"The Meek and Merciful Jesus" – With Synod In the Balance, Pope To Unveil Annulment Reform
...and lo and behold, just when this Labor Day was finally looking to be a last gasp of calm two weeks before his arrival in Washington, he did it again: at Roman Noon this Monday, the Holy See suddenly announced a major midday press conference tomorrow to release two surprise legal texts "on the reform of the canonical process for causes of the declaration of the nullity of marriage": put simply, the ever-charged question of annulments.
Closing out the work of an ad hoc group of a dozen canonists Francis tasked with studying the issue in the quiet of August last year, the documents – both issued motu proprio (i.e. on the Pope's own initiative) – will be called Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus ("The Gentle Judge, The Lord Jesus") for the Latin Code of Canon Law, and Mitis et misericors Iesus ("The Meek and Merciful Jesus") for the 1991 text governing the Eastern Churches.
That the release of the texts was announced only on the eve of their publication – a striking contrast to the usual week's notice for major Vatican documents – signals the Pope's intent for the move to come as a complete surprise, and as an ostensible means of short-circuiting any attempt by critics of the changes to derail whatever he's decided. In addition, that the commission completed its work in roughly a year is about the closest thing you'll see to "lightning speed" for a process of this kind: to use a counter-example, the consultation and drafting of Benedict XVI's tightened-up global norms on sex-abuse extended over at least three years before their release in 2010.
While no specifics of their contents are yet known, the announced titles and formats of the texts hint not only at the most significant revamp of annulment procedures at least since the 1983 publication of the revised Latin Code – and, unlike then, a loosening of the process this time – but likewise an overhaul of the relevant canons in each of the volumes which would enact a permanent, global, perhaps sweeping change to the laws overseeing the church's discernment of whether a valid sacramental marriage indeed exists.
As reported here amid last week's Year of Mercy provisions for confessors, as the supreme legislator enjoying "full, supreme, universal and ordinary" jurisdiction in the church by virtue of his office, Francis is able to alter canon law unilaterally and at will. Yet even as no legal alterations were made in last week's concession – despite considerable confusion to the contrary – the announcement of juridical texts here indicates something drastically different on annulments. In another sign of the import attached to the move, unlike the heavily-covered Mercy letter – and, for that matter, most motu proprio documents – a full-tilt media briefing has been planned.
Against the backdrop of next month's climactic Synod on the Family – over which a focus on the church's response to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics looms large – tomorrow's presser will feature several top-tier figures who served on the "special commission" studying the nullity process, including the Dean of the Rota (usually the Vatican's ultimate tribunal on marriage cases) Msgr Pio Pinto, who chaired the group; the chief of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio; the CDF Secretary Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ (a potent signal of a doctrinal aspect to the move), and perhaps most intriguingly, Msgr Alejandro Bunge, long Cardinal Bergoglio's tribunal chief in Buenos Aires, who Francis brought with him to Rome within weeks of his election to serve as the Pope's "pocket canonist." Quietly placed on the annulment group, Bunge – who formally came to the Vatican as a member of the Rota on Francis' appointment – is the lone Argentine recruited by the pontiff to be at his side.
While conservative canonists have reacted to any tweaking of the nullity process with a resistance akin to changing Revelation itself, Francis' lodestars of "mercy," "encounter" and "accompaniment" have long hinted at an impatience with the litigiousness, and its resulting sense of intimidation, that the dynamic of a three-judge tribunal can tend to create. Already, a significant swath of bishops have heeded the Pope's insistent calls to drop all fees for nullity cases, and in his customary address to the Rota in January at the start of its term, Papa Bergoglio urged its "auditors" (judges) to "not close the salvation of people inside a juridical bottleneck" – an implicit reference not just to a backlog of cases that has led to years-long pileups in the Roman tribunals, but likewise to the final canon of the Latin Code (1752), which demands that "the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the church, is to be kept before one’s eyes."
In addition to his "bottleneck" swipe, Francis used the Rota speech to repeat a concept he's stated in other settings: that "the context of value and faith — or the absence or lack thereof — in which the intention to marry is formed" should be a criterion in deciding the validity of a union, having said elsewhere that, in his experience, possibly half of all the Catholic marriages in the 3 million-member Buenos Aires church were invalid due to the lack of said formation in the basics of the faith.
"Indeed," he added to the Rota, "the lack of knowledge of the contents of the faith might lead to what the Code calls determinant error of the will (cf. can. 1099). This circumstance can no longer be considered exceptional as in the past, given the frequent prevalence of worldly thinking imposed on the magisterium of the church."
"Pastoral experience teaches us that today there is a great number of the faithful in irregular [marriage] situations," he said, "on whose personal stories the diffusion of a worldly mentality has had a hefty influence."
While the Synod has widely been expected to discuss possible solutions for a "penitential path" outside the tribunal process which would allow the civilly remarried to return to the sacraments, that Francis has decided to move on annulments before the October gathering isn't a huge surprise given the existence of the study commission and the already hefty plate of issues that awaits the coming assembly which will require significant probing on their own.
Speaking of which, given a new methodology which will see the slated three-week assembly devote a week each to the three individual parts of the instrumentum laboris (the meeting's central working text), the distinct possibility has already emerged that – with the most challenging pieces of the agenda being kept for the final lap as scheduled – the Synod could spontaneously be extended with the aim of forging a workable consensus on the final propositions the body will vote on for presentation to the Pope.
In its major survey on Catholic family life in the US released last week amid the impending papal visit, Synod and the Holy See-sponsored World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia later this month, the Pew Research Center reported that fully one in four of the nation's 70 million faithful have been divorced, and ten percent had civilly remarried.