No special treatment

When Princess Caroline of Monaco, daughter of American actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco, divorced her husband 15 years ago, she petitioned the Vatican to declare her marriage null.

More than a few grumbled that Caroline went to Rome with her case because a hearing in Rome would be to her advantage. It was assumed, of course, that "ordinary" Catholics would be told to make do with the marriage tribunals in their own dioceses and forget about having the privileged treatment given the princess.

Actually, no privilege of any kind was involved. Any Catholic may take a marriage case to the Holy See. Almost always, Catholics who contest the validity of a marriage go to their local diocesan tribunal. This is fine. But if a Catholic wants the case to be heard by the pope's court, this is any Catholic's privilege.

But Caroline was not exercising this privilege, because, as royalty, the daughter of a head of state, she had to go to Rome. The tribunal in the Monaco archdiocese could not hear her case.

This is because Church law requires that royalty and heads of state enter such cases at the Holy See. No other court has jurisdiction.

The Church adopted this policy because it learned a lesson the hard way. It is not to give anyone preferred treatment, but rather to assure that all are treated alike.

The Church learned long ago that the rich and powerful can try to manipulate religion. It learned this when England's King Henry VIII sought to end his marriage so that he could marry another woman.

Contrary to what is commonly assumed, the king did not want a divorce, at least as divorce is understood today. Civil divorce did not even exist in England. Henry wanted the Church to declare his marriage invalid.

It was very hard for any of the English theologians and Church leaders even to speak against the king's wishes, let alone deny him a declaration of nullity. The pope refused to go along with the king, so Henry separated the English Church from Rome, installed bishops of his choosing, saw that the bishops would obey him rather than the Church and then secured from them a declaration of nullity in the case of his first marriage.

Then, 300 years later, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte wished to end his marriage. He had a civil divorce, but he wanted a Church declaration of nullity. The French bishops were under enormous pressure to give the emperor the decision he wanted. Rome became involved. Napoleon, unlike Henry, did not break with the Church, but the process stank.

So, to assure that no Catholic would be able to coerce a decision, the Church mandated that royalty and heads of state would have to submit their cases first and only to the Vatican.

The thinking was that the Vatican is not subject to the same heavy-handedness that might be brought to bear on Church tribunals in the home territory of a king or president.

Catholics not uncommonly accuse the Church of favoritism when it comes to the matter of looking at contested marriages. Ever hear that money, or "pull," can bring about a declaration of nullity?

Think about it -- any official of a Church tribunal who would allow money or pressure to control any case would first and foremost be personally a fraud as well as gravely immoral. Any official would be quite heartless by giving favors to those who have no respect for the Church while arbitrarily requiring the conscientious to wait and cavalierly be refused.

Fifty years ago, Church tribunals rarely heard petitions to declare a marriage invalid because divorce was rare among Catholics.

This has changed. Tribunals are flooded with cases. But we can be thankful that the Church makes every effort to see that tribunals are impartial and honorable.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.