Pope Francis is in the news again. And we all know that anytime he appears in the annals of news, it is with some excitement. The excitement is not so much because the Vicar of Christ on earth and visible head of the Church is communicating with the faithful. That one is always a given excitement; his rapport with the faithful must always generate attention, positive anxiety and facilitate a continual enlightenment of the faith. But the present excitement in focus, as almost always the case, is the attention that his presence generates on all of media and, interestingly, as presented by the same media.
This time around the Holy Father has issued two Apostolic Letters motu proprio (of his own accord): Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus – or “The Lord Jesus, Clement Judge” – establishes some reforms within the procedures for marital nullity in the Canon Law of the Latin Church. The other motu proprio, Mitis et misericors Iesus or “Clement and merciful Jesus” establishes same reforms in the Canon Law of the Eastern Church.
These reforms have received tremendous attention and have been subject of different understandings and permutations even as canon lawyers now begin to explore their contents and clarify their exact intents and purposes. Your question therefore might be same as mine “who are those who have been making these permutations and suggesting the meanings of these documents thus far?” Simple answer: It is essentially the media and some other unofficial sources.
Given not only the importance of any papal intervention or reforms, but particularly given the very special ambience of these reforms – the processes of marital nullity – it is important that the children of God are not left to be fleeced by the popular opinions of the media. It is obvious to perceiving minds and also in the course of history with its winding lanes, that the media is never value-free. He who pays the piper almost always dictates the tune. The interpretations that these reforms are subject to by the media do not therefore constitute their true essence. Neither should the media be the first source of authentication for the Catholic when issues of his or are faith are in the news. If that were to be the case one could as well decide the list of the yet-to-be-formed cabinet of the present Nigerian government from the several permutations of evening newspapers. That would be very mistaking.
Meanwhile, it is not only the media that should not be taken as the official source of ecclesial teachings and instructions. Even the teeming popular thoughts of analysts and scholars, well-intended as they often are, could not possibly constitute an official version of what the Holy Father presented in these documents or in any other document for that matter. Ecclesiastical teachings may be taught, explicated and discussed by analysts and theologians, and this no doubt is always the ambience of fruitful pollination of thoughts, theological or otherwise. Donum Veritatis, the document on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian makes that point so well. But be that as it may, it does not contradict the fact that the single authoritative source and explication of papal teachings of this sort derives from the very specific pronouncement of the Holy Father himself, and not from the interpretation made of it by the media or these several schools of thoughts.
Given the foregoing and with reference to these two motu proprio, it is important that we attentively focus on their very stated reforms. The Holy Father commenced Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus with the enlightening reminder that the Church and all her institutions, “must always tend towards communicating divine grace and continually facilitating the good of the faithful, according to the charism and call of each one of them…” and that “the salvation of souls” remains the supreme driving force behind these reforms and their promulgation by the Holy Father in union with his brother bishops “for the unity of faith and ordinance of the discipline of matrimony.”
As a singular guiding key to understanding the documents, the Holy Father sustains that these reforms which are fruits of conscientious labours and studies of “a group of eminent persons in juridical doctrines, pastoral prudence and forensic experience” under the guidance of the Roman Rota, were all undertaken leaving untouched however “the principle of the indissolubility of the matrimonial bond”.
In the several explications and interventions in the media and elsewhere, this singular key is conspicuously missing. The impression often given is that Pope Francis has now given room for “catholic divorce” as some have opined in Die Zeit, a German tabloid. That opinion apparently is not limited to such tabloids.
Yet nothing is father from the truth. Precisely because in essence, the heart of these reforms is to give a more enhanced juridical administration of annulment of unions which de facto lacked matrimonial bonds. Or in other words, the reforms aimed at making faster an ecclesiastical declaration of what is already itself naturally the case, an absence of matrimonial bond, which as experiences teach us, constitute grave challenges for the faithful who find themselves in these albeit unfortunate situations, not only with regards to the reception of the sacrament but even with regards to their practice of the faith and living a dignified life of the children of God.
