Written by Michael Walsh
Since September of 2015, when secular press began reporting that Pope Francis had loosened the reigns and sped up the annulment process for Catholics, there has been a sense that annulments would now move at a lightning pace.
However, the reality is that for most annulments in the United States that was never a likely probability.
When asked about what the secular media got wrong when reporting on the annulment changes, Father David Klein, Judicial Vicar for the Diocese of Camden’s Tribunal said, “The real question is, ‘What did they get right?’”
In fact, for most Americans the annulment process remains largely unchanged. Understanding what is actually new requires a basic understanding of annulment procedure.
In every way imaginable the annulment process is a legal procedure − it requires an investigation, a trial, appeals, canon lawyers, witnesses, judges, and no small amount of work from the divorcee’s looking to receive the annulment.
Where it diverges slightly from a typical legal proceeding is the inclusion of a third party. As one would expect, one member of the couple looking to have their marriage declared annulled is the petitioner, the other party is the respondent, but also active in the case is the marriage itself, represented by its own attorney, the defender of the bond.
In the case of an annulment, it is the bond of matrimony that is under scrutiny. “The petitioner accuses the marriage of being invalid (or in other words, the petitioner alleges that that the marriage is a faulty, non-binding contract). The respondent may or may not agree with the petitioner’s accusation. However, the marriage is always presumed to be a binding contract until proven otherwise, or in other words, ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” said Christina Hip-Flores, MPP, JCD, canonist for the Diocese of Camden.
What the legal proceeding must show is that a case can be made that at the time of the marriage there was doubt as to the validity of the marriage bond, for any of a myriad of reasons — lack of full or free consent, lack of intent to be faithful, fraud, lack of openness to children, etc.
What did get fast-tracked?
In fairness to the secular press, there have been some areas of the annulment process that have sped up in the U.S., but they are fairly nuanced and affect only a few cases.
With respect to annulments which take place in separate episcopal conferences (for example, for dioceses in South America and North America), prior to the 2015 changes, annulments used to require input from tribunals in both locations, which slowed the process. Now only one tribunal is required.
Under the 1983 code, every annulment decree had an automatic appeal. Now the appeal only occurs at the request of one of the parties, the petitioner, defendant or the defender of the bond. If there are no appeals, that cuts four to six months out of the process.
A lot of the misunderstanding perpetrated by the secular press was due to a lack of knowledge about the process itself, the canonical imperatives of an annulment, and that the main target for many of the Vatican’s annulment changes was to alleviate problems in the developing world, not necessarily the U.S.
In the U.S. there is plenty of access to diocesan annulment resources, but what may take 12-18 months here would take many more years in Africa, South America and Asia. Pope Francis, who has a particular focus on the suffering of those in the Southern Hemisphere, made sure that the annulment process could be quickened for those facing an extraordinarily long annulment process — not necessarily an ordinary process.
Annulment investigations are intentionally in-depth. One example of the reason why involves the mental state of the parties at the time of the marriage. In that situation, the tribunal may conduct an investigation to determine what factors may have made one of the contractants unable at the time of the wedding to understand or intend marriage as the church defines marriage. “Such factors could include an addictive personality, escape from a dysfunctional family of origin, an underlying personality disorder or mental health problem, etc. That is why an investigation needs to be conducted, as those situations are not as immediately clear as many people would like to think they are — which is also what disqualifies them from having an abbreviated process used for their case,” said Father Klein.
Annulments are a serious matter, but not prohibitive
“Because this is a trial, all the rights must be defended, of all three parties,” said Dr. Hip-Flores. “Therefore a respondent has 15 days to respond to any request. Failure to do so would nullify the process. The church is very respectful of the rights of the marriage and the respondents.”
She also points out that cost should not stop someone in need of an annulment from pursuing one. “While there are staff costs associated with an annulment, the inability to pay will never prevent a person from receiving an annulment investigation or decree.”
According to Father Klein, the diocesan tribunal currently has about 150 annulment cases in various states of process. While most cases do receive annulment decrees, the percentage is somewhat misleading as the participants tend to come from a self-selecting pool more likely to receive affirmative judgements.
Father Klein notes that every effort is made to make the annulment process as smooth as possible, which includes access to a bilingual staff.
For those seeking an annulment, Father Klein believes respondents could significantly help the process along from their end by making sure witnesses know they will be called on to testify about a marriage.
“It is probably the one area that slows down the process the most. We find that many times the first time a witness finds out they’ve been asked to testify about a marriage is when we reach out to them.”
He recommends that petitioners and defendants make sure to at least alert their witness that they have been asked to take part in an annulment hearing.
Ultimately, there is no guarantee of an outcome. “Everyone has the right to access the judicial services of the church; everyone has the right to have an investigation and a verdict, in order to have a clear answer from the church about the validity or invalidity of their marriage. However, no one has the right to a particular verdict of either nullity or validity,” said Dr. Hip-Flores.
She also reiterated that judges do not “grant annulments” or “annul marriages.” Rather, they issue a sentence declaring whether the marriage in question was validly contracted, or was defectively contracted, from the get-go. “In other words, the sentence is a statement about the past. The judges have no power to ‘annul’ a marriage that was validly contracted.”
Father Klein added that all sentences are completed after the judge or judges have rendered a decision in regard to the merits of the case presented. “But unlike civil judges, we begin each decision-making session with prayer and trust that what we do is done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” said Father Klein.