Marriage annulment process simplified

January 12, 2016

HOUSTON — With the opening of the Year of Mercy on Dec. 8 came changes to the marriage annulment process throughout the world.

As the reformed rules came into effect, Pope Francis said the new norms are to be adhered to in order to help bring healing to failed marriages.

“The laws that now go into effect aim precisely to show the Church’s closeness to wounded families, desiring that the large number of those who experience the drama of a failed marriage be touched by the healing work of Christ” through the Church in order to then go on to be “new missionaries of God’s mercy towards other brothers and sisters for the benefit of the institution of the family,” the pope wrote.
Father Richard A. Wahl, CSB, JCL, vice officialis at the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese, said at a workshop on Dec. 15 that the office is continuing to adjust to the new regulations.

Father Wahl said the Catholic Church takes a more fundamentalist approach to marriage than other denominations.

“Marriage is about the ‘oneness’ of a man and woman, and this is understood to be a permanent bind,” he said.

Marriage may or may not be a sacrament. It is a Sacrament when both spouses are baptized, whether Catholic or not. All marriages, whether a Sacrament or not, are presumed to be valid. Thus, it is binding until the death of one of those spouses. With every presumption, the opposite may be true. If sufficient evidence shows that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption of validity no longer holds.
“We can look at the beginning (of the marriage) and say ‘was there really a marriage?’” Father Wahl said.

The process, often tedious, went through significant change in the past year in order to make it more effective and quicker. One of the biggest changes was the required need for three witnesses. While the Tribunal will still ask for the names of at least three witnesses, the response of one, the petitioner’s testimony and former spouse agrees that the annulment should proceed, the Tribunal can then go forth with the proceeding.

“One of the biggest reasons that held our process up was witnesses,” Father Wahl said. “Either the person says they don’t have any witnesses or they only have a few, or the witnesses don’t give helpful answers or they don’t answer at all.”

Father Wahl said there were a number of petitions in the past that had been set aside because there was not enough testimony.

“One of the things we will do, maybe in six months, is we will go back and look at those old petitions and see if there was enough testimony for now,” he said.

Previously, the former spouse was given 60 days to respond to the notification letter from the Tribunal that an annulment has been filed. That has been reduced to 30 days. If the former spouse doesn’t respond at all, the petition can still continue.

The requirement for an automatic appeal after the judgment has been given by the Archdiocese has also been eliminated.

“We used to have to send all our petitions to another Tribunal in the State of Texas. We don’t have to do that anymore,” Father Wahl said. “Once we make the judgement here, we send a letter to both the petitioner and the respondent, if the respondent is participating, to say that the decision has been made. ‘Do you want to read it, or do you want to appeal it?’ Based on what they say will depend on what we do next. But, we’re expecting — we don’t know since we’ve never done this before — that neither of them are going to want to come and read it. Then, in 21 days, we will then send them a final letter and decree.”

As far as how long the new process and new petitions will take to process, Father Wahl said he does not know.

“We don’t know because we’ve not done this before,” he said. “We’re adjusting, so we will have to see how that goes.”