Our Holy Father in his Apostolic Letter Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, recalls the wishes of the majority of [his] brother bishops gathered at the recent extraordinary synod who were asking for a more streamlined and readily accessible judicial process. This led our own tribunal in the Diocese of Richmond to look for ways to mirror this accessibility.
As we examined our process, we found that the procedural step most challenging for our petitioners was the writing of The Petitioner’s Summary. The Petitioner’s Summary was a narrative of the person’s life, with a particular focus on their dating experience and the events that led to their decision to marry. Even with the excellent assistance of priests, deacons, and the many lay ministers who have been trained for this ministry, revisiting these painful and often traumatic events was too difficult. Further, committing the details to writing often became an insurmountable obstacle.
In addition, many of our petitioners found it difficult to align their stories with the possible grounds for nullity in the Code of Canon Law. Unlike divorce, which focuses on the end of the relationship, a petition of a declaration of nullity looks at the moment of consent, the moment when the couple said, “I do.”
To overcome these two great obstacles, we combined the judicial experience of our tribunal personnel, the pastoral and communication expertise of our diocesan staff, and a more user friendly interface to create a simplified online questionnaire. Ministers in our parishes will then gather and send to the tribunal the essential information needed to initiate the process. The online form is in no way meant to be a substitute for the pastoral care that every parish must stand ready to provide to those who have suffered the pain of divorce.
The online questionnaire, while remaining faithful to the law of the Church, attempts to avoid the use of legal jargon that can be incomprehensible to the reader. In the section of the questionnaire regarding the grounds for nullity we have attempted to describe each possible cause of nullity with a simple declarative sentence combined with relevant follow-up questions. Rather than ask a person to tell their entire life story, our goal with the questionnaire is to help them discern a possible ground for nullity, keeping in mind that the Church starts from the presumption that any marriage between a man and woman is valid until the contrary is proven.
Once a response is received through the online questionnaire, the information is reviewed by our Judicial Vicar who, with our staff, will assist the Petitioner in preparing the proper documents. A proposed petition and a cover letter will be sent to the Petitioner detailing what is necessary for the Tribunal to proceed. The petitioner will then return the signed and notarized petition along with the additional documents requested. The formal process begins when the petition is received and admitted by the Judicial Vicar.
At present, the process is a work in progress and is available only through your local parish. In the future we hope to make it available directly through the diocesan website. As has been the case for many years in this diocese, the process is free; access being limited only by the few constraints imposed by canon law. The hope of this tribunal, the Church in general, and noted by our Holy Father is: that the highest protection may be accorded to Marriage while remaining aware the good of souls is the highest law. (Cf. canon 1752).