Integrity of tribunals

The recent papal document on marriage and the family started this conversation. I was in a discussion with two college students. One thing led to another. They asked me about diocesan tribunals, or Church courts, and annulments.

They told me that in a history class they were attending, the professor had spoken about the results of the decision by King Henry VIII to remove English Christianity from communion with the Universal Church centuries ago.

Their professor told them about the background. The king desperately wanted a male heir. He and his queen had no son, and it seemed unlikely that she would bear another child. So the king decided that he would have to be married to someone else who could have children.

Henry, by the way, never sought a divorce. He wanted a declaration of nullity. These students were puzzled as to why the pope entered the picture. Why did not the king present his case that his marriage was invalid to a papal court? Did not English dioceses, even then, have tribunals?

As head of the English nation, Henry could not go to any English tribunal with such a plea. He had to go to Rome.

Why? Such was, and is, Church law. Is it to give special consideration to the high and mighty? No, it is just the opposite. It is to remove any influence that the high and mighty could exert at home.

It applies today. I know nothing to suspect that the prime minister of Canada, or the king of Belgium, or the president of the Philippines is not happily married, but if any of them wanted a tribunal’s declaration of nullity, he could not go to a tribunal in his own country. He would have to file the case in Rome. Were he to enter a case at home, the risk of muddying the waters, by whatever process, might be too real.

The students stopped me. Is it not true, they asked, that if you make a big donation to the Church, you receive a favorable decision from tribunals?

I told them that not that long ago Time magazine published a lengthy article on Catholic tribunals. Time hardly is partial to the Catholic Church. The story, however, was thorough. It mentioned this yarn about buying and selling desired judgments, and wryly noted that were this true, many, many, many American Catholics must give an awful lot of money to the Church, since the U. S. Catholic Church has more declarations of nullity from its tribunals than any other country in the world.

Always, I am amazed that people, even well-meaning Catholics, fall for this line about payoffs to tribunals but would never think of suspecting civil divorce courts of granting divorces to the highest bidder.

Please, do not misunderstand. I am not accusing the civil courts of corruption, but why target Church tribunals, and them only, as dishonest? It annoys me, because I know too many people who work in tribunals. I have never met one who would compromise honesty or integrity for anyone. The tribunal system may have problems but not because of corruption.

I recall one case. A couple gave very much money, big money, to the Church over many years. The husband died. His widow wished to marry a divorced man. He needed an annulment. She called the bishop to ask for an expeditious, and favorable, decision.

The bishop told me that he had to bite his tongue. Her suggestion angered him.

He held his temper, but he told her that he could not interfere in the tribunal’s business, and that while her generosity was appreciated, it had no bearing whatsoever on the facts of the case. She could expect no special consideration at all. The tribunal had to treat her fiancé’s case like every other case.

That is the way it is.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.