Recently announced changes to the church’s annulment process have garnered intense national attention and scrutiny. However, local couples pursuing a declaration of nullity for their marriage will likely not see much of a difference in the process, according to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s judicial vicar, Fr. Paul Hartmann.

The changes, issued by Pope Francis Sept. 8, will go into effect Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the beginning of the Year of Mercy.

When making the changes, it is assumed, said Fr. Hartmann, that Pope Francis was thinking more of less developed countries than the United States, and was likely influenced by legitimate difficulties in obtaining annulments in places like his native Argentina.

“While Argentina is a very western country in many ways, it is much closer to the experience of what we would call Second or Third World, where there are just not the function and structures to support people who have gone through a divorce, want to seek a reconciliation and return to the sacraments,” said Fr. Hartmann. “So whether it’s throughout the vast geography of South America, whether it’s Asia, whether it’s Africa – they just don’t have the resources to maintain a tribunal, to maintain a full-time staff, to have properly educated and informed canon lawyers to do it.”

It was the slowness and expense of the annulment process in those environments, and not necessarily in the western world, that inspired these changes, Fr. Hartmann believes.

“I think many people are of the consensus that (Pope Francis) just felt that certainly in those settings effort had to be made to truly, out of mercy, out of justice for these people, make sure that they had an opportunity to avail themselves of the church’s process,” he said.

The annulment process – formally known as obtaining a declaration of nullity – was already a fairly efficient process in the United States and other developed nations, said Fr. Hartmann – and even in the undeveloped countries, the changes should not be seen as a backhanded reprimand.

He also emphasized that Pope Francis’ decision to implement the changes at the opening of the Year of Mercy communicates the abundance of Christ’s mercy, available to his faithful through the processes of his church.

“People would be incorrect to interpret it as, (Pope Francis) is doing something that is so innovative it’s somehow wagging his finger at dioceses, at bishops, at priests, for, ‘You’re not merciful,’” said Fr. Hartmann. “I think what it’s doing is reinforcing for everybody some of our greatest structures to serve mercy – reconciliation and confession, absolution of sins, the forgiveness that’s necessary. We have had structures to assist in divorces and annulments, we’ve had structures and processes to assist with (forgiving) people who have procured an abortion; he is actually just saying, let’s just make sure these are available to people. These are great things about how the church helps people heal, and in doing so, heals itself.”

What the changes mean for Milwaukee

Alterations to the annulment process were detailed in a motu proprio (meaning “on one’s own initiative”), a formal document issued by the pope in September. The motu proprio, available in English on the Vatican website, ( contained several changes to the process that have been widely reported in the international media.

There are only three changes that will be of much consequence to couples in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said Fr. Hartmann. These include what is referred to as the competency of a tribunal, the requirement of a second review to ratify the annulment, and the introduction of a shorter process for certain cases.

“Tribunal competence” means the ability of a specific tribunal to process a nullity case. Under the old law, consent was required from judicial vicars of other dioceses in certain cases – for instance, if one of the spouses lived outside the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s boundaries, or if the marriage had taken place in another diocese.

Now, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is competent to hear the case without further consent if the marriage took place within the archdiocese, if the petitioner or respondent lives within the boundaries, or if most of the evidence regarding the marriage’s validity is located within the archdiocese.

Pope Francis also instituted a simpler appeals process; under the new law, if neither party appeals an affirmative decision within 15 working days (not counting weekends or holidays), the case is considered complete. Cases from the dioceses of Green Bay, Superior, La Crosse and Madison will not, as before, come to Milwaukee for “automatic” appeal unless one of the spouses or the Defender of the Bond lodges an appeal.

“What he’s done has eliminated the majority of the need for the appeal, which in our situation will affect a case maybe by four, six or eight weeks, depending on the time of year, depending on what’s going on,” said Fr. Hartmann. This may mean that annulments in Milwaukee will be granted in 10 or 11 months instead of the usual year or more – but that’s not certain, he stressed.

