A pastoral approach: Diocesan tribunal continues streamlining annulment proceedings

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

May 14, 2019

One of only 100 rotal lawyers in the world, Dr. Sara Pagliaunga makes sure the annulment process remains compassionate and streamlined. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

The 200 to 300 people who apply for a marriage annulment in the Diocese of Fort Worth each year often approach the process with two fears, said Sara Paglialunga, JCD.

“Their first fear is that it’s going to cost money,” explained the doctor of canon law who oversees the diocesan tribunal office. “The second fear is that it is going to take forever.”

Both concerns are now eased. Keeping with marriage nullity reforms mandated in the 2015 document Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus, Gentle Judge”) by Pope Francis, the diocese revised its procedures to make annulments more compassionate, streamlined, and accessible.

“No money is paid at all, and the amount of time to receive a judgment is shorter and shorter,” Paglialunga assured. “We are applying everything Pope Francis asked us to apply.”

Prior to the recent changes, which began to be implemented in 2016, a canonical investigation into whether a marriage was valid — in the context of a sacrament — could take years. Pope Francis recommends a target goal of 16 months for the annulment process.

Hired last year to implement the mandate, Paglialunga — a rotal lawyer who holds the highest canonical degree offered by the Catholic Church — helped clear a backlog of cases. The tribunal now issues most judgments in 20 months and hopes to reduce the time period even more.

Major changes making the annulment process more pastoral include:

  • Every case no longer needs two affirmative judgments for resolution. One decision in favor of nullity is sufficient and eliminates extra formalities.
     
  • Of the three tribunal judges ruling on a case, only one must be an ordained priest or deacon. In the past it was two.
     
  • Rules determining a tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear a case were simplified. A petitioner can file in the diocese where the marriage took place, where either party lives, or where the preponderance of evidence exists.
     
  • A diocesan bishop is authorized to act as sole judge in certain cases.
     
  • The previously required automatic appeal to the Metropolitan Court in San Antonio for confirmation of the local tribunal’s decision has been removed. A person can still appeal if he or she wants to challenge the decision of the local tribunal.

The expedited process must meet certain criteria.

“Pope Francis says if a petitioner and respondent both agree about the declaration of nullity of the marriage, and both say the marriage was invalid from the beginning for the same reasons, the process is shorter and takes less time,” Paglialunga explained.

If during the shorter process it becomes apparent the bishop cannot grant a declaration of nullity because of insufficient evidence, the case is transferred to the full, formal process.

The canon law expert stressed that revisions do not change Church teaching regarding marriage or its indissolubility.

“This is about a sacrament, and a sacrament, like Baptism, is forever,” Paglialunga emphasized. “When we issue a sentence that says your marriage was invalid from the beginning, we’re saying there never was a sacrament.”

An affirmative ruling indicates a union lacked one or more necessary conditions for a true marriage.

And a declaration of nullity has nothing to do with children born to a couple during a marriage. “Children do not become illegitimate because of an annulment,” she quickly pointed out. The Church teaches that an annulment has no effect on the legitimacy of children who were born of the union following the wedding. Likewise, parental obligations remain after a marriage is declared null.

What an annulment does provide is healing.

“This is not like a divorce where you just sign a paper,” Paglialunga clarified. “A person is going back to the Church and must be honest and talk about the problems in the marriage and what caused the nullity of the marriage.”

An annulment petition requires answering very personal questions about childhood, a spouse’s childhood, and attitudes about marriage, divorce, and fidelity. Whether a person was mature enough to marry is explored.

“It’s supposed to make you think,” she said. “Declaring a sacrament invalid requires very good reasons, and that’s why we ask very personal questions.”

Some petitioners want to marry again. Others have no immediate plans to wed but hope for peace and closure.

“The process helps clarify what happened in a marriage and a judge may recommend talking to a priest or counselor,” Paglialunga continued. “It’s very cathartic and healing. That’s the aim of this process.”

People should use the annulment process to grow spiritually and personally.

“They can forgive themselves about what happened and move forward to another marriage that will be valid,” she suggested.

Following Pope Francis’ reform of Church law regarding nullity procedures, some U.S. dioceses have seen an uptick in annulment applications. In the Diocese of Fort Worth, Paglialunga noticed less strain in the people contacting her office. The tribunal no longer receives scores of emails from frustrated petitioners asking about the status of a case.

“People are just happy to be receiving their sentence or they know from their advocate the tribunal is diligently working to provide them a sentence in a timely fashion,” she said.

The 200 to 300 people who apply for a marriage annulment in the Diocese of Fort Worth each year often approach the process with two fears, said Sara Paglialunga, JCD.

Published (until 9/9/2039)
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