CINCINNATI — The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is one of the latest U.S. dioceses to heed the call of Pope Francis, announcing that annulment fees would be eliminated effective Sept. 14.
More than once in his pontificate, Pope Francis has expressed a desire for the annulment procedure — the church process for determining the validity of a marriage — be cheaper and more efficient. On Sept. 8, the pope released a “motu proprio” (on his own initiative), in which, among other things, he called for the elimination of fees.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati had been considering ending such fees already, and the pope’s letter provided an opportunity for pulling the trigger.
“We had been discussing for some months the possibility of abolishing the fee for marriage cases” in the archdiocese during the jubilee Year of Mercy, which opens Dec. 8, said Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati. “So when Pope Francis issued his ‘moto proprio‘ calling, in part, for eliminating these fees, we decided to do so immediately.”
Fees in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati were relatively inexpensive compared to some parts of the United States. A formal case prior to Sept. 14 cost $300 and a lack of form case was just $35. Archbishop Schnurr said the fees could be waived if a petitioner could not afford them. The waiving of fees in the Cincinnati Archdiocese applies not only to new cases, but also to anyone who had been paying on an installment basis for a case already concluded or for a case still in progress.
“Still, the financial aspect may have represented a psychological barrier for some, and that has now been removed,” Archbishop Schnurr added. “It is my hope that anyone who feels his or her marriage is invalid will be encouraged by this move to seek a decree of nullity.”
Just this year, a number of dioceses eliminated the fees.
- In April, the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which had charged $650, eliminated its fees.
- In June, the Diocese of Cleveland, which had charged $450, did the same.
- After the pope’s issued his letter Sept. 8, the Omaha Archdiocese announced it, too, was eliminating fees altogether. Until the pope’s action, the archdiocese — in the majority of cases — charged a $25 filing fee, and $350 only after a marriage was declared “invalid” — meaning there never was a marriage. In cases where a marriage was not declared invalid, there was no charge beyond the filing fee.
The standard of proof for an annulment remains the same, and the pope’s changes are procedural and not as dramatic as some news media accounts might indicate, said Fr. Scott Hastings, a judge of Omaha archdiocesan metropolitan tribunal, which handles annulment cases.
But the changes are “significant, and we will certainly implement them,” he told the Catholic Voice, the archdiocesan newspaper.
And the pope’s actions might help the church in a broader sense, Fr. Hastings said.
“If it creates good will, if people say the church is interested in them, that’s a good thing,” the priest said.
In Cincinnati, Mercy Sr. Victoria Vondenberger, director of the archdiocesan marriage tribunal since 1990, pointed out that the tribunal process isn’t as intimidating as say, civil courts, and noted that mercy is an important part of the process, along with the facts.
“Although the church has always provided for people who cannot pay, and we’ve done that in this archdiocese, I’m sure there are some people who consider any fee prohibitive. We hope now they will feel free to present their case,” she said.
“Since I am a Sister of Mercy, I am obviously very aware of the focus on mercy in church processes,” she continued. “Mercy always goes with justice. To be merciful doesn’t mean to take away the law for someone. What the church does is look at the facts about a particular marriage to see whether there’s proof that something essential was missing from the moment of consent at the wedding, and then that marriage could be declared null.”
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Stegeman is the new-media editor of The Catholic Telegraph, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Contributing to this story was Joe Ruff, news editor of the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.