Annulment questions? Tribunal staff available Ash Wednesday

| January 29, 2016 | 0 Comments
Father Michael Johnson, judicial vicar of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, stands outside the Cathedral of St. Paul, where tribunal staff will be available Ash Wednesday to answer questions about the annulment process. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Father Michael Johnson, judicial vicar of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, stands outside the Cathedral of St. Paul, where tribunal staff will be available Ash Wednesday to answer questions about the annulment process. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On Ash Wednesday, representatives from the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will be available before and after Masses at the Cathedral of St. Paul for questions related to marriage annulments. It’s the ninth year the office has held the event, but it’s especially appropriate for the Year of Mercy, said Father Michael Johnson, the tribunal’s judicial vicar.

Tribunal staff members will be stationed in the baptistery and the Pietà chapel in the Cathedral’s vestibule throughout the morning and afternoon Feb. 10. Masses are 7 a.m., noon, 5:15 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Many Catholics who have been away from the Church return for Mass and ashes on Ash Wednesday, explained Amy Tadlock, a tribunal judge.

“Lent is that time when people are trying to get right with the Lord, and there’s an opportunity for them to come and get the annulment process started or find out some more information about it,” she said. “It’s often a motivating factor for people.”

In the past, people’s questions have ranged from specific questions about their own circumstances to general queries on behalf of family and friends.

This year, Catholics might have new questions about the changes Pope Francis made to canon law codes governing the annulment process. News reports have described a quicker, simpler process, but there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to declaring marriages null, the archdiocese’s experts said.

Judicial, yet pastoral

The Metropolitan Tribunal is an archdiocesan office that addresses issues related to canon, or Church, law. Much of that work includes investigating and assessing the validity of marriages for Catholics seeking annulments.

“The tribunal occupies an unknown, very misunderstood, very confusing institution within the Church,” Father Johnson said. “Because of that, it’s intimidating for people . . . There’s kind of a mystique for people about what we do,” which is why tribunal staff members make themselves available in the familiar setting of the Cathedral for the Ash Wednesday event. The office holds similar events in parishes throughout the archdiocese.

The annulment process — and annulments themselves — is also widely misunderstood, and tribunal staff members find themselves correcting widespread misinformation about the cost, length and process. People think it costs a lot of money, takes years and years, both spouses have to cooperate, or a declaration of nullity renders children born of the union illegitimate, all of which are false, Tadlock said.

Catholics who are divorced are also not automatically excommunicated, as was the case under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was revised comprehensively in 1983. Despite the change, some people approach the tribunal fearing they won’t be able to have a Catholic funeral without an annulment.

Annulment is also not “Catholic divorce,” Father Johnson said. It’s determining whether the sacrament of matrimony actually took place at all.

“People think we’re looking at what came out of the marriage — the pain, the suffering, the experiences they had in their marriage, and that’s not actually what we’re looking at,” he said. “We’re actually looking at what goes into the marriage that led up to the exchange of consent, and that’s our primary focus. What happened after that moment sheds some light on what happened, but we only look at that aspect of what happened to the extent that we need to.”

The annulment process is a judicial process, but it is pastoral as well, Father Johnson said. The tribunal also collaborates with pastors to ensure people going through the annulment process have pastoral support.

In the Church, the process dates to the 12th century, but it was adopted from a process perfected by the Romans, Father Johnson said.

“Some people are taken aback that there’s a structure to it, a formality to it, that they weren’t expecting, and they’re intimidated by that,” Father Johnson said.

He added: “They have a question in their life, whether their marriage to this person was valid. The tribunal exists to help them answer that question. The truth and understanding that comes from that is actually a very pastoral thing that then allows them to move forward with the certainty that they didn’t have. . . . People who have gone through the annulment process, provided that they were handled in a professional, respectful way, come to a great peace often times.”

Changes to canon law

In September, Pope Francis announced changes to canon law that affect annulment proceedings. They took effect Dec. 8, the opening day of the Year of Mercy.

