Thursday, 10 September 2015

Some meek thoughts on Mitis Iudex


Frequently during my priestly life, I have given heartfelt thanks to God that I am not a canon lawyer. Most of my canonist priest friends spend a great deal of their time on cases alleging nullity of marriage and I am glad not to be involved too much in that. As a parish priest I do necessarily become part of the process from time to time. This usually begins at the baptism of a child, when it turns out that the parents are not married, or are married outside the Church. If, after gently enquiring about the circumstances, it turns out that things could be put right by a declaration of nullity of a previous marriage, and a person wants to go ahead with petitioning for nullity, I do everything I can to help them.

This involves some careful explanation of the process, helping them to fill in the forms, and assisting them with writing the initial statement. My personal view of the nullity process does not come into it - I am bound to offer the best help that I can for the person to benefit from the Church's law as it stands.

I will continue to do my best to help people who come to me, now that a change in the law has been decreed by the Holy Father. My view of the law is of no account. I thank God even more heartily for the protest that I can make when people think I am a canon lawyer: "No! I am not a canonist, I am a dogmatist."

Along with everyone else, I went to the ever excellent Ed Peters for an initial summary of Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus. If you are interested, there are two articles to date: A first look at Mitis Iudex and A second look at Mitis, especially at the new fast-track annulment process. Notoriously in both civil and canon law, a small change can have wide and unexpected ramifications. From my non-lawyer perspective, this seems to be especially true of tax law and marriage law. The reforms which have just been introduced do seem to be major and I fear for the consequences.

There is no such thing as free beer. Nor in fact is there any such thing as a free nullity process. In the paragraph asking Bishops to make the process free, the caution is issued "salva iusta et honesta tribunalium operatorum mercede" (always providing for the just and honest wage of the workers of the tribunal.) People who work on a tribunal cannot go into the supermarket, take things off the shelves, walk out of the shop without paying for them, and say to the security guard "It's OK, I work for a marriage tribunal." So perhaps the idea is that all the faithful pay for the nullity processes by having yet another second collection - there might be envelopes, leaflets, posters and some special activities for the Children's Liturgy group for Nullity Sunday. At the rate we are going, we will have to introduce third collections, perhaps during the Responsorial Psalm or something, since we will soon run out of Sundays.

The question of where the money comes from is something we can joke about. But there is also no such thing as a consequence-free marriage breakdown and this is where it gets more serious. It might happen - I don't say that it will necessarily, but I think we have to admit the possibility - it might happen that the new process means that there are more declarations of nullity. That could simply be down to the number of genuinely invalid marriages that can now be declared null because of a shorter and simpler process. That might be the case.

What worries me is that it might happen that the indissolubility of marriage could be compromised by making it simply too easy to obtain a declaration of nullity. We should be crystal clear about the fact that this would not be merciful. It might seem lovely to just bend the law a bit and make nullity a rubber stamp process, but it would not be kind or loving, and it would definitely not be what Jesus would do.

Church tribunals are not adversarial in the way that English courts are. They are of the nature of an inquisition, though nobody calls them that any more. As such, they seek to establish the truth and to make a judgement based on the truth. That is also the case with the final judgement before Christ, except that He will not need to establish the truth because He will know it already. We all do well to keep this in mind every day.

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