Canonical process for a declaration of nullity of marriage

By Msgr. Mark Plewka, J.C.L.
On September 8, 2015, Pope Francis issued, on his own authority, a motu proprio, titled Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, Gentle Judge Lord Jesus. This piece of papal legislation concerned the reform of the canonical process for a declaration of nullity of marriage. This legislation becomes effective on December 8, 2015. It will impact the judicial process for obtaining a declaration of nullity, also known as, an annulment, in two significant ways. The first is the ability of approaching a tribunal, that is a church court. The second is the length of the process.

In seeking a declaration of invalidity, the first concern is in what tribunal or church court could one lodge a case. In the past, one could approach the tribunal of the diocese in which the marriage took place; one could approach the tribunal of the diocese in which one’s former spouse lived. And these two options remain in the reformed law. However, if one approached the tribunal of their own diocese, there were two additional qualifications. The qualifications were that both parties to the marriage had to live in the territory of the same conference of bishops and the judicial vicar of the former spouse had to inquire of the former spouse if they had objections to the case being heard in tribunal where the petitioner lived. In the new law, these two qualifications have been entirely dropped. In other words, a potential petitioner can now approach the tribunal of their own place of domicile without any further requirements. This now has the advantage that a tribunal of the place where a petitioner lives can now hear the cases of all who come to it. This will assist persons who perhaps have come to the United States as immigrants but whose marriage took place in a foreign country and whose former spouse still lives in a foreign country. These persons will now be able to approach the tribunal of the place where they live.

The second reform that will impact the judicial process is that now a single affirmative decision in favor of a declaration of nullity can be sufficient to enable the parties to enter into a new marriage in the Church. In the past, there was the requirement that the decision of a first court had to be reviewed and upheld by a second court. In other words, there had to be two affirmative decisions in the case. Now there only needs to be one affirmative decision. However, the new reform does allow for the right of appeal in a marriage case. But this must be done within a time limit of 15 business days. If there is no appeal the decision becomes final.

Pope Francis, in the motu proprio, indicated that he is introducing these changes because of the concerns of the bishops, who at the recent extraordinary synod, asked for “more flexible and accessible judicial processes.” “In full harmony with this desire I have decided to introduce, by this motu proprio, provisions that favor not the nullity of marriage but rather the speed of the processes, along with the appropriate simplicity, so that the heart of the faithful who await clarification of their status is not long oppressed by the darkness of doubt due to the lengthy wait for a conclusion.”