- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

The Vatican yesterday issued new guidelines for marriage annulments, the first in nearly 70 years, although Catholic Church leaders are uncertain whether the new rules will succeed in curbing the flood of annulments that have been granted in recent decades, particularly in the United States.

“The Holy Father has been highly critical of the promiscuous distribution on annulments in the United States” for quite some time, and the new rules represent an attempt to “tighten up” in that area, said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

But he said he does not foresee major changes in decision-making initially, because of the support for annulments on many diocesan tribunals, which approve or deny annulment applications.

“Change will be graduated,” Mr. Donohue said.

Under church law, an annulment is a ruling that a true marriage never existed. It is usually granted on the grounds that one or both parties in wedlock did not have the psychological capacity or maturity to understand the commitment marriage entails.

It also can be granted if one partner hid something from the other, such as a previous marriage, infertility or impotence.

Today, Mr. Donohue said, annulments are granted “for emotional and psychological reasons … as part of a conveyor belt-type process.”

The National Catholic Reporter said one aim of the new annulment document is to prevent a “rubber-stamp approach” to applications, “so that a serious judicial process is observed.”

One section of the text would attempt to do this by limiting the ability of parties to cite minor psychological problems that many people experience, such as stress, as grounds for determining incapacity.

Another proposed reform that was scrapped in the final revision would have allowed declaration of just one party, either the husband or wife, to “constitute full proof of the nullity of the marriage,” the Reporter said.

Under existing law, those declarations usually have to be bolstered by other proof, such as testimony from third-party witnesses.

“This code aims to help make it easier for the tribunals to ascertain the truth” about the nature of troubled marriages, said Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.

Cardinal Herranz was in charge of a group entrusted with the final revision of the guidelines.

The cardinal told Reuters news agency that it’s too soon to know whether the new rules would reduce the number of annulments.

Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, professor of canon law at Catholic University, said the impact of the guidelines will be determined by how much tribunals take them to heart.

“There’s not much that’s new in there. But they bring altogether into one practical handbook a way to facilitate processing of [annulment] cases justly and fairly,” he said.

Catholic law bans divorce but allows believers to remarry in the church if they get an annulment, declaring a previous union void. Critics deride the procedure as “Catholic divorce,” available to those able to pay fees to have unwanted marriages dissolved.

According to the Holy See in Rome, 56,236 annulments were sought worldwide in 2002, and 46,092 were approved. Of that total, nearly 31,000 involved Catholics in North America, primarily the United States.

These numbers “suggest the bar has been lowered to unacceptable levels,” Mr. Donohue said.

In contrast, the church granted only 338 annulments in the United States in 1968, according to an article in the National Catholic Reporter. That publication said the new 111-page handbook, titled Dignitas Connubii (The Dignity of Marriage) represents nearly 10 years of work, and the version published yesterday was the third draft.

It also pointed out that the Vatican “eliminated or watered down” some reforms sought by “many American bishops and canonists … which would have made an annulment [even] faster and easier to obtain.”

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