CINCINNATI -- Changes in the annulment process announced by the Vatican last week are expected to make it easier for Roman Catholics who want the church to declare they never had a valid Catholic marriage, and who want to remarry in the Church.
Local Catholics say the tribunal process is worthwhile, but many found the 12- to 18-month wait to be difficult. That wait – and the cost – in other dioceses can be even greater.
The changes made by Pope Francis, which take effect Dec. 8, include:
–Eliminating a review by a second tribunal;
–Making the process free, except for nominal administrative fees;
–Requiring each diocese to have its own tribunal to review annulment cases;
–Allowing bishops to bypass a tribunal and grant annulments themselves in certain circumstances.
In announcing the changes, Catholic News Service reported that Msg. Pio Vito Pinto, the president of a commission who helped draft proposed changes to the process, said the new rules are the most significant changes in church marriage law since the mid-1700s.
The Church presumes every marriage is valid and binding for life unless proven otherwise. In the annulment process, a tribunal decides whether the marriage lacked something essential when it began, and therefore deserves a “declaration of nullity,” a finding that a valid Catholic marriage never existed.
During the tribunal process, petitioners submit information about the marriage, including a detailed questionnaire that in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has 34 questions. Some petitioners find this process very helpful and easing to their consciences, said Richard Bollman, a Jesuit who was pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine parish at Xavier University for 20 years. During that time, he supported at least 50 people seeking annulments, he said, and only two were not granted.
“My sense is that (the questionnaire process) has been a good way to help people come to terms with their past,” he said. “Sometimes the writing up of a story is healing … if it can happen more quickly, all to the good.”
The elimination of a review by a second tribunal is the reform that will have the most impact locally, said Sister Victoria Vondenberger, director of the tribunal that hears annulment cases for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Until now, once the first tribunal found that a valid marriage had never happened, a second tribunal had to make the same finding for the decree of nullification to be issued. But under the new rules, the review by the second tribunal would be eliminated, she said, unless one of the spouses involved requested an appeal.
Vondenberger expects this change to shave several months off the annulment process, which now takes from 12 to 18 months in the archdiocese.
“The archdiocese has a very efficient tribunal, but even so, it does take about a year,” Bollman said. “Sometimes that does stand in the way of people moving forward with a subsequent marriage.”
Anderson Township resident Dave Meyer, 62, an ordained deacon who received an annulment in 2002, said the process took about 18 months. Answering the questionnaire, reviewing it with a local priest and then submitting it took about six months. It took another six months for the archdiocese to review his petition, and then another few months to have a second tribunal review it.
That second review, he said, is like proposing to a woman who says, “Yeah, I’ll marry you, but let me think about it another two months.”
Some dioceses or archdioceses charge more than $2,000 for the annulment process, Vondenberger said, and the requirement to make the process free will mean a lot to those Catholics. But the Archdiocese of Cincinnati charges only $300, an amount that doesn’t begin to cover the real cost to process a case, she said.
“It’s kind of a goodwill offering to see that the person is really serious about this,” she said.
The requirement to have a tribunal in every diocese won’t have much impact locally, Vondenberger said, because most U.S. dioceses, including all of those in Ohio, already have fully staffed tribunals. However, this change will have a great impact in other countries, she said, such as Argentina, the pope’s native land, where a tribunal in Buenos Aires handles cases for all 15 of the country’s dioceses.
“Imagine the workload they deal with,” she said.
The rule change allowing bishops to bypass their tribunals and issue annulments directly would probably apply only to rare cases, Vondenberger said, such as if there were spouse abuse or adultery at the time of the marriage.
The new rules were issued in Latin and in Italian, and local church officials didn’t have an English translation immediately available to them. For that reason, the Diocese of Covington declined to make its tribunal head available for comment on this story.
“Once the new legislation is translated into English, canon lawyers will parse the language in preparation for the Dec. 8 inaugural date, to more thoroughly and carefully understand the ramifications,” diocesan spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said in an email.
The changes take effect on the opening day for the Holy Year of Mercy that the pope declared in March.
Batavia resident Angela Fowler, 62, went through the annulment process twice for two marriages, once with the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., in 1990, and then in the early 2000s with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The process took less than a year each time.
She is less concerned about the process taking too long, she said, than she is about the Church shortening the process and eliminating the good that it does. She found the process of answering questions about her marriages, as well as the self-reflection involved, to be very helpful.
“I think the process is pretty doggone good,” agreed Meyer, who now counsels couples preparing to marry. “It’s not comfortable, and it’s not something I would want to go through if I didn’t have to, but by the same token,” he said, he finds himself using some of the same questions on the annulment questionnaire in his couples counseling.
Fowler believes the self-reflection she underwent in the annulment process helped her find a better mate. She has been married to Bill Fowler since 2000.
“He’s a Southern Baptist,” she said. “I always tell him he has made me a much better Catholic.”