By Patrick Downes Hawaii Catholic Herald
The Diocese of Honolulu judged twice the number of “declarations of nullity,” commonly called marriage annulments, during the “Holy Year of Mercy” than the year before.
Judicial vicar Father Mark Gantley, who heads the diocesan Tribunal office, said he “rendered 40 decisions in 2015 and 80 decisions in 2016.” He attributed the doubling of cases to a simplification of procedures and the waiving of “judicial fees” — actions put into effect during the Year of Mercy.
The judicial vicar said that the numbers include both “affirmative” decisions proving the nullity of the marriage and “negative” decisions in which nullity was not proven, plus a few causes that were withdrawn for procedural or other reasons.
Father Gantley prefers not to use the word “annulment” which implies that the church is invalidating an existing marriage, he said, when in fact it is declaring a marriage “invalid from the beginning.”
The Tribunal also processed other procedures not counted in the 80 causes including “Lack of Canonical Form” petitions (where a Catholic was previously married outside of the church) and “Prior Bond” petitions (where a marriage is declared invalid because one of the parties was previously married in a valid marriage and was not free to marry).
Pope Francis proclaimed the Jubilee Holy Year of Mercy, Dec. 8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016, as “an extraordinary moment of grace and spiritual renewal.”
The pope made changes to the marriage nullity process which went into effect the first day of the Year of Mercy. He also urged dioceses to eliminate the fees charged those requesting a declaration of nullity.
The procedural changes made the nullity process quicker, from approximately a year to six months or less. In Hawaii Bishop Larry Silva dropped the $450 fee. The Year of Mercy is over, but the streamlined process remains, and it is still free, though donations are welcome.
The process may be faster, but it is not “easier,” Father Gantley cautioned. “It still must be proven that the marriage was invalid from the beginning in order for a declaration of nullity to be given.”
And while the diocese no longer charges a fee, Bishop Silva does ask for donations from those who have received an affirmative decision.
“Some send $50 or $100,” Father Gantley said. A few donations exceed the original $450 fee, but many send nothing.
Father Gantley agrees with the removal of the price tag.
“People often face financial hardships after a divorce. I believe that these people are greatly helped by the elimination of the fees,” he said.
“We always had a policy of waiving the fee in situations of need,” he said, “but the people needed to request the waiver. Now they are saved from having to ask.”
The donations, even with a doubling of causes, amount only about a third of what the Tribunal has received annually in the past. The cost of Tribunal operations ultimately is covered by the assessment the diocese imposes upon the parishes.
Father Gantley promoted the changes in the nullity process in visits with clergy and lay advocates in 2016 in each of the diocese’s eight vicariates.
“Most clergy are positive and eager to help their parishioners who request assistance,” he said.
“It is sometimes a challenge to get international priests to help their parishioners if they come from countries where divorce is illegal and have no experience in ministering to divorced people,” he said.
More than simply increasing the number of nullity causes, Father Gantley said, the church must “reach out to those in the peripheries, to divorced and remarried Catholics who think that they are no longer part of the church, to strive to bring them back.”
“The pope calls us to accompany these people through the process,” he said.
“This might involve spending time with divorced individuals and listening to them,” he said. “It might mean helping them complete the required paperwork. It often means teaching and explaining things to them that they might find bewildering due to their secularized thinking.”
“In some situations, it may mean continuing with them after the judicial process to prepare them to receive the sacrament of marriage,” Father Gantley said.
“This can be a real joy,” he added.
“There is a debate going on at the highest levels of the church right now about whether the divorced and remarried may receive Holy Communion,” the judicial vicar said. “But this debate seems to have forgotten that marriage too is a sacrament that we want people to receive.”
“We do not want people … sneaking up to Holy Communion, uncertain if they should or not,” he said. “My hope is that, if they can prove that their prior marriage was invalid, they are able to eventually be in a valid marriage and to participate fully in the life of the church with a clear conscience.”
“Marriage is becoming a forgotten sacrament,” he said. Many people are not getting married at all, and many Catholics marry invalidly outside of the church.
“The state of marriage is particularly sad especially since the sacrament has always been viewed as the vocation and path of holiness for the majority of God’s people,” he said.
“The love of husband and wife is meant to reflect the love of Christ for the church,” Father Gantley said. “We need this witness to love and fidelity in our world today.”