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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic World News News Feature

Tribunals should work quickly, defend marriage, Pope says January 30, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI underlined the indissolubility of marriage, and rued the fact that "this truth is so often forgotten," as he spoke on January 28 to officials of the Roman Rota.

The Holy Father said that couples seeking annulments of their marriages have a right to a reasonable fast response from Church tribunals. However, he stressed that annulments should be granted only when the evidence indicates that a true marriage never took place. The Pope strongly denied that a "pastoral" approach could overlook the requirements of the Church's legal process.

The work of the Roman Rota is dominated by marital issues, and as he met with the official of the Vatican tribunal in a private audience, at the start of their judicial year, the Pope asked them to adhere carefully to the terms of Dignitatis Connubii, the Vatican document released in 2005 to guide the work of marriage tribunals.

Pope Benedict acknowledged the lively public discussion of the Church's discipline barring Catholics who are divorced and remarried from receiving the Eucharist. He observed that the Synod of Bishops, meeting last October to discuss the Eucharist, had "called on ecclesiastical courts to make every effort to ensure that members of the faithful not canonically married may, as soon as possible, regularize their domestic situations," and thus be admitted to communion.

But the Pope flatly rejected the idea that the canonical process involved in annulment is merely a matter of "legal formalities." That idea, he said, implies "a supposed conflict between law and pastoral care in general." To counter that notion, Pope Benedict reminded the officials of the Roman Rota that the purpose of Church tribunals is to arrive at a "declaration of truth by an impartial third party."

Marriage, the Holy Father continued, is an indissoluble contract, "not something of which the spouses can dispose at will." Thus when a couple brings a petition for annulment, the goal of the tribunal must be to determine whether or not, in fact, a valid marriage occurred.

In assessing each case, the Pope continued, the tribunal should be guided by the search for truth. He cautioned strongly against any tendency to compromise the rigor of that search, in a misguided effort to find serve the needs of individuals. "Such attitudes may seem pastoral," the Pope admitted; "but in reality they do not respond to the good of the individuals, or that of the ecclesial community."

As he concluded his remarks, Pope Benedict said that the Church should also be working "to prevent nullity of marriage," by preparing couples more fully for Christian matrimony and by helping married couples to resolve conflicts and form a deeper mutual commitment. The Pontiff's talk to the Roman Rota followed the same lines as remarks he had given last July, in an informal address to Italian priests with whom he met during his vacation in the Italian Alps. At that time Pope Benedict had acknowledged the complexity involved in many marriage cases, and the pain felt by couples who are unable to receive Communion because of a divorce and remarriage. But he argued that the Church cannot change her discipline without compromising the integrity of marriage.

The Vatican instruction Dignitatis Connubii, to which the Pope referred in his talk, was prepared as a guide to diocesan tribunals in handling marriage cases. The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts released the instruction in response to reports of wide discrepancies between the way annulment petitions were handled in different diocesan tribunals.

The tribunal of the Roman Rota acts as an appeals court in marriage cases (and other canonical proceedings), hearing appeals of judgments that have been rendered by any of the 3,000 canonical tribunals around the world. In 2004 (the last year for which full statistics are available) the Roman Rota received 246 appeals regarding marriage annulments. Of these, 163 came from dioceses in Europe, 73 from the Americas, and 10 from Asia; there were no such appeals from Africa, Australia, or Oceania.

With only 20 judges hearing the cases, an appeal to the Roman Rota can be a time-consuming process; the average case lasts nearly two years. These long processes, however, involve only those cases in which an appeal is sent to the Vatican. The vast majority of annulment petitions are resolved by local diocesan tribunals.