Vatican Marriage Annulments

Vatican Marriage Annulments

On September 22, Hurricane Francis will make landfall at Andrews AFB, marking the start of the Pope’s historic visit to the U.S. Saturation media rain may be expected for His Holiness’ mega-events in DC, NYC and Philly; on Sept. 27 it will be wheels-up back to Rome.

His trip is mostly political: a meeting in the Oval, the first-ever papal address to a Joint Meeting of Congress (about one-third RCs), and a speech to the UN General Assembly. The culmination will be a visit to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

Political as in ‘policy’ doesn’t mean getting mired in the ongoing Washington mud-fight, but speaking about issues that have global implications, yet are not doctrinal in Church teaching, notably the plight of migrants, income inequality and climate change.

But on the doctrinal front, during his papacy Francis was mostly quiet until September 8 last when his Instructions (Motu Proprio) to the Latin-rite and Eastern-rite bishops and eparchs on the Church’s marriage annulment process were made public.

Some might say that his famous “who am I to judge” statement on the issue of gays was a doctrinal foray.

Hogwash…try finding anything new about this in papal encyclicals and instructions, or in canons and decrees.

In summary, the annulment Instructions mean that an uncontested request for an annulment could be fast-tracked in as little as 45 days, be free of charge, and not be subject to appeal to Rome unless something egregious jumped out of the case file – such as blatantly false affidavits, not unknown in current proceedings.

Contrast this with a Kennedy annulment granted by the Archdiocese of Boston that was challenged by one of the spouses in 1996, adjudicated in Rome in 2005, and officially notified to the parties in 2007.

The discussion below focuses on three topics:

The Kennedy annulment process of 1996-2007; another Kennedy-related annulment that ran from 1959 to 1962; and finally the very topical significance of these Instructions for the Pope’s efforts to dismantle the Vatican bureaucracy – a preview of coming attractions for next summer release.

The annulment proceedings involving Joseph P. Kennedy II and Sheila Rauch have received extensive media coverage for the incredible timeline involved.

It appears that the Boston Archdiocese granted the annulment around 1996, after which Ms. Rauch was notified that her 1979 Church marriage had been annulled – i.e. it never existed. Sometime later (1996 as reported) she appealed to Rome to have the annulment annulled, i.e. to have her 1979 Church marriage restored as a valid one, canonically speaking. But it took at least ten years for her to receive formal notification that her appeal had in fact been granted. That is pretty crazy, even by the sclerotic practices of the Roman Curia. A canon lawyer who followed the proceedings commented to me in Rome shortly after the 2007 decision became public:


All you have to do is look at the U.S. political calendar to figure out when it was opportune to take on the Massachusetts monarchia, i.e. in the twilight of Zio Ted’s career.

A less publicized Kennedyesque annulment took place in the early 1960s involving Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s sister Lee and Lee’s then-beau Prince Stanislaus Radziwill.

As JFK prepared for the 1960 campaign that would feature his Catholic faith as a prominent issue, his sister-in-law’s failed Catholic marriage with Michael Canfield loomed as the proverbial elephant in the room.

So the Kennedy machine went into high gear, with assistance from Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing.

Lee Bouvier’s inconvenient Church marriage to Michael Canfield was annulled in Rome in 1962, warp speed for the Curia Romana.

Her husband-to-be had been more foresighted, or perhaps just lucky.

Radziwill’s inconvenient first marriage in 1940, Catholic of course, was annulled in 1958. Thus his second civil marriage of 1946 had no standing under canon law, since prior to his 1958 annulment he was still married to Wife #1; as Dr. Spock might say, quite logical.

Lee and ‘Stas’ married in a civil ceremony in 1959. After Lee’s annulment came through in 1962, the way was clear for a proper Church wedding.

A close relative of mine was involved in this accelerated proceeding.

Alas, Lee and Stas did not live happily ever-after, divorcing in 1974. But still married to one another, in the eyes of the Church.

In a broader perspective, over the years American annulments granted by the Vatican range from 60% to 80% of all annulments world wide, and are known as Divorzio all’Americana.

This is a tribute to a Marcello Mastroianni film, Divorzio all’Italiana, where Marcello’s character, Barone Cefalu has only way out of his inconvenient marriage: to goad his long-neglected wife Donna Rosalia into adultery, catch her in flagrante, shoot the straying wife, and then benefit from the Italian Penal Code where until 1980 a delitto d’onore (honor killing) benefited from major extenuating circumstances. Of course this loophole was only available to the husband.

In plainer words, the Vatican annulment process in force until the Pope’s September 8 Instructions was widely recognized for what it was – just Catholic gobbledegook, as one of the Kennedys is reported to have said.

So what does the Annulment Instruction mean more broadly?

Narrowly, in a defined category of marriages where the annulment is uncontested, the power to annul is delegated to 2,989 bishops and eparchs world wide. No need to go to Rome to get a second, confirming decree. This puts out of business most of the Vatican’s canonical annulment infrastructure: judges, court officials, advocates.

OMG. This is truly a Big Deal. It means that Rome is almost entirely out of the annulment biz, with almost 3,000 dioceses and eparchies doing their individual thing.

So you could eventually see a very wide variety of procedures and decisions.

Once upon a time Reno NV was the go-to venue for quickie divorces.

Maybe quickie annulments from the Diocese of Podunk will become all the rage, and a boost to the Podunk economy.

But more broadly, from my own soundings in Rome over this summer, some prelates in the Vatican view these annulment Instructions as a trial run for future Instructions that would dismantle many other categories of canon appeals:

parish suppressions, church deconsecrations, pastor removals, priest defrocking, to name just a few.

Under this scenario, Catholic laypeople and priests would only have recourse to the local hierarchy – period, full stop.

So the diocese and eparchy would review their own handiwork, and pass final sentence.

On almost any given day that you go through the working entrance to Vatican City, the Porta Sant’Anna, you may find yourself in the midst of sleek young advisers with fancy briefcases: management consultants, CPAs, media wizards. Things are stirring in the Vatican as Francis’ Council of Nine continues its quiet work of devolving power to the dioceses and eparchies.

For American Catholics in the pews, if you like your bishop or eparch, you will love this kind of reform.









2 thoughts on “Vatican Marriage Annulments

  1. Could the broader implications for Rome be a case of “be careful what you wish for?” At first blush devolving more power from Rome seems like a good thing. But then when you consider the number of petty tyrants appointed as Ordinaries by JPII and Benedict – one begins to become concerned about having an appeal only to the “local hierarchy.” It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out…. MikeT, Buffalo, NY

  2. If a real devolution of power happens while Francis is still in office, it will be easier in the long run to deal locally and work towards the local election of our bishops.

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