Early this week, our Holy Father, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter entitled Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, translated meaning The Lord Jesus, Clement Judge.  With this motu proporio, (of his own initiative) Pope Francis streamlined the process by which the Church examines and declares a marriage null.  For all matters of ecclesiastical (Church) life, the Church is guided by a comprehensive set of laws, which are known as Canon Law.  This Apostolic Letter modifies or reforms the set of laws governing the marriage review process by which the Church determines whether a marriage should be declared null.

The very first thing to notice is the image of Jesus which is evoked by the title, but also in the opening paragraphs of the Letter.  Jesus is meek and gentle in his role as Law-Giver and Judge.  This particular image of Jesus is at the forefront of Pope Francis’ preaching and teaching as well as his prodding that we all become more mission-oriented as Church.  Our Holy Father’s deep desire is that the marginalized will encounter this meek and gentle Jesus not only in each of us, but also within the legal processes of the Church.

Everyone should also be crystal clear in understanding and believing that this stream-lined process still firmly maintains the indissolubility (permanence) of marriage.  Our Holy Father explains his reasons for this Letter:

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.

Though we are still waiting an official translation of the Apostolic Letter, which was issued only in Latin and Italian, here are some key points:

  1. A Single Judgment In Favor of Nullity:  Under the present legislative process, if one or both parties of a failed marriage believe that their marriage was never valid due to some pre-existing flaw in the consent of one or both persons, two tribunals (Church courts) must agree there was indeed a reason to declare the first marriage invalid.  Such a decision is necessary to declare that the two persons are once again free to marry.  The new legislation will require only one tribunal to reach this decision, thus significantly reducing the amount of time required for the process.
  2. One Judge now possible in lieu of Three:  The current code allows episcopal conferences to authorize diocesan bishops to have a single cleric judge a marriage case, and our conference long ago granted this authorization, so we in the United States have already been able to use single cleric judge courts.  What is more significant here is that a collegiate court of 3 judges can now have 2 laypersons as judges, instead of just 1.More significant for us than the issue of the number of judges is the broadening of competence (what secular courts call competence). The requirement for the consent of the Judicial Vicar of the Diocese where the Other Party to the marriage lives and the requirement for residency in the same episcopal conference for a Tribunal to be competent as the place of the Petitioner and the same consent requirement for the place of most proofs have been dropped.  The caution is upon all bishops to maintain the integrity of the process of reviewing these marriage cases, and not to become ‘lax’ in favor of nullity.  At the same time, the new legislation helps ease the burden on tribunals and dioceses which lack sufficient trained personnel.
  3. An Abbreviated Process now possible:  The new legislation grants the possibility to local Bishops to directly judge certain cases where there is ‘ample evidence’ of nullity, and where both parties either jointly petition or the other party has to consent to having the case heard in the shorter process. Bishops have always been able to adjudicate matters personally as a part of their office and munera.  This really is not new, but is being emphasized.  The shorter process, while it states that the matter is to be judged by the Bishop personally, can be delegated.   This particular feature further evidences Pope Francis’ desire to share responsibility with his brother bishops.  He says as much in the opening paragraph of the Apostolic Letter: “Pastors of the particular Churches, by virtue of which they have the sacred right and, before the Lord, the duty to judge their own subjects.”
  4. The Right to Appeal Decisions:  There is no longer an automatic appeal of a decision that a marriage was invalid.  So if the neither party nor the defender of the bond appeal the decision determining the marriage to be invalid, the decision is able to be executed and parties are free to enter a new marriage.  However, the new laws provide that if either of the former spouses believes the tribunal’s decision is unjust, it may appeal the decision to the Metropolitan See.  (For the Diocese of Cheyenne, the Metropolitan is the Archdiocese of Denver.)  It is also possible for appeals to be made to the Apostolic See, that is, the Roman Rota.

I still have further study to do and more to learn regarding these new norms, but the above are some initial observations.  The new legislation will become effective on December 8, 2015 which is also the beginning of the Year of Mercy.  This is not coincidental, but rather a purposeful demonstration of the great desire of our Holy Father to help those who have suffered the breakup of a marriage to experience concretely the Meek and Gentle Jesus in their efforts to heal and discover the possibility of love and family life within the embrace of the Church.

In closing, I wish to say how grateful I am for those who serve this local Church in our Diocesan Tribunal.  They do a great job in presenting the face of the Meek and Gentle Jesus to those who come to us in the heartbreak of broken relationships.  Please visit our Tribunal Website for more Q & A regarding our Holy Father’s inspiring reform of the process of marriage nullity.