He changed 20 canons, marking the third set of changes since St. John Paul II promulgated a comprehensive update to the code in 1983. In most cases, the changes mean a simpler process, but one that will still take time, local tribunal judges cautioned.

Prior to the “new norms,” an annulment case was processed by two courts — typically first in the seeker’s home diocese — the “court of first instance” — and the second in another diocese’s tribunal, in a “court of second instance.” Both tribunals had to find a marriage invalid for an annulment to be granted.

Under the new norms, a court of second instance is not needed to confirm the first court’s finding, unless one of the parties affected by the annulment seeks to appeal it to a second court.

The Metropolitan Tribunal receives about 125 annulment cases each year as a court of first instance, but has taken on 350-400 cases each year as a court of second instance for all other dioceses in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. The workload bogged down tribunal judges, and the average annulment process was taking about two years. Without all cases automatically being evaluated by a second court, the Metropolitan Tribunal expects to reduce that average time to less than a year, but emphasized that each case is unique.

On Sept. 8, the day Pope Francis announced the changes, the tribunal had a backlog of 191 cases in its court of second instance that hadn’t been touched. As of Jan. 21, there were 17.

“It’s huge,” Father Johnson said of reducing the backlog. “That allows us to dedicate more resources now to instructing first instance cases.”

The canon law changes affect all annulment cases that had not received a sentence as of Dec. 8, Father Johnson said.

The Tribunal judges acknowledged that a second court gave them confidence in the procedure, but it also sometimes complicated the process, such as in cases where the second court agreed to the same outcome, but for different reasons. In those situations, the case was referred to a third court — or as many courts as it took to result in two courts granting the same sentence for the same reasons.

It’s the stuff on which harrowing legends of the 50-year annulment were built.

The change in process is a sign of Pope Francis’ “great and profound trust” in his tribunal judges, Father Johnson said. It also allows the court of second instance to focus on the cases that have a legitimate dispute, he said.

Another major canon law change allows a tribunal’s judicial vicar to present cases in which the nullity of marriage is obvious to the bishop for a declaration of nullity. This abbreviated annulment process would affect only a small percentage of cases, Father Johnson said.

According to a Catholic News Service report, the conditions for the abbreviated process include: when it is clear one or both parties lacked the faith to give full consent to a Catholic marriage; when the woman had an abortion to prevent procreation; remaining in an extramarital relationship at the time of the wedding or immediately afterward; one partner hiding knowledge of infertility, a serious contagious disease, children from a previous union or a history of incarceration; and when physical violence was used to extort consent for the marriage.

Fees and time frames

Pope Francis has made clear that financial hardship should not prevent anyone who needs to from going through the annulment process. About one-third of tribunals in the U.S. charge for the annulment process. In the archdiocese, the annulment process costs petitioners $600, although the actual costs incurred range from $2,000-$3,000, the difference subsidized by the archdiocese and its benefactors. The archdiocese may waive some or all of the fee based on the party’s ability to pay.

How much the party paid has no bearing on the annulment process, Tadlock added; tribunal judges often don’t have access to that information.

The archdiocese cannot change its fee while undergoing Reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The tribunal plans to re-evaluate its fee after the archdiocese emerges from Reorganization, Father Johnson said.

There’s no perfect time for a person to seek an annulment, tribunal judges said. Some people seek it while they’re going through a civil divorce; others wait decades or until they are engaged to be remarried.

In cases where the marriage in question took place decades ago, finding witnesses can be difficult, complicating the process, said Father James McConville, the Metropolitan Tribunal’s adjutant judicial vicar. Addressing those cases will be simpler under the new norms, he said.

Tribunal judges advised against waiting until another wedding is being considered because of the length of time an annulment might take and its uncertain outcome. They acknowledged, however, that people who are recently divorced might have raw emotions and less circumspection.

However, it is important for people who need to go through the annulment process to do so, Father Johnson said.

The pope’s linking of annulment process changes with the Year of Mercy signals his intention, he added.

“It’s a clear recognition that the laity have a right to know their status, and knowing where you stand in the Church is a great act of mercy,” he said. “It’s a great act of pastoral charity.”

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