By Peter Bugden
DIVORCED Brisbane Catholics seeking Church judgements on their marriages will soon have access to a process that reflects Pope Francis’ own personal intentions.
The Pope announced reforms of the Church’s marriage annulment process on September 8, indicating he wanted the process to be quicker, cheaper and much more of a pastoral ministry.
The changes are due to take effect from December 8, and Brisbane archdiocese’s judicial vicar in the Regional Marriage Tribunal Fr Adrian Farrelly said he expected “we’ll be up and running with the new procedures” by then.
Although still working through the implications and practicalities Fr Farrelly said the tribunal welcomed the changes which came in a rewriting of a section of the Code of Canon Law.
The reformed processes were drafted by a committee Pope Francis established last year.
Among the criteria he said guided their work, the first he listed was the possibility of there being “only one executive sentence in favour of nullity” when the local bishop or judge delegated by him had the “moral certainty” that the marriage was not valid.
Previously an appeal was automatic and a declaration of nullity had to come from two tribunals.
Fr Farrelly said that was a change that would help make the process quicker because at the moment it was mandatory to refer an affirmative decision to a higher tribunal.
“The best practical change means that someone who comes to the tribunal to see about a declaration of nullity of the consent that they gave on their wedding day … I can say ‘Yes, we can assist you from start to finish’,” he said.
“Up till now the procedural rules meant that at times we couldn’t say that.”
Fr Farrelly said the new procedures meant “we can graciously receive the people who come and know that we can assist them from the beginning to the end of the process”.
The task was to examine the consent given by the couple in their exchange of marriage vows.
“It’s an examination of the consent that the bride and groom gave on their wedding day, which we presumed was a binding agreement that had the creative power to create a bond of marriage,” Fr Farrelly said.
“What’s declared null, or found to be empty, are the words they used.”
Fr Farrelly said not everyone would be happy with the changes.
“They would see it as a watering down – ‘Is it going to mean an assault on the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage etc?’,” he said.
“I don’t see that.
“As I read it, we still have to follow the judicial processes that apply in ecclesiastical tribunals and we’ve still got to come to that level of what they call moral certainty.
“We’re not looking at the fact the marriage broke down; that’s the presenting issue.
“What we’re looking at is the agreement that was made on the wedding day.”
Fr Farrelly said the core of the Pope’s concern was reflected in the title of the document announcing the reforms – Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge).
“‘Gentleness’, ‘tenderness’, ‘mercy’ are words that Pope Francis uses frequently, plus a concern for the poor,” he said.
“The Pope sees those who are divorced and remarried – so their marriages are not recognised by the Church – he sees them as the poor.
“They’re not necessarily financially poor but they’re poor because they cannot in good conscience come to the Table of the Lord at Mass on Sunday and receive Holy Communion.”
Fr Farrelly said the Pope “sees them as the poor who need the compassion of Mother Church and who need God’s mercy shown them”.
“It’s no accident that Pope Francis sent this letter out on the feast of Our Lady’s birthday and it comes into effect on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it’s the start of the Year of Mercy,” he said.
“He sees this revision of this part of the Code of Canon Law that affects the procedures for declarations of nullity, that this is a sign of mercy.
“And he issued it, I think, in great part because of what the bishops at the extraordinary Synod of Bishops (on the family) last year (had to say) – they apparently were quite vocal that something needed to be done.”
Fr Farrelly said the Pope, having published the document on the reforms, had removed an issue that may have been a distraction at the Synod of Bishops on the family, being held from October 4-25.
Pope Francis said he would like the process of declaring nullity to be free of charge.
Fr Farrelly said the Brisbane tribunal currently had a sliding scale of charges based on applicants’ income.
“We don’t have a set dollar amount; it’s one week’s gross income,” he said.
“If you’re on $1500 a week or whatever, then that’s what we’d ask of you; if you’re on a pension and you’re getting $250 a week, that’s what it would be for you; if you’re a top-line barrister who is making $15,000 or $20,000 a week – different dollar amounts but people pay the same.”
Fr Farrelly said if the Queensland bishops decided the tribunal would not charge fees, money would still have to be found for wages.
The tribunal, where people are received “graciously and sensitively”, was one of the few places where divorcees could have their stories heard.
Fr Farrelly said because divorce proceedings were so “cut and dried” it was often the case that no one had listened to their stories.
He said there was often benefit for those involved to go through the tribunal processes “just (through) telling the story (and) having someone listen” even though it may be painful.
“We, because of the processes that we have and will still have, we do listen,” he said.
“We listen to their story and oftentimes they have not told the whole story to anybody else.
“It’s the putting of your story out there that gives you another view of it because if we keep it inside our heads we can under-value it or over-exaggerate it.”