With a letter sent Wednesday to the general secretary of the Italian bishops' conference, Pope Francis established a bilateral working group on the reform of the process of investigating marriage nullity.
His June 8 letter to Bishop Nunzio Galantino, 67, the Bishop Emeritus of Cassano all'Jonio, stated that the working group is to be chaired by Bishop Galantino, and will be composed of experts from both the Vatican and the Italian bishops' conference.
The group has been established, according to the Italian bishops, “in order to encourage” and “define the main interpretative and application issues” around the reform.
Pope Francis reformed the process for the causes of marriage nullity in the Code of Canon Law with the motu proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which took effect Dec. 8, 2015. It places a stronger emphasis on local bishops than was previously the case — which includes a reform of the organization of tribunals.
This restructuring of tribunals has become a major issue in Italy, where there is a strong tradition of regional or interdiocesan tribunals — that is, tribunals which cover a region of several dioceses.
Regional tribunals were established in Italy after Pius XI's 1938 motu proprio Qua Cura, and have functioned thus ever since.
But Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus has repealed or derogated some of the indications of Qua Cura, and many Italian bishops have asked for clarification.
For this reason the Roman Rota, the court of higher instance at the Apostolic See, issued a vademecum to all the Italian dioceses — of which there are more than 220 — in order to clarify what steps to take to implement Francis' reform. The vademecum required that diocesan tribunals be established “as soon as possible.”
But the issue has remained a sore one, especial the economic aspect, as Pope Francis' reforms have asked for both smaller tribunals and causes that are free of charge.
The Italian bishops' conference has sustained the network of 15 regional tribunals for nearly 80 years. More than 80 percent of the tribunals' expenses were paid off by an Italian tax program which allows taxpayers to give a small portion of their taxes to the Church.
In 2001 the Italian bishops' conference fixed an amount of 500 euros ($560) for each cause as its contribution to the expenses, while the rest of the cost was to be granted by the tribunal itself.
This solution was sustainable because of the size of the tribunals: since they covered a territory larger than a single diocese, they could sustain the costs because of the larger number of cases they received.
However, according to Pope Francis' motu proprio and the following vademecum, these interdiocesan tribunals have to be abolished, and replaced with more than 220 diocesan tribunals.
Bishop Galantino has written to indicate that the interdiocesan tribunals should be shut down, while the Apostolic Signatura, the Church's supreme tribunal, has maintained that the regional tribunals continue to function.
The bishops of each Italian region, meanwhile, hold periodic meetings before the general assembly, and the regional bishops' conference has been tackling the issue of how to handle the reform, and to keep the prices and services the way they were.
According to Albero Bobbio of the Italian Catholic magazine ‘Famiglia Cristiana,” “regional tribunals guarantee more effectiveness, legal certainty, and avoid the hiring of temporary workers, which is a normal procedure when there are small tribunals handling just a few causes.”
A collection of the notes sent to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Text in order to have a correct interpretation of the motu proprio can be seen in a ponderous study drafted by Geraldina Boni, a professor of canon law at the Alma Mater University of Bologna.
Most of the Italian regional bishops' conferences held that Pope Francis' reform would be better applied if the regional tribunals were maintained.
For example, the bishops' conference of Puglia wrote Dec. 7, 2015 that the new norms “could be better accomplished” within the “perennial experience and competence” developed since Qua Cura. And the bishops of Tuscany wrote that “the positive experience of regional tribunals” should not be lost.
Similar remarks came from other regional bishops' conferences.
And when all the Italian bishops gathered in Rome for their general assembly last month, the issue was widely discussed.
The establishment of the “bilateral working group” is then a response to the debate raised during the Italian bishops' general assembly, and an attempt to find a way forward in the application of the reform.