PROVIDENCE — With a full quarter still left in the calendar year, the number of marriage annulment petitions received through September 15 in the Diocese of Providence already is 26 percent higher than the amount received in all of 2015.
Diocesan officials attribute the surge in petitions — which is also being reported by some other dioceses around the country — to Pope Francis’ call last year to streamline the process for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics seeking reentry into full Communion with the Church.
Among the revisions in Canon Law set forth by the Vatican are the elimination of fees assessed to help cover the administrative costs of handling cases by diocesan marriage tribunals, and the discontinuation of automatic appeals of cases, a procedure which could add six months to the process of rendering a final decision.
“Apparently the fee was a point of hesitation on the part of many people,” said Msgr. Ronald P. Simeone, diocesan Vicar for Judicial Matters. “The waving of the fee has encouraged some people not to put it off any longer.”
He also feels the pope’s two synods on the family over the last couple of years have motivated more divorced and remarried Catholics to take steps to become fully immersed once again in their faith.
“Introducing these modest reforms, in my opinion, has created a good buzz. He has people’s attention. He provided the impetus,” he said.
Since 2000, when the diocese considered a high of 237 annulment petitions, the number of cases brought before the tribunal has declined by two-thirds over the course of the last 16 years.
In 2015, the tribunal recorded its lowest number of petitions, with 79. In 2014, they received 81, with the number hovering at about 100 on average between then and 2009.
While the new protocols were implemented Dec. 8, the beginning of the Church’s Year of Mercy, they were officially instituted in the Diocese of Providence on July 1.
Announcing in June that the diocese would eliminate the $500 administrative fee for the formal annulment process, Msgr. Albert A. Kenney, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, said that in implementing the new policy Bishop Thomas J. Tobin was inspired by the Holy Father’s pastoral concern for divorced Catholics.
Before the elimination of the automatic appeal — in which every marriage tribunal’s affirmative decision is then reviewed by a tribunal in another diocese — a petitioner might have to wait one-and-a-half to two years for a ruling on their case.
“Now, we can bring a case to a final decision in a year or less,” Msgr. Simeone said.
He stresses, however, that despite streamlining the process, no shortcuts are taken and each case is as thoroughly vetted today as it was before the changes.
For petitioners, the annulment process begins at the parish level where a case is first brought to a priest who fills out the preliminary forms with them.
“A petitioner is asking the diocese to investigate and study their marriage to determine if there are any grounds for it to be declared invalid,” Msgr. Simeone said.
After collecting testimony from all parties, including witnesses and experts, a tribunal judge or judges will deliberate and render their decision. But the decision is made only after the case is presented to a Defender of the Bond whose role it is to speak in favor of the validity of a marriage.
Msgr. Simeone noted that since every marriage in the Church is presumed to be valid, the case against its validity needs to be quite serious and substantial.
The judge has to be morally certain based on the evidence available that the marriage was invalid.
Patricia Costa, a longtime marriage tribunal staff member, said the word is spreading about the changes called for by the pope and people are responding.
She said her office has experienced an uptick in calls from those inquiring about annulments. She informs petitioners they must initiate the process by meeting first with a parish priest.
“I heard Pope Francis is making it easier,” Costa reports some callers have said to her.
“Free of charge is the number one thing that people are happy about,” she said.