Husband & Wife Articles


Annulment News

A personal view of the changes to the annulment process

By David Dziena

The Holy Father’s recent changes to the annulment process come at a critical time in the Church’s history. There is a steady increase of Catholics who are either divorced and then civilly married, or married outside the Church. Many of these people wish to return to the sacraments, yet are inhibited by their marital situation. Pope Francis asks that the Church reach out with mercy.

David Dziena with his children at his wedding last year.

The annulment process, which was meant as a way to protect the sacramental bond of matrimony, has for countless Catholics led to multiple layers of paperwork and long waiting periods. I have personal experience. After almost two years following my initial petition, I received a declaration of nullity (annulment) in early 2014. Two years is a long time. The wait was primarily due to the lack of proper staffing in the diocesan Tribunal Office. Ideally, annulment cases should last no more than a year when there are no objections. Many people are discouraged by lengthy paperwork, the wait time, the lack of information as to the status of a case, the cost, as well as a basic misunderstanding about the process and what an annulment actually is.

The result is, unfortunately, that some couples drift away from the Church or (perhaps unwittingly) into objectively adulterous relations, while waiting for the diocesan court to render a decision, or simply because they do not understand what an annulment is or how to go through the process.

A declaration of nullity is not a “Catholic divorce” or the dissolution of a marital bond. It is a judgment by the Church that a valid Catholic marriage was never contracted by the two parties because conditions were lacking for proper consent at the time of the wedding ceremony. 

There are seven key changes in the process that Pope Francis announced last week. (To read about them in greater detail, see the article from the Vatican News Service.) The changes include ways to streamline the petition process, giving more direct authority to diocesan and metropolitan bishops, eliminating automatic appeals, and making the entire process free of charge for petitioners, when possible.

Currently, each decision of nullity is subject to automatic appeal. With the change, appeals will primarily occur only if there is an objection to the decision. In my case, there was almost a five-month period between the initial declaration and the obligatory appeal. This might not seem like a long time when compared to civil lawsuits; however, since my case wasn’t contested, the unnecessary lag prolonged the uncertainty. With the change, in situations where there is an appeal, it will first go to the Metropolitan See (chief diocese in a region). This too will cut down on review time because appeals no longer have to be sent to Rome. And in circumstances when an appeal does get sent to the Vatican, the hope is that the wait time will decrease, since the Vatican will be receiving fewer such appeals as a result of the changes.

Having one cleric-judge (as opposed to multiple judges) reporting to the local bishop will ensure that annulment petitions are reviewed in a consistent and, hopefully, more efficient manner. I worked with one priest in my case, but several other judges had to review the case as well. This added time to the process because each judge, with his own cases to manage, had to schedule time to review other cases.

Perhaps the biggest change that people will notice on the local level will be the speed and simplification of the process as well as the removal or reduction of fees. My annulment cost close to $2,000, including the initial application fee, required psychological testing, and fees sent to the appeals court. While fees were often waived for those unable to pay, many people are either unaware of this option or simply shy away from asking for “charity,” and simply do not file their petition.

December 8, 2015, begins the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis is extending the mercy of the Church to those who desire to be united with her but are impeded by some marriage issue. I can say personally that the annulment process is worth the time and effort, and hope the changes will encourage people who have valid cases to file a petition. As our recent popes have said, lay people have a right to a just and timely process so that may know with certainty their marital status, return to the sacraments, and be free to contract a valid marriage in the Church, if they wish.

David Dziena holds an M A. in Pastoral Theology from St. Joseph College in Maine, and has worked in catechetical ministry for over 20 years. He is the co-author of the Catholic Prayer Book for the Separated and Divorced (Our Sunday Visitor). After receiving an annulment, he was married in the Church last year to Catholic author and editor Gloria Shahin. He has four children from the previous bond.