It is imperative, for a greater insight into the document, to equally present here a list of what the Holy Father considered the “fundamental criteria which guided the entire reform.” They are seven in number (the eight being particularly for the Oriental Church). One could surmise that the most obvious consequences of these seven “fundamental criteria” are essentially: that a single judgement of nullity is now sufficient (even though right to appeal remains); and the entire process would now require a shorter period. The said “fundamental criteria” (as rendered by the unofficial English translation of the Vatican Radio) are:
- “That there be only one sentence in favor of executive nullity – It appeared opportune, in the first place, that there no longer be required a twofold decision in favor of marital nullity, in order that the parties be admitted to new canonically valid marriages: the moral certainty reached by the first judge according to law should be sufficient.
- A single judge under the responsibility of the Bishop – The constitution of a single judge in the first instance, who shall always be a cleric, is placed under the responsibility of the Bishop, who, in the pastoral exercise of his own proper judicial power shall guarantee that no laxity be indulged in this matter.
- The Bishop is judge – In order that the teaching of the II Vatican Council be finally translated into practice in an area of great importance, the decision was made to make evident the fact that the Bishop is, in his Church – of which he is constituted pastor and head – is by that same constitution judge among the faithful entrusted to him. It is desired that, in Dioceses both great and small, the Bishop himself should offer a sign of the conversion of ecclesiastical structures, and not leave the judicial function completely delegated to the offices of the diocesan curia, as far as matters pertaining to marriage are concerned.
- Increased brevity in the legal process – In fact, beyond making the marriage annulment process more agile, a briefer form of trying nullity cases has been designed – in addition to the documentary process already approved and in use – which is to be applied in cases in which the accusation of marital nullity is supported by particularly evident arguments. In any case, the extent to which an abbreviated process of judgment might put the principle of the indissolubility of marriage at risk, did not escape me [writes Pope Francis – ed.]: thus, I have desired that, in such cases the Bishop himself shall be constituted judge, who, by force of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline.
- Appeal to the Metropolitan See – It is fitting that the appeal to the Metropolitan See be re-introduced, since that office of headship of an Ecclesiastical province, stably in place through the centuries, is a distinctive sign of the synodality of the Church.
- The proper role of the Bishops’ Conferences – The Bishops’ Conferences, which must be driven above all by the anxious apostolic desire to reach the far-off faithful, should formally recognize the duty to share the aforesaid conversion, and respect absolutely the right of the Bishops to organize judicial power each within his own particular Church.
There-establishment of vicinity between the judge and the faithful, in fact, shall not be successful if the stimulus does not come from the Conferences to the single Bishops, along with the necessary assistance, to put into practice the reform of the marital nullity process.
- Appeal to the Apostolic See – It is fitting that the appeal to the ordinary Tribunal of the Apostolic See, i.e. the Roman Rota, be maintained: this, in respect of a most ancient juridical principle, so that the bond between the See of Peter and the particular Churches be reinforced – having care, in any case, in the discipline of the use of said appeal, to contain any and all abuse of right, in order that the salvation of souls be given no cause for harm.”
In conclusion, it suffices to reiterate that the Pope, even the often so-named “populist Pope Francis”, remains the Vicar of Christ bound by the same general precepts which binds each and every faithful. The often mistaken air that he could with a stroke of the pen change the precept of the law as touted by the media is very confusing and the faithful would do well not to allow the webs of confusion occasionally spurned by the propaganda of the media begin to look like the reality of the Catholic and Apostolic Church and her precepts.
The present reforms of the nullity process are what they claim be: reforms of the kernels of the same laws, not new laws. And even at that, the terms of those reforms were worked upon, again, by “a group of eminent persons in juridical doctrines, pastoral prudence and forensic experience”, and not by an overzealous Pope Francis, endearing as his personality might suggest or as the confusing assertions of the media might want to make it look like.