On 8 September 2015, the Holy Father issued two documents ‘motu proprio’ (literally ‘on his own impulse,’ or ‘of his own accord’): ‘Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus’ (‘The Lord Jesus, Clement Judge’) for the Latin Church, and ‘Mitis et misericors Iesus’ (‘The Clement and Merciful Jesus’) for the Eastern Catholic Churches. These revisions of Canon Law regarding the declaration of the nullity of marriages came into force on 8 December.  I would like here to offer some observations on ‘Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus’, in so far as it is this document that has a direct bearing on the life of the Roman Catholic Church in this diocese.

The Church teaches that every man has a God-given right to marry a woman (and vice versa). So people who aren’t Catholic still marry validly according to the customs and laws of the society in which they live, religious or not.  If a person is Catholic then they are also bound by the laws of the Church, which mean that they can only validly marry if they follow the requirements of Church law.  However, the Church claims for herself the right to investigate any marriage because she is an instrument of God, and because true marriage, no matter how it comes into effect, is a God-given and holy thing.  If a marriage breaks down and fails, and on further investigation by the Church, it can sometimes be seen that certain human qualities were missing or at least impaired and that, therefore, the ‘marriage’ was never truly a marriage.  The Church will only investigate a marriage if it asked to do so by the husband or wife involved in that marriage.  A civil divorce breaks the bond of marriage from a legal point of view but it can never break the sacred bond that is created when a couple marry.  That is where the Church comes into the equation.

People often talk about ‘getting an annulment’ from the Catholic Church, but this is an unhelpful description of what the Church actually does. The Church never seeks to ‘nullify’ a marriage that was valid.  Indeed, it does not have the power to do such a thing.  Rather, the Church talks about the ‘declaration of nullity,’ ie it does have the authority to declare a marriage null if it is found that it was lacking the qualities which the Church demands are present in a true marriage.

It was the Pope’s intention to make this process of obtaining a declaration of marriage nullity more streamlined, and less intimidating for the people taking part; it was never the intention to make it ‘easier’ to get one: the same process of collecting evidence, and of judges making a judgement based on this evidence, still has to be followed in the interests of justice. So in what new ways does this document help to serve the Church’s understanding of justice?

There are a number of procedural changes that have been made in the process of obtaining a declaration of marriage nullity, but the one that perhaps most directly impacts on the parties involved is that there now only needs to be one decision made in the local tribunal. Up until now it was necessary for any decision made locally to be automatically appealed to a secondary tribunal.  In the case of Hallam, decisions regarding the nullity of marriage were automatically appealed to the Liverpool Metropolitan Tribunal.  The right to appeal a decision is, of course, still there for the parties involved in the marriage at issue, but this stage of the process is no longer automatic and has to be deliberately requested.

Another thing that you may have heard mentioned is that the process is now ‘free of charge,’ but, again, this is unhelpful. Money has never been an issue when people are seeking justice in the Church.  Certainly, in this Diocese, as in many others, we do ask for a contribution from the person who asks the Church to investigate their marriage, simply to cover administrative costs and to pay lay staff.  If a person is unable to help with these costs, or has difficulty helping with them, then charges can be reduced or waived entirely.  This is the position advocated by Mitis Iudex and so does not change anything in this regard as far as the Diocese of Hallam is concerned.

Another major change introduced by Mitis Iudex is that it is now recommended, in highly exceptional circumstances, that the diocesan bishop himself plays a role in judging the nullity of certain marriages. It is, after all, the bishop who is the principal judge in his own diocese.  We have to remember that the Catholic Church extends throughout the world and in certain areas of the globe it might not be possible for one tribunal (or bishop) to communicate easily with another.  The Holy Father’s decisions in Mitis Iudex show that, once again, he is placing a great deal of trust in the Church at the local level.

The whole process of seeking a ‘declaration of marriage nullity’ is something that is sometimes grossly misunderstood and made more difficult because of the misconceptions that have developed over the years. For many, going through the process may involve some painful or anxious moments, as this process often involves aspects of unresolved grief.  However, it can be a pastoral and therapeutic process while still being a canonical procedure.  Many applicants find that the process can be an experience of healing and an opportunity to find freedom from the debilitating memories of the past.

If you, or someone you know, would like to know more about the process in more detail then please see the ‘Tribunal’ section in the list of departments on the diocesan website. You might then want to contact us directly at the Hallam Diocesan Tribunal, Hallam Pastoral Centre, St Charles Street, Sheffield, S9 3WU, tel: 0114 256 6450, email: tribunal@hallam-diocese.com.

Fr Craig Fitzpatrick, Diocesan Judicial Vicar