ST. FRANCIS – Fr. Paul Hartmann, judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s metropolitan tribunal and office for ecclesiastical processes, does not want people to “jump to conclusions” when it comes to Pope Francis’ decision to simplify the church marriage annulment process.

“The Holy Father has not changed the theology of marriage,” the priest said, adding the pope reaffirmed the sacrament of marriage.

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Fr. Hartmann, a canon lawyer, said the pope’s decision is “not redefining marriage; it is not watering it down.

“What Pope Francis is affirming is that everyone has access to all the sacraments,” the priest said.

Fr. Hartmann, president of Catholic Memorial High School, Waukesha, said context is needed when reading about the expediency with which the pope wants annulment cases handled.

“Much of the concern rests in other parts of the world – in the Second and Third World Countries,” he said. “They have no standing tribunals.”

Annulments in those countries can take as long as five years to process compared to 12-18 months in the United States, Fr. Hartmann noted, adding that cases in the U.S. might be resolved in six to eight months as a result of the process for which the pope is calling.

“It will not become a two-month process,” the priest said.

The pope’s instruction that tribunals process cases at no cost to the petitioner has already been addressed by the tribunal in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which charges $525 to process a case.

“If someone cannot pay, we waive the fee or set up a payment plan; inability to pay should not be a hindrance for someone seeking an annulment,” said Fr. Hartmann, adding the tribunal will examine how it can cover the costs of those who cannot pay for the process.

The priest anticipates the tribunal will see an increase in divorced people seeking to have their marriages annulled. 

“Because it is getting so much coverage, because Pope Francis is giving it so much attention, people will look into it,” Fr. Hartmann said. 

He said others will come forward because the process “allows closure,” i.e., having a third party (the tribunal) look at the case and affirm the petitioner’s insight that no matter how hard they tried to make the marriage work, they couldn’t.  

Fr. Hartmann cautions that people should view the pope’s decision the way it was intended.

“It was a pastoral decision; our Holy Father wants the church to lead people back to the sacraments,” the priest said.