Pope Francis on Thursday urged members of the Catholic Church’s highest court handling appeals of marriage annulment cases to work with a “synodal spirit.”
In his annual speech to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota on Jan. 27, the pope recalled that the worldwide Church is engaged in a two-year consultation process ahead of the 2023 Synod on Synodality.
“The synodal path we are currently following also challenges our meeting, because it also involves the judicial sphere and your mission at the service of families, especially those who are wounded and in need of the balm of mercy,” he said in his address in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall.
The Roman Rota is one of the three courts of the Holy See, along with the Apostolic Penitentiary and the Apostolic Signatura. Among the Rota’s primary responsibilities is considering appeals in marriage nullity cases.
A declaration of nullity — often referred to as an “annulment” — is a ruling by a tribunal that a marriage did not meet the conditions required to make it valid according to Church law.
Thursday’s meeting, which marked the start of the Rota’s new judicial year, began with an address to the pope by Msgr. Alejandro Arellano Cedillo, the Spanish dean of the Roman Rota.
In his speech, the pope referred to the Amoris Laetitia Family Year, which marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of Amoris laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on love in the family. The celebration will end on June 26, with the 10th edition of the World Meeting of Families in Rome.
He said: “In this year dedicated to the family as an expression of the joy of love, we have the opportunity today to reflect on synodality in matrimonial nullity proceedings.”
“Although synodal work is not strictly procedural in nature, it should be placed in dialogue with judicial activity, in order to encourage a more general rethinking of the importance of the experience of the canonical process for the lives of the faithful who have experienced a marriage breakdown and, at the same time, for the harmony of relationships within the ecclesial community.”
“Let us then ask ourselves in what sense the administration of justice needs a synodal spirit.”
The pope said in matrimonial cases it was vital that all parties set aside subjective interests and focus on the same goal: “that of shining the light on the truth about a concrete union between a man and a woman, arriving at the conclusion as to whether or not there is a true marriage between them.”
He said that from the earliest stages of a case, couples should be invited to seek “forgiveness and reconciliation” and not to see a declaration of nullity as “the only objective” or something that is “a right regardless of the facts.”
He underlined that “any voluntary alteration or manipulation of the facts, aimed at obtaining a pragmatically desired result, is not admissible.”
Pope Francis illustrated his point by describing a case that a bishop recently presented to him concerning a disciplinary problem with a priest.
The judge of the national Church court told the bishop that he was prepared to give whatever verdict was desired. “If you tell me to condemn him, I will condemn him; if you tell me to acquit him, I will acquit him,” he said, according to the pope.
“This can happen. It can come to this if there is no unity in the trials even with conflicting sentences,” the pope reflected. “Go together, because the good of the Church, the good of the people, is at stake. It is not a negotiation that takes place.”
In his address, Pope Francis alluded to his 2015 document Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which made changes to canon law intended to streamline the process by which Church tribunals assess requests for declarations of nullity.
The text said that in each diocese, “the judge in first instance for cases of nullity or marriage for which the law does not expressly make an exception is the diocesan bishop.”
The pope reiterated on Thursday that “the original judge is the bishop.”
He said: “The dean greeted me saying: ‘the pope, universal judge of all…’ But this is because I am bishop of Rome and Rome presides over everything, not because I have another title. Thanks to this.”
“If the pope has this power it is because he is the bishop of the diocese of which the Lord wanted the bishop to be the pope. The real and first [judge] is the bishop, not the judicial vicar, the bishop.”
Returning to the theme of synodality, the pope urged judges to develop their listening skills.
“As in other areas of pastoral care, in judicial activity too, we need to foster a culture of listening, a prerequisite for a culture of encounter,” he said.
“This is why standard answers to the concrete problems of individual persons are harmful.”
He also reminded judges to be open to their colleagues when considering cases as part of a panel.
“In this sense, in your action as ministers of the tribunal, the pastoral heart, the spirit of charity and understanding towards people who suffer from the failure of their married life, must never be lacking,” he said.
“To acquire such a style it is necessary to avoid the cul-de-sac of juridicism — which is a kind of legal Pelagianism; it is not Catholic, juridicism is not Catholic — that is, of a self-referential vision of the law.”
“Law and judgment are always at the service of truth, justice, and the evangelical virtue of charity.”
He said that another important aspect of “the synodality of processes” was discernment.
“It is a matter of discernment based on walking together and listening, and which allows us to read the concrete situation of marriage in the light of the Word of God and the Magisterium of the Church,” he said.
The pope concluded by encouraging members of the Rota in their work and reminding them of the importance of prayer.
He said: “May prayer always accompany you. ‘I’m busy, I have to do many things…’ The first thing you need to do is pray. Pray for the Lord to be close to you. And also to know the heart of the Lord: we know it in prayer. And the judges pray, and must pray, twice or three times as much. Please don’t forget to pray for me too, of course.”