Letter from Rome

Annulment Decision Didn't Drop Out of the Sky

Pope Francis has shown that he can make a decision—and a major one, at that.

This week he issued two “motu proprios” (that is, legislative texts of his own initiative) that will bring about the first major reforms in three centuries concerning marriage annulments. In a nutshell, he has streamlined the annulment process and ordered that declarations of nullity be offered free of charge.

But this did not drop out of the sky. And it was not a unilateral, benevolently despotic act of the church’s supreme lawgiver.

Bishops and priests from almost every part of the world have been calling for such a reform for a number of years. The Synod of Bishops even took up the issue in 2005 at the assembly on the Eucharist, when the fathers made a veiled reference to annulment reform in their final list of suggestions or propositions to Benedict XVI (Prop. 40).

The former pope, even for many years before becoming Bishop of Rome, had expressed interest in actually broadening the valid reasons for an annulment to include “lack of a solid Christian formation” (or faith) necessary for receiving the sacrament of matrimony. But other than pondering this out loud, he did nothing to make it a reality.

Pope Francis has now moved the ball forward. He did so with the help of a commission he formed last year, which included his most trusted canon lawyer from Argentina, Mgr. Alejandro Bunge. Just a month after being elected to the See of Rome, Francis brought the canonist over to work at the Roman Rota.

On the advice of the commission, of which Mgr. Bunge was one of the two secretaries, the pope has given more authority to local bishops to oversee annulment cases; he has eliminated the need for a second judicial sentence; and he has also provided—in certain, more clear-cut cases—for an abbreviated, fast-track procedure that could produce a declaration of nullity within forty-five days. Even at the normal pace, the reform should make it possible for people to receive an annulment within a year. And, of course, for free.

Unfortunately, many in the secular media have once again misunderstood what Pope Francis has done. Just as some thought he singlehandedly decided recently that the church could now forgive the sin of abortion, as if it had never done so before, they think he is now allowing any Catholic who is currently divorced and civilly remarried to make everything all right by getting a guaranteed quickie annulment. But it’s not quite that easy. Or at least it is not supposed to be.

First, there are failed marriages that clearly were valid sacramental marriages. And second, declarations of nullity can be contested. It is likely that those who believe annulments are hypocritical and merely “Catholic divorce” will continue to contest former spouses who seek annulments.

One final observation. Curiously, the new laws were released suddenly (after just a twenty-four-hour notice) and only in Latin and Italian, even though one of the motu proprios was for Byzantine Catholics who, with very minor exceptions, do not use either of those languages!

 

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Catholics in Switzerland got a bit of a jolt last weekend when Pope Francis named Archbishop Thomas Gullickson their country’s new apostolic nuncio

As an old Benedictine monk once told me, “Switzerland is so pretty it should be under a Christmas tree.”

And while that may be true in terms of its topography, most of the bishops and baptized faithful are probably not seeing this new appointment as an early yuletide gift.

With few exceptions, Swiss Catholics are generally not known to be traditionalists or excessively hierarchical. In fact, they are extremely “democratic,” even to the point of rejecting moves over the years to elevate one of their six dioceses (there are also two territorial abbeys) to a metropolitan archdiocese.

The Swiss Bishops’ Conference also took seriously Pope Francis’s invitation to canvas lay people in the run-up to the Synod on the Family. The conference published the views, even though a great majority of them were critical of current church teaching and practice on all sorts of issues pertaining to marriage and human sexuality.

Archbishop Gullickson, in all likelihood, will seriously frown upon all of this. The sixty-five-year-old American has since 2004 been nuncio in the Antilles and most recently in Ukraine. He has shown himself to be of a more traditionalist bent and has even openly criticized bishops who do not promote the use of the so-called Old Mass or Tridentine Rite.

Swiss Catholics should be prepared for him to speak out against their dissenting opinions. 

But they can take heart in the fact that their new nuncio will not be re-shaping their national hierarchy during his four- to five-year posting. Only one of bishops—seventy-three-year-old Vitus Huonder of Chur—is near the normal age of retirement (seventy-five). The next oldest is only sixty-six.

On the face of it, one might suggest that Francis and his aides decided to take Archbishop Gullickson away from his post in Kiev and send him to Bern in order to keep a closer eye on the Swiss Church. But there could be another explanation.

The nuncio is a fan of social media, maintaining his own blog, Deo Volente Ex Animo, and he regularly posts comments on Twitter. And some of those tweets have linked to articles extremely critical of Pope Francis.

Rome is a lot closer to Switzerland than it is to Ukraine. And now it will be a lot easier for the pope and his men to keep a closer eye on the archbishop.

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Pope Francis will soon have a golden opportunity to send another cardinal into earlier retirement at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

The current archpriest there, Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló, turns eighty on September 21, and it would be quite normal if the pope were to ask him to step aside to make room for someone else.

Whoever that may be, he would have to decide what to do with Cardinal Bernard Law. John Paul II named the former Archbishop of Boston the basilica’s archpriest in 2004 when Law was only seventy-two and could no longer govern his diocese because of protests over his handling of sex abuse cases.

Thanks to the graciousness of Cardinal Abril y Castelló (and the Spaniard’s desire to remain in his flat near St. Peter’s), he has continued to live there even as he approaches his eighty-fourth birthday next November.  

Benedict XVI named Abril y Castelló the archpriest in 2011 as a way to reward the career papal diplomat with a red hat. Popes have used the papal basilicas and a few other mainly ceremonial positions in a similar way. But, at times, they have also found these red-hat posts to be a convenient parking spot for cardinals they would like to sideline but who are still too young to be retired.

Among candidates with all the right credentials to be the next archpriest of St Mary Major, there’s no need to look farther than at some of the cardinals in the Roman Curia.

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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