Document Should Have Little Impact on Annulment Process
Canon lawyers will use new instruction to better interpret the law
By Woodeene Koenig-Bricker
When the Vatican issued its latest instructional document on marriage and annulments, Dignitas Connubii ("The Dignity of Marriage") last month, the major question on everyone's mind was, "Does this signify a crackdown on annulments in America?"
The answer, to some people's chagrin -- and others' relief -- is no.
"It's not a startling thing to happen," said Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Ave Maria University's Institute for Pastoral Theology.
"The Church is always looking over how she gets things done. This doesn't send a message pro or con in the marriage/annulment debate. It doesn't say that the system is broken and needs to be fixed or that it's not going fast enough."
A guide to the code
The new document, which is the result of 10 years of work, provides an explanatory guide to the norms established by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. It replaces an older guide, Provida Mater, which served the same function for the 1913 Code of Canon Law.
At the press conference introducing the document, Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, explained that the document "does not limit itself to repeating the text of the canons, but contains interpretations, clarifications on the provisions of law and further provisions on procedures for its implementation."
"It is an instruction on how to apply canons already on the book," Peters told Our Sunday Visitor.
Cardinal Herranz called Dignitas Connubii "a practical document ... to use as a ready guide for [judges] carrying out their duties in canonical hearings on the nullity of marriage."
"This Instruction comes as a confirmation of the need to submit the question of the validity or nullity of the marriage of the faithful to a truly judicial process," he added.
Peters noted that the instruction's purpose "is to better equip judges and lawyers to make more effective use of the laws on marriage to determine the reality of a marriage status.
"It's not to lower or raise the number of annulments, but to increase the accuracy of the results," he explained.
One statement sure to be examined carefully, however, is found deep in the document. Charles Collins, an American on-air host at Vatican Radio who formerly worked in the tribunal system of a Texas diocese, was able to examine a copy of the document. "The thing that caught my eye was an explicit reference to people being bound by the marriage law of their churches or ecclesial communions," he told OSV. "This builds upon the 1983 and 1990 codes' recognition of the form of the Orthodox churches."
Collins added: "However, by saying that the Church recognizes the marriage law of ecclesial communions, I would have to assume this means such entities can write binding laws. . . . [I] find that to be an interesting, doctrinally significant statement to have in the middle of an instruction."
Peters agreed that such a statement was intriguing. "Normally the Church recognizes two sources of authority over marriages: the state, which has power over things like child care, responsibility for debts, things like that. The other source is herself, applying the laws of God to the Church. This phrase suggests a willingness to look for a third source -- other Christian communities.
"This is a very interesting development because other Christian communities don't hold to things like indissolubility of marriage."
Nevertheless, Peters went on to explain that this type of instruction "is not the kind of document where theological innovations are made. If anything in this instruction conflicts with the canons as they are written, the canons will prevail.
"That happens sometimes when an instruction can't be reconciled with the code. We are going to have to read this instruction and be aware that there could be conflicts. In that case, the code laws will still trump."
Although copies of the document are in short supply and have not yet been distributed to dioceses or tribunals, early reports indicate that individuals seeking annulments will see little if any change since the rulings seem to rest on technical points of the law such as limiting procedural appeals or permitting judges to nullify a marriage based on two different grounds rather than having to agree on one single point of law.
"It won't change things quickly for sure," said Peters, stressing the issuing of this new guide "doesn't conclude anything about the annulment process in the United States.
"Rome often reacts to things it considers are going fine, but might be going better."
Some myths about annulments
*An annulment is just a "Catholic divorce" -- An annulment doesn't break the marriage vows like a divorce does. It says that the marriage never existed. "The Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry" (Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1629).
*A divorced person is automatically excommunicated. -- At one time in the United States, divorce was grounds for excommunication, but not any longer. A divorced person who has not remarried is a full member of the Church and can receive the Eucharist.
*An annulment makes children bastards. -- An annulment does not change the civil nature of the marriage. The legitimacy of children, as well as rights to property, debts and other civil matters are unchanged by a degree of nullity.
*Protestant marriages aren't valid because they are outside the Church. -- The Catholic Church presumes the validity of marriage, even those marriages performed outside the Church.
*Your former spouse has to agree before you can get an annulment. -- The tribunal looks at the marriage in its entirety. Unlike a divorce, a decree of nullity is not based on the wishes of the people involved.
*An affair is sufficient grounds for annulment. -- The only time an affair is considered is if it is evidence that the person never had intentions of being faithful to the marriage bond. An affair per se does not indicate that.
Marriage statistics for 2002
(the most recent year figures are available)
-- Catholic marriages worldwide: 3,384,730
-- Between Catholics: 3,103,505
-- Mixed marriages: 281,225
Source: 2005 Catholic Almanac
Annulment statistics for 2002
(the most recent year figures are available)
-- Annulment hearings, worldwide: 56,246
-- Annulments granted, worldwide: 46,092
Annulments by continent:
-North America: 30,968
-South and Central America: 5,688
Source: Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes from Oregon.
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