Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, gestures at a press conference for the release of Pope Francis’ documents concerning changes to marriage annulments at the Vatican Sept. 8. Canadian canon lawyer Fr. Frank Morrisey says Mary and mercy is the key to understanding reforms to annulment laws. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Mary’s mercy behind annulment changes

  • September 18, 2015

Pope Francis never claimed to be a canon lawyer, but he knows Mary and he knows mercy. Mary and mercy are the keys to understanding the first major reform in the Church’s marriage laws since 1741 and the first changes to the Code of Canon Law under Pope Francis, said the only North American among 12 canon lawyers consulted on changes to Church marriage annulments.

“The decree was signed Aug. 15, the Assumption (of Mary). It was made public Sept. 8, the Nativity of Mary. And it takes effect the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (of Mary, Dec. 8),” said Fr. Frank Morrisey, professor of canon law at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

“Mary, who saw the needs of others, who, you know (said), ‘They have no wine.’ He (Pope Francis) is putting it in her perspective. That’s another example of mercy and the poor. He has put this ministry under her protection.”

Morrisey was the lone North American among eight Rome-based canonists and three others who reviewed the new law and procedure once the committee finished its work. Having somebody from outside the tight Vatican circle was important.

“It just completes the picture,” Morrisey said.

The new Church law announced in early September will make it possible for divorced Catholics to have their previous marriage declared null in as little as 45 days. Fees for the process will be dropped or minimized. The old requirement that every case be automatically appealed to have the first judgment confirmed or overturned is dropped, though the right to appeal to a higher court remains. Bishops are to act as judges in expedited processes and metropolitan archbishops are to act as appeal judges.

Morrisey is an old colleague and good friend of Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, president of the Roman Rota, who taught canon law with Morrisey at Saint Paul University in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Pinto chaired the special commission appointed to revise the annulment process.

The new Church law was written with a particular eye to places where the Church lacks the resources to set up marriage tribunals, Morrisey said.

“It’s important to keep in mind again that this is universal. So many countries just do not have marriage tribunals,” he said.

The new procedures won’t change Canada’s system of regional marriage tribunals and a single national appeals tribunal in Ottawa. For Canadian bishops, the new law will challenge them to be more directly involved as judges on cases that go through the expedited, 45-day simple process.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and Saint Paul University are planning a two-day conference Nov. 19-20 to work out the details of how Canada will adopt the new system. But the new canons won’t require the Canadian bishops to create new particular law for Canada, Morrisey said.

Though the changes may seem sudden, coming together less than a year after the first Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family, they actually represent more than 30 years of thinking about the annulment process among canon law experts.

“There’s nothing in this reform that was not asked for in the years prior to the (1983) code,” said Morrisey.

At that time Rome resisted quicker, more accessible annulment processes.

“There was just total blockage because of what they deemed to consider the exaggerations of the time in the U.S.” he said. “That’s disappeared over those 30 years.”

While the expedited process is a dramatic change for Canadians and others who have waited years to receive decrees of annulment, changes to the rules governing the competence of tribunals, which will allow local tribunals to hear far more cases involving immigrants whose marriages were contracted in other countries is just as important, Morrisey said. Many Canadian cases have been backed up for years or abandoned because local tribunals have had to seek documents or refer cases to countries that don’t have the same system of marriage tribunals.

Morrisey argued for giving lay canonists the same standing as priest canonists, but lost that battle.

“I would have loved to see that changed, but there’s mindsets there,” he said.

The faster process and the requirement for sole judges to be priests will mean that Canadian bishops have to start sending more priests to study canon law, said Morrisey.

“Our basic structure remains in place, but it’s still hanging on by a thread,” he said. “I mean, we have people over 90 years old working in our courts. From a long-term perspective, this is not very sound.”

One small change that will make a big difference in many cases is the addition of faith, or lack of faith, as grounds for granting an annulment under the expedited process.

“Just to have that on that list is a major, major step,” said Morrisey.

Morrisey believes it will take a couple of years for canon lawyers and marriage tribunals to get used to the new system.

“It took us 10 years to get the ’83 code well oiled, for us to get very comfortable with it,” he said. “I expect it’s going to take us a couple of years to get the kinks worked out.”

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