Another change is the implementation of a shorter process known as the “bishop’s process” for certain cases. For this shorter process, both spouses must consent by signature to the annulment; the invalidity of the marriage sacrament must be “manifest,” or especially obvious; and all evidence (documents, testimony and witnesses) must be readily accessible and available. The archbishop would then decide on the process himself. Even in this instance, the length remaining until a decision will vary depending on the case.

Fr. Hartmann believes most cases will likely not be eligible for this shorter process.

“If those three criteria aren’t met … if (the facts surrounding the case are) open for discussion or debate or argument, or it can’t be substantiated in a very external way – then it has to go through the normal process,” said Fr. Hartmann.

Pope Francis, rather, “wanted to make sure that premarital pregnancy, that substance (abuse) – or in places where there’s arranged marriages of the very young – he wanted to say, we need to do something in these parts of the world. It will affect the United States, but I think his thinking was much more for the Third World.”

Fr. Hartmann said those seeking annulments in the Milwaukee Archdiocese will most likely see the changes most in the beginning of the process, where there will be more evaluation of specific cases to ascertain whether or not they are eligible for the abbreviated process.
“The vast majority of the cases will likely still fit into that normal process, the process we use today,” he said. “Everybody should go into the process expecting … a year until we have some better evidence that it’s down to 10 or 11 months. I think the briefer process will likely be fairly rare.”

Pope Francis also declared that fees collected for the procurement of annulments should be “gratuitous whenever that can be done without harming the right of tribunal workers to a just wage,” in the words of a Q&A pamphlet about the changes posted on the archdiocese’s website.

There will be no change to the fee schedule in Milwaukee. While it is becoming more and more common for archdioceses in the United States to eliminate fees altogether, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki feels “the use of a fee heightens the sense of responsibility to participate,” in the words of Fr. Hartmann, and helps to prevent Catholics from being disinterested, passive parties to their own annulment.

The administrative cost to obtain a declaration of nullity in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is $525, but that is only half the actual cost to the archdiocese, said Zabrina Decker, tribunal chancellor.

“The rest is covered by the Catholic Stewardship Appeal,” she wrote in an email to the Catholic Herald. “Also, if a person has trouble paying we can reduce or waive the fee and they can always make small payments.”

“We will waive fees very consistently,” said Fr. Hartmann. “We will work out payment plans over lengthy periods of time, well beyond the year it may take to process the case. So right now we feel that we have been, as the pope says, gratuitous.”

Will this mean more annulments?

Critics of the changes have expressed concern that they simplify the process too greatly and will result in more couples seeking to declare their marriages null.

That may be the case, said Fr. Hartmann, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It will mean more (annulments) from places in the world that have not stepped up to the responsibility to serve this need in the recent past,” he said. “Now bishops will be pressed to either take it upon themselves to review this in the manifest cases; the bishops will be pressed more and more to say, I need to have the canon lawyers available, I need to send priests or laypeople to get degrees and training…. In the same way that we want quality schools, bishops want quality schools, they want quality seminaries, they want quality social services; there’s a call to have quality tribunals.”

But Catholics would be wrong to make too much of these changes, he added.

“Pope Francis is not changing the theology of marriage at all,” said Fr. Hartmann. “He is expressing – and it’s part of his experience, and maybe his Jesuit background – (the importance of) subsidiarity. He is putting more trust and respect on the diocesan bishop than might have been the case before.”

Fr. Hartmann feels that the changes are, above all, “an invitation” of sorts.

“This is an opportunity for people who feel disconnected to the church because they misunderstand what the church teaches about divorce, annulment and participation in the sacraments – people who feel, whether it’s shame, whether it’s anger, whether it’s anxiousness about what happened to them in their marriage.  We want them to be able to come back to the church and participate in Christ’s stewardship, Christ’s love, Christ’s’ forgiveness, Christ’s generosity.”