Annulment process faster, not easier, says judicial vicar

New procedural norms issued by pope took effect at opening of Jubilee Year of Mercy

ALLOUEZ — When Pope Francis issued new procedural norms for annulments in his document entitled Mitis ludex Dominus lejus (“The Gentle Judge, The Lord Jesus”), he did not make the process easier, just faster.

“If anything, he was getting firm,” said Fr. Brian Belongia, judicial vicar for the tribunal of the Diocese of Green Bay. “At least four times in the document, he says the sacrament of marriage must be upheld and defended. What he is looking for is more efficiency in the process.”

The annulment process is now faster because of the elimination of an automatic second instance appeal.

“The way it used to work was (that) we made a decision, informed the parties of our decision and they would have 15 days to accept it,” explained Fr. Belongia. “If they didn’t accept it, they could formally appeal it to Milwaukee. If we didn’t hear anything, then it automatically was sent to Milwaukee for ratification. Either way it was an appeal.

“It’s going to be faster,” he added, “but it’s not going to be finished in a month. Rather than going for nine to 12 months, it may be six to eight months. It all depends on how well the petition is crafted. Out of fairness, we take them in order. We will do between 70 and 80 (annulment cases) this year.”

If the parties feel that the judgment is unfair, they still have the right to appeal it to the second instance court.

Most annulment petitioners are seeking a second marriage, but there are some who enter the process because, in their conscience, their marriage was not valid.

“When they come to us, usually they want to set a wedding date,” said Fr. Belongia. “Unfortunately, until the process is completed, we don’t know if they are free to marry or not.”

One of the misconceptions of people seeking an annulment is that they look at the end of the relationship.

“An annulment is actually a court case in church court,” explained Fr. Belongia. “What people are asking us to do is say that a sacrament, marriage, which we believe is permanent once contracted, did not happen. We take a look at the whole picture, not just the end. An annulment looks at the quality of the consent that is given. It says that, when consent was exchanged, something was missing in that consent.”

The pope’s document was the first major change in the tribunal and canon law since the new Code of Canon Law was released in 1983. The basis of the process remains the same. Petitioners begin working through advocates — priests, religious, deacons or lay people — trained by the tribunal. The petition is submitted to the tribunal. The petitioner needs to provide a number of witnesses. The respondent has the opportunity to provide information and witnesses.

“We hope to hear from the respondent because then you get the full story,” said Fr. Belongia. “What we look for is patterns. Just because the respondent denies everything doesn’t mean it’s going to come out any differently. Before the judge makes a decision, the case has been reviewed by the defender of the bond.

“This is a court case. You always have to judge the credibility of both parties,” he added. “You have to uphold the sacrament. Let’s say everything was normal about the marriage and 10 years in, someone has a stroke and ends up in a nursing home. All of a sudden (the spouse of the stroke victim) wants to get married again and applies for an annulment. We can’t grant that. It’s not a valid excuse. It’s a way of protecting the parties.”

Another change, as a result of the new norms, involves the fee. Pope Francis wants the process to be available for anyone who needs an annulment.

“In the spirit of justice, we are simply asking petitioners to consider, at the end of the process, giving a recommended donation of $350,” explained Fr. Belongia. “The estimated cost is between $1,000 and $1,100 to process an annulment from start to finish. That doesn’t include if it goes to second instance because that also includes a fee. We used to ask, when people petitioned, to write a check for $350. It could be waived if they couldn’t afford it. What we are doing now is going more with a donation/stipend model. This is a recommended donation out of justice and stewardship for this process. It invites participation and offsets cost a little bit.”

The new annulment procedures took effect on Dec. 8, the same day as the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church.

“We have to be careful with mercy,” said Fr. Belongia. “Mercy is the process of treating people well, treating people with respect. We have to uphold the sacrament out of justice, which is also merciful because we are protecting the church as well. We don’t rubber stamp. There has to be a good argument in order to say that a marriage never took place because that’s a pretty serious thing.”