Tribunal rolling out easier annulment procedures - Changes instituted by Pope Francis take more pastoral approach to process, archdiocesan officials say

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, March 20, 2016

Under the new annulment procedures implemented by Pope Francis at the end of 2015, it is now easier for a person to obtain a declaration of nullity (annulment) from the Archdiocese of Chicago.

New guidelines make it simpler for the petitioner — the person seeking the annulment — to write up their testimony of what happened in the marriage. They also eliminate the appeal process and the requirement to receive permission to grant the annulment from another diocese if the other former spouse doesn’t live here.

The new norms take into consideration that in many of the less-developed parts of the world, Catholics do not for a variety of reasons have access to the annulment process. The changes that Pope Francis made reflect his commitment to justice for all God’s people.

“Really, the big difference has to do with our attitude toward what people will tell us. The big change is that we will believe them,” said Father Dan Smilanic, the archdiocese’s judicial vicar in charge of the tribunal. In the past, the tribunal would look for corroboration of the petitioner’s story from family members or others.

“I think it is more consistent with a pastoral approach. Why would people lie to us?” Smilanic said. “We’re all about reconciling people to the church.”

Another major canon law change allows the judicial vicar to present cases to the archbishop in which the nullity of marriage is obvious. It’s a quick process. An example of one of those cases is when people marry to obtain green cards. Once the green card is received commonly the couple files for divorce and an annulment, Smilanic explained.

In April, the Metropolitan Tribunal — the archdiocese’s court, which handles cases related to canon (church) law — is conducting information sessions on the new procedures for those who work with annulments.

In no way do the new regulations announced by Pope Francis call into question or alter the church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1614) states the following: “In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it. From the beginning permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it ‘what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’”

Misunderstandings about annulments abound. People think it’s expensive, that it takes a long time to get one and that it makes children illegitimate. All of these are untrue, Smilanic said.

On the question of cost, the Archdiocese of Chicago requests the petitioner pay a portion of the administrative costs. The estimated administrative cost for this procedure is about $3,000. Currently the Chicago tribunal asks for the petitioner to pay only one-third of that cost, which is $900. However, that fee is often reduced or waived based the petitioner’s financial need.

On the question of time, when people say it takes “years and years” to receive the annulment that’s often because the tribunal asked the petitioner for more information or to do something and they didn’t respond back to the tribunal, Smilanic said.

When it comes to children, Canon 1137 of the Code of Canon Law states that “children conceived or born of a valid or putative marriage are legitimate.”

It has been reported that since 1990, the number of Catholics getting married in the Catholic Church has dropped more than 50 percent. Fewer marriages also means fewer divorces, and therefore a smaller number of individuals who might then apply for a declaration of nullity of their marriage.

However, the percentage of Catholics who divorce has remained rather steady over the past 25 years. Of Catholics who get divorced, about 15 percent fill out an application asking a church tribunal to begin a process inquiring into the validity of a marriage.

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  • pope francis
  • marriage
  • family life
  • annulment
  • tribunal

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