Spain’s Princess Elena, the eldest daughter of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, has announced that she is seeking a divorce from her husband of 14 years, Jaime de Marichalar, and that furthermore she is petitioning for a Church declaration of nullity in the case of her marriage.
Elena probably will never be queen of Spain. Under the Spanish constitution, however, should the king and Crown Prince Felipe die before Felipe’s small daughters are of age, then Elena would reign as regent.
Spanish royalty always has thundered its devotion to the Catholic Church. While in reality many have hardly been virtuous, divorce for a member of the dynasty so close to the throne has been heretofore unknown.
The fact that Elena has suffered little criticism in this case perhaps indicates how far Spanish life has moved from its Catholic cultural roots, although it must be admitted that the general consensus is that the princess was the wronged party in a marriage in which her husband was unfaithful. Until recently, divorce was illegal.
Another aspect of the case sure to create conversation is the fact that Elena has appealed directly to the Holy See, instead of the tribunal of the Archdiocese of Madrid, for a declaration of nullity. As such, canon lawyers in the Vatican will review the case, and Church court judges in the Vatican will make the decision about it.
I can hear it now. It will be said that, as a princess, and as the daughter of the king of Spain, Elena will receive special treatment. Every ordinary Catholic has to present such a petition to the local diocesan tribunal, but not this princess!
Actually, Elena had no choice. Only the Holy See has authority to judge the validity of her marriage. No local Spanish tribunal could hear the case, simply because of her status. However, this is not to give her some special consideration. On the contrary, it is to assure that the field will be even, whether she is applying, or an ordinary person in the pew is applying. This is Church law.
The law was written to take the deliberations completely away from a setting in which pressure might be exercised to force one decision or another. It is to ensure that neither coercion from any source nor public opinion, as surely public opinion will form in Spain because of the princess’ place in the country, will have any bearing on the case’s outcome.
It is hardly the first time the Church has been petitioned by a public figure for a declaration of nullity. If the present rules had applied 500 years ago, and if England’s King Henry VIII had first had to appeal to Rome for a declaration of nullity, the entire episode of his divorce might have been different. As it was, his first petition went to an English Church court, and he let his influence be felt. It at least muddied the water.
In a way, Elena will be at a disadvantage. Ordinary Catholics who file cases with local tribunals have the opportunity for appeal, should they question the eventual decision in the case. They actually have two opportunities, the first to the court assigned to hear appeals, usually the court of the archdiocese to which the diocese is subject, and then, if wished, to the Holy See. Since her case will be heard only in Rome, there will be no option for appeal for Princess Elena.
Still, I wearily suspect, anyone who hears about this case will say that Elena is getting special treatment. Then, if the Roman court declares that her marriage indeed was invalid, I can hear the snide comments that she, or her father, bought or lobbied her way to an “annulment.” The law is designed to be impartial. This is the fact. But sometimes the Church cannot win for losing.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.