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The pope’s niece might be on to something

September 9, 2015

Pope Francis’ niece, María Inés Narvaja, thinks she understands her uncle’s interest in fast-track annulments. Yes, the lawyer in me cautions that Maria’s attributions of statements to her uncle, then-Abp. Bergoglio, are hearsay, but, we’re not in a courtroom, we’re in the blogosphere. Besides what Maria says about the future Francis is illuminating.

Maria recalls that she (or her intended?) applied for an annulment but was told by Argentine Church officials that her case would take four years. She reacted with a young-woman-in-love’s “pffft!” and announced that she would marry civilly. Per María, her uncle endorsed the idea. Maybe, maybe not, that’s not the question here. The question is whether Maria’s (or her intended’s) annulment case would really have taken four years (despite 1983 CIC 1453, setting 18 months as the norm). Personally, I believe her.

I once worked on a marriage case that (fascinating canon-law-of-jurisdiction details omitted) could have been heard in either America or Argentina. Both tribunals turned to Rome for guidance, with the Argentine tribunal asking that the case be heard in the USA! They said their cases take an average of, yes, four years to process. That delay was not necessarily the Argentine Church’s fault; they probably did not have the resources to hear marriage cases more quickly. But it lends support to Maria’s claim about long delays in Argentine tribunals and that in turn would help explain Francis’ impatience to fix an obvious pastoral problem.

Of course, what might well be a serious problem in one Church need not be a problem in another, and a cure for a problem—setting aside whether the cure itself is really a good one—imposed where a cure is not needed can actually cause even more problems. Still, it’s an interesting insight into Francis’ attitudes.

Three more quick points from the article:

1. Apparently Abp. Bergoglio fired a tribunal worker for demanding a bribe. That’s good. Canons 1389 and 1456-1457 take a dim view of tribunal personnel demanding bribes.

2. Pope Francis has said, it seems more than once, something like: the Church says ‘Yes, it’s true, your marriage is annulled, or no, your marriage is valid.’ I know what the pope means, but this phrasing is not accurate. Marriages might be proven null, but—long story made short—they cannot be ‘proven valid’. Marriages are presumed valid, and that’s as far as law dares inquire.

3. It seems that Abp. Bergoglio once fired a lawyer who wanted to charge $ 10,000 to handle “both cases”, civil and ecclesiastic. I have no idea what divorces cost in Argentina, but in the US, a contested divorce (usually the contest is over assets and children) can easily cost ten grand. Now in Roman law countries, and in contrast to common law nations like the USA, it not infrequently happens that lawyers are trained in both civil and canonical systems of justice and so they might be licensed to handle “both cases”. If so, one can well imagine that the charges related to the canon law case would be a small fraction of those related to the civil proceedings.


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