A Golden Age in canon law? Maybe so.
The good outweighs the not-so-good in John Allen’s recent column about a coming Golden Age in Canon Law. Let’s deal with the not-so-good first.
If Allen does not know that annulment cases deal with the validity of, not the sacramentality of, marriage then I guess no one (outside of canon law) will ever keep that distinction clear. But, I say again, the distinction is absolutely vital: underscoring that validity is the ONLY question in an annulment case underscores that annulment cases are LEGAL by nature, not “pastoral” (however many pastoral implications these cases carry), and that natural law of marriage must be satisfied before the divine law of matrimony can even be considered (and yes, divine law does figure in most annulment cases, but not as the primary issue).
Next—and this really wasn’t Allen, I grant—but we should be clear that marriages are NEVER proven valid. Never. Ever. Ever. Marriages (at least those things that ‘look’ like a marriage) are PRESUMED valid, even if they might later be proven invalid. The only dubium in a marriage case concerns de invaliditate, never de validitate, of the marriage. This distinction is as important as keeping night distinct from day, or, speaking legally, as crucial as upholding the principle that accused persons need not prove themselves innocent, but rather, prosecutors must prove them guilty.
Allen noted that “Francis did not suggest in his [recent] Rota speech that anyone is entitled to an annulment. What he said is that they have a right to an answer.” It might help readers to recall that Pope St. John Paul II made that EXACT same point, most notably, in his 1996 address to the Rota.
As a matter of prognostication, I agree with Allen that annulment reform is coming and that the elimination of mandatory appeal to second instance (not, as Allen describes it, mandatory appeal to Rome—do people really think that every annulment case must go to Rome?) is at the top of the list. Personally, I favor this reform, but there are strong arguments against it. Unfortunately, with the departure of Cdl Burke from the Signatura, the most articulate defender of ‘second instance’ is not around to make that case. Perhaps others will step in. As for the other reform ideas floated so far (more or less making annulment cases quasi-administrative and in any event essentially non-judicial) they are fraught with problems resting on multiple misunderstandings. I have addressed these points many times, for example here.
But finally, about that Golden Age in canon law Allen foresees—that’s a huge topic, actually, one that goes to the heart of what law has to do with love in the Church and indeed in the West as a whole. Like Allen, I leave to others speculation about whether Francis is the unwitting, perhaps unwilling, abettor of that renaissance. But, like Allen, I sense it coming. And when it comes, it will, I think, impact much, much more than marriage nullity petitions. + + +
PS: I am reminded, about a month ago I looked at an earlier John Allen column on marriage and found imprecisions in it which seem to have been repeated in the above linked column.