cannot get an annulment at all. For people caught up in these situations, there will now be a faster track approach, or a decision made by the local bishop.
The annulment process has, perhaps unfairly, not had a good press. These reforms will make the process much more “agile” (to use the word of Vatican Radio). It was this that the Extraordinary Synod on the Family asked for last year. Well, now they have it, and rather more quickly than any of us had imagined.
Also of note, bearing in mind the upcoming Synod, is this, in the original Italian:
Non mi è tuttavia sfuggito quanto un giudizio abbreviato possa mettere a rischio il principio dell’indissolubilità del matrimonio; appunto per questo ho voluto che in tale processo sia costituito giudice lo stesso Vescovo, che in forza del suo ufficio pastorale è con Pietro il maggiore garante dell’unità cattolica nella fede e nella disciplina.
In my English translation:
In no wise did it escape my notice that an abbreviated process of judgment might put at risk the principle of the indissolubility of marriage: for this very reason, I have desired that in such cases the Bishop himself, who, because of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline, shall be the judge.
This perhaps is the clear statement that many of us have been hoping for. The Pope wishes to speed up annulments, but he does not want to compromise the doctrine of indissolubility. Because bishops will judge, and because bishops are charged with upholding the faith in union with the Holy See, the doctrine of indissolubility will be safeguarded. One notes the way the Pope speaks of “faith and discipline” – the latter reflects the former, and the two cannot be seperated. That is a crucial point and it gives a hint to the discussions at the coming Synod, where, one hopes, all talk of faith and discipline parting compnay will be sternly resisted.
One also notes the reference to the “Catholic unity” that exists between Peter and the bishops. We all know that Catholic means universal. This too is a hint that so called “local solutions” will be given short shrift. The Church is One, as the Creed states: Germany will not be getting what it wants. The Pope has come down in favour of Cardinal Müller, not Cardinal Marx.