By Tanya Connor
The Worcester Diocesan Tribunal has received many calls since Pope Francis’ changes simplifying the annulment process were publicized last week, Msgr. F. Stephen Pedone said this week. As judicial vicar/vicar for canonical affairs, he oversees the office which handles requests for annulments, which he said are properly called declarations of nullity.
The Church has made declarations of nullity since the Middle Ages, but after Vatican Council II there were big changes in the process, and Worcester Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan was at the forefront of those changes, he said.
Pope Francis’ changes did not undo Bishop Flanagan’s work, Msgr. Pedone said. But they raised practical questions, as the pope is seeking an affordable, faster process.
Responding to questions his office has received, Msgr. Pedone said the Worcester Diocese will still charge $450 for each case and the time the process takes depends partly on timely responses from the parties and their witnesses and on his office’s case load.
“We’re expecting a big influx of cases,” he said. So, he said, his office is choosing more advocates to add to the four who now help petitioners prepare their cases when their pastors can’t.
Dioceses might help each other too.
He plans to attend the annual national convention of the Canon Law Society of America Oct. 11-15 in Pittsburgh which will include a section about the pope’s changes, he said. American canonists think the system in the United States is very efficient, and has already been doing some of what the pope is asking for. So they might be able to be a resource for other countries, he said.
He is also to join other judicial vicars of the Boston Province, which covers Massachusetts and northern New England, at a meeting in November in Boston to begin planning how to implement the changes, which go into effect Dec. 8, the start of the Year of Mercy.
“It’s really a substantial reform,” and needs to be seen in conjunction with the Year of Mercy, he said. He said Pope Francis “focuses on the poor and he includes in the poor those who are divorced and remarried and who are distant or away from the Church.”
Msgr. Pedone said the Church says it doesn’t have the authority to change the definition of marriage, which was instituted by Divine Law, revealed in Scripture to be between a man and a woman for life. Church law presumes the marriage is valid, and it’s up to the petitioner to show reasons why that presumption should be overturned.
A declaration of nullity the Church makes says a marriage existed – at least civilly – so there are obligations, such as supporting any children. But the marriage lacked the essential elements to make it sacramental, he said.
From 1969 to 1972 Bishop Flanagan, second bishop of Worcester and a Vatican Council II father, chaired the U.S. bishops’ Canonical Affairs Committee, Msgr. Pedone said. The bishop and other canonists drafted new norms, which said psychological causes could be considered, along with traditional reasons, for a declaration of nullity.
“They were called the American Procedural Norms, only operative in the United States,” Msgr. Pedone said.
At one point some cardinals tried to convince Pope Paul VI to end this “American experiment,” he said. So Bishop Flanagan went to Rome on behalf of the U.S. bishops to defend the norms, and the pope agreed with Bishop Flanagan, he said.
Then in 1983, when the present Latin-rite Code of Canon Law was adopted, most of what Bishop Flanagan and his committee had drafted became part of the universal law of the Church, he said.
“I remember him saying, ‘I just felt we had to help people who didn’t fit into the traditional reasons for nullity,’” Msgr. Pedone said.
Traditional reasons, still used today, include not consummating the marriage and one or both parties not intending to: be faithful to their spouse, remain in the marriage for life or be open to having children, Msgr. Pedone said.
He said Bishop Flanagan and his committee added to those reasons the possibility that something seriously impacted a person’s ability to consent to marriage. Examples are: people feeling forced into marriage, perhaps of pregnancy, or being impaired by an addiction, not knowing themselves or their partner sufficiently, or being incapable of assuming and sustaining the responsibilities of marriage.
The Worcester Diocese grants most requests for a declaration of nullity, Msgr. Pedone said. When cases do not look like they contain grounds for such a declaration, his staff try to tell the petitioners at the beginning. Petitioners who withdraw their cases pay only a $50 filing fee, he said.
The $450 is one-third of the cost of processing a case, Msgr. Pedone said. The Diocese, through its Central Administration budget, pays the other two thirds.
Some tribunals are self-supporting and therefore charge more, and in some places costs have been exorbitant, he said.
“No one is ever denied the services of the Worcester Tribunal because of a legitimate inability to pay,” he said. But sometimes people think they shouldn’t have to pay the Church anything.
“You can’t buy a wedding cake for $450 – or it’s going to be a very small one,” he said. And lawyers’ fees for those seeking a civil divorce far exceed $450.
He noted that Pope Francis said workers should be compensated.
The bishop is officially head of the tribunal and chief judge, and those who work there act in his name, Msgr. Pedone said. In the Worcester Tribunal there are three judges, who decide whether to grant a declaration of nullity; two defenders of the bond, who present any reasons why a declaration of nullity should not be granted; a psychologist, who assesses petitioners and their partners and their marriage; currently four advocates, who help petitioners prepare their cases, and an administrative assistant/ecclesiastical notary, who signs the final decisions.
They probably handle more than 100 cases a year, Msgr. Pedone said.