ALLOUEZ— Dec. 8 will mark more than the opening of the Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church. New procedural norms for the annulment process, issued by Pope Francis in a document entitled Mitis ludex Dominus lejus (The Gentle Judge, The Lord Jesus), will also take effect that day. The new procedures are expected to speed up the annulment process.
“For Pope Francis, the mercy and justice of the church in this realm demands that we bring these cases to a close in a timely fashion,” said Fr. Brian Belongia, judicial vicar for the tribunal of the Diocese of Green Bay. “There are too many cases where people go for years without knowing just because the process is taking so long.”
Parties petitioning for an annulment will not notice much of a change on the front end, said Fr. Belongia. They are still going to have to go through advocates, have witnesses and prove grounds for the annulment. A defender of the bond must still look at the case and list the points for the bond. Experts will continue to be consulted in cases involving a medical condition or other circumstances requiring more information.
The most significant change will be the discontinuation of the automatic appeal to the second instance court.
“A case comes in, we try it, we get all the information in, I make a decision,” explained Fr. Belongia. “That can take anywhere from three to six months. A lot depends on how long it takes the witnesses and the people involved to get their information to the tribunal. We can’t close it until we have all the information.”
Once a decision is made, it is automatically appealed to the second instance court in Milwaukee.
“(The appeals court) has to ratify that decision,” said Fr. Belongia. “That process takes anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks.”
Pope Francis has declared that the decision reached at first instance (the tribunal) is final, unless it is appealed by one of the parties or the defender of the bond. Once that decision is reached, the person may enter another marriage.
“(Pope Francis) had put a committee together a year ago, so I knew there were changes coming,” said Fr. Belongia. “I thought that second instance was something that could go away. I really thought in 99 percent of the cases it was a formality.”
Fr. Belongia added that it’s important that parties understand that you can never assume an annulment is going to be granted. Specific grounds have to be present.
“An annulment looks at consent,” he explained. “It doesn’t look at a marriage that fell apart. At the time of consent, when two people come to get married, we presume the two people came together to become one. What an annulment says is no, this didn’t happen on psychological grounds, something against the will of marriage. Was there force or fear? That’s what the petitioner needs to prove.
“The pope is not necessarily making it easier; he’s speeding up the process and making it more available. He’s very concerned about the indissolubility of marriage. That is permanent. Once two people come together, that’s a permanent bond and is presumed for life. The sacramentality of marriage demands that it is protected.”
Pope Francis also asked for a review of fees for an annulment. The estimated cost for the diocese to process an annulment is approximately $1,000. The petitioner is asked to contribute $350 to offset the cost. The inability to pay does not prohibit the processing of an annulment.
“Pope Francis wants to make sure the poorest person on the street in the poorest country can get an annulment,” said Fr. Belongia. “When it comes down to it, there is still the cost. Out of the spirit of justice, we ask that you help us with some of the administrative costs if you are able.”
Fr. Belongia plans to do advocate training to help the process.
“The better the advocates can do on their end to get the petition here, the faster it can go,” he said.
Fr. Belongia also indicated that he will probably reinstate three-panel judges in the diocese.
“Before it goes out officially, two other people have read it,” he said. “If it does get appealed, at least three people looked at it. That’s not going to take much more time.
“Some people may think that the pope may be making it too easy or taking the sacrament lightly. I don’t see that,” added Fr. Belongia. “If anything, they are going to be tighter on us. There is not going to be that second set of eyes, the second instance court, looking at it. There are ways to hold us accountable. Every year we have to send a report to Rome of our activity.”
Fr. Belongia appreciated the timing of the document release on Sept. 8.
“It took it out of the World Meeting of Families,” he said. “It’s no longer part of the discussion. The focus (in Philadelphia) will be on the family.”