Pope Francis has insisted that his annulment reforms are not a subversion of the Church’s teaching against divorce.
But in the Middle
East annulments are divorces both in intent and in effect.
Indeed, as no states in the Middle East and North Africa, apart from
Turkey and Tunisia, have civil marriage and divorce laws, annulments
have become an avenue of de facto divorce for Catholics.
Unlike in the
West, with its civil marriage and divorce laws, in the Middle East
annulments have far-reaching civil consequences.
Except for exclusively Islamic states such as those found in the
Gulf, all the states in the Middle East have adapted versions of the
Ottoman millet system, devolving jurisdiction for family law to
“recognised religious communities”.
For example, Israel has granted
jurisdiction to 14 different religious communities, six of which are
Catholic – Latin Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Armenian Catholic, Syrian
Catholic and Chaldean.
As none of the Catholic courts grants divorce, like Henry VIII, Arab
Catholics often use annulments as if they were quasi-divorces,
stretching the canonical rulings beyond credulity.
Although the Catholic Church makes no distinction between annulments
issued in, say, New York or Rome, or in Jerusalem or Baghdad, the impact
on people’s lives is very different.
In the West, the Pope’s reforms
are easing the way for some remarried Catholics to receive Communion,
but in the Middle East, where religious laws govern marriage and
divorce, annulments determine a person’s civil status as single, married
So for those Arab Catholics trapped in appalling
marriages, the Pope’s streamlining of the annulment process will feel
like a blessing.
Because of this, it was apposite that the first conference on the
Pope’s new rulings on annulments was held in the heart of the Middle
East in July.
The five-day conference, “Matrimony and ad hoc Rules
Governing the Tribunal Procedures”, organised by the Ecclesiastical
Court of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Pontifical Lateran
University of Rome, was held in a resort hotel on the Jordanian side of
the shores of the Dead Sea.
“It was not only the first conference held on the Motu Proprio but
the first that Professor Arroba Conde, its architect, attended,”
explained Fr Emil Salayta, the judge of the Latin Patriarchate court in
Jerusalem and president of the conference.
“The 90 Catholic judges and
lay lawyers for the Arab Christian courts from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria,
Egypt, Palestine, Israel and Jordan who attended wanted to learn how the
new laws are applied and to discuss them. There were also
ecclesiastical professors from Rome.”
He added that the conference was of special interest to bishops. The
new rulings allow them to make judgments themselves within their diocese
rather than, as previously, cases going to another court.
In the Middle East, unless a marriage has not been consummated, an
annulment is the sole way that an Arab Catholic can legally terminate a
marriage and remarry.
However, as certainty cannot be applied to all
cases, many Arab Christians wanting to divorce resort to converting to
another religion such as Islam or the Greek Orthodox Church.
Catholics prefer this due to the difficulty of explaining to their
children how, despite the marriage being voided, they are not
Fr Emil stressed than an annulment deals with the legal formalities
of the wedding ceremony, not the reasons that provoked the breakdown in
the marriage or prompted one or both of the spouses to request an end to
“Adultery is relevant only in the early months of the marriage as it
may reflect a lack of commitment of the husband or the wife when they
entered the marriage. It’s the same with abortion. It’s only behaviour
before the marriage and the wedding itself, not during the marriage. A
‘Declaration of Nullity’ means that a valid act of marrying did not take
place, that the marriage never existed, is null and void.”
Sympathetic though the Church is to a husband or a wife whose spouse
is an adulterer, or has acted violently or irresponsibly, such behaviour
can seldom be used as evidence to annul a marriage. Marital intercourse
and having children and grandchildren is overlooked. Even after a
relationship of 50 years, a marriage can be annulled.
“Grounds have to be found that the marriage was fundamentally flawed
at the outset, that it was formalised without the free and knowing
consent or commitment of either the husband or the wife,” said Fr Emil.
We will have to wait until next year’s conference to see the
statistics on the impact of the new annulment rulings. Whatever the
answer, the situation is a vexed one. If the success rate of annulment
applications is high, it will ease the lives of Arab Catholics and stop
them converting to effect a divorce. Yet at the same time, it will
arguably undermine the prohibition on divorce in Catholic canon law.