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Pope Francis wants to study Italian annulments. Here’s why

Pope Francis meets Jan. 21, 2021 with officials of the Tribunal of Roman Rota, in Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace. Credit: Alamy.

Pope Francis on Friday set up a study group - a pontifical commission, formally - to study the implementation of his 2015 reforms to the Church’s process for investigating the validity of marriages — the tribunal process.

Why did he do that, and what’s he looking for? The Pillar explains.

What did Pope Francis do?

The pope announced Nov. 26 a pontifical commission “to ascertain and verify the full and immediate application of the reform of the process of matrimonial nullity” in Italian dioceses, and to “suggest to the same Churches whatever is considered opportune and necessary to support and help the fruitful continuation of the reform.”

In short, the pope asked members of the Roman Rota, the primary canonical appeals court for marriage cases in the Church, to take a look at whether the Church in Italy has implemented his 2015 annulment reforms, which were spelled out in a document called Mitis iudex dominus Iesus.

The study, for now, is limited to the particular situation of the Church in Italy.

Why did he do that?

For the last several years, the pope has criticized the Italian approach to tribunal cases — petitions for “annulments.”

In May 2019, Pope Francis told the bishops of Italy that he was “saddened” to see that his 2015 reforms were “far from being applied in most Italian dioceses.”

The pope seems especially aggrieved by the ways in which money factors into tribunal processes in Italy. Mitis iudex called for tribunals to limit costs, and make efforts to ensure that the process would be financially accessible even to those without means.

But most tribunals in Italy charge administrative fees — which start at more than 500 euros, and can stretch beyond one thousand euros. And, unlike the process in the United States, most people seeking an “annulment” in Italy are expected to hire an advocate, usually a civil attorney who, because of the concordat between Italy and the Holy See, is credentialed to assist with the tribunal process, although usually at considerable cost.

The pope has criticized the attorneys who work as tribunal advocates in the past, saying that a profit motive can distort their priorities.

In the United States, even when a canon lawyer — trained in a three-year academic program —  is hired to assist as an advocate in a particularly difficult case, the compensation is usually only a few hundred dollars. There are very few full-time “canonists-for-hire” in the United States; most advocacy work, both in the marriage process and in other canonical processes, is done by canonists working in other ecclesiastical regions.

The pope has also previously directed Italian bishops to “deregionalize” their tribunal processes. While there are around 220 dioceses in the country, most cases are decided in one of the 18 regional tribunals established in recent decades, which aimed to expedite cases by concentrating personnel. But Pope Francis directed bishops to establish local tribunals in each diocese.

He has also urged Italian bishops to take up some annulment petitions themselves, rather than see them handled by tribunal judges. The pope’s 2015 reforms created the possibility for bishops to judge some cases personally, according to a briefer process.

What will the commission recommend?

It’s hard to say.

Annulments can have civil effects in Italy, impacting alimony payments and property disputes. Italian bishops have said their system responds to that circumstance — that it has been professionalized and regionalized because few dioceses have the resources to handle cases competently on their own. The pope’s study commission, consisting of Italians, is likely to understand that, and to argue that attorneys aiding in tribunal proceedings should not be expected to work for free.

Attorneys who advocate in Church tribunal proceedings are likely to argue against any suggestion which changes their involvement, although in some countries, including the United States, much of what they do is handled by priests, deacons, or trained lay volunteers. But the attorneys will argue that since tribunal processes in Italy have civil law effects, they should be entrusted to professionals.

Some Italian journalists have said the country simply has too many dioceses, given the declining number of practicing Catholics, and have urged suppressing or merging some local churches. The study commission might come to similar conclusions — although since such a recommendation is well beyond its mandate, that viewpoint would likely go unspoken.

But the commission will probably point out that few Italian dioceses have enough canon lawyers available to fill the roles required in a tribunal process, and to comply with the pope’s direction — which is the reason bishops petitioned for regional tribunals in the first place.

The commission is also likely to note that in order for bishops to handle petitions by a “short form process” established in 2015 and recommended by Pope Francis, certain technical requirements in the case must be met, and neither party must object to the briefer process. In 2018, the most recent year for which numbers are available, fewer than 4% of petitions for nullity were handled by the short process in the U.S, and the numbers are likely similar for Italy.

The commission’s concrete recommendations will likely focus on cost. In 2018, 15% of tribunal processes in Italy were handled without charging administrative fees, well below the rate in the U.S. The pope’s study commission could recommend that the Italian bishops’ conference establish a centralized fund to subsidize the process for those who are unwilling, or unable, to pay.

Will the commission impact the United States?

It’s not likely.

Many American tribunals have already responded to Mitis iudex by eliminating or reducing fees, and rely on a diocesan subsidy to fund their work. And American canonists have also found ways to speed up the tribunal process since the pope’s reform decrees were announced in 2015.

The issues in the Italian tribunals bear some resemblance to those in other European countries, though, and could serve as the groundwork for ongoing instruction from the Vatican on making the process, which Pope Francis says is essential to justice and mercy, more accessible to divorced Catholics.

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