LINCOLN, Neb. –– As the Catholic Church began the Holy Year of Mercy, the Diocese of Lincoln announced it will offer its marriage tribunal process “to all who need it, without requiring payments or assessing fees.”
Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln discussed the decision in his Dec. 11 column in the Southern Nebraska Register, the diocesan newspaper.
“The Year of Mercy requires that each of us help the world to live according to the will of God,” he said. “May our tribunal assist in that process, and may our witness to the gift of marriage, given freely by the Lord, call families to holiness, sacrifice and charity.”
Bishop Conley noted that eliminating tribunal fees also was in keeping with current diocesan policy to waive fees in other circumstances.
“The Diocese of Lincoln has long believed that every child should be welcomed at Catholic schools, regardless of his ability to pay,” he explained. “We have long offered counseling to families, couples and individuals, even when they are unable to afford it. We provide food, clothing, job training and housing to those who cannot pay.”
The bishop noted that annually annulment fees “cover roughly 15 percent of our tribunal’s budget. We hope that those who utilize the process might offer freely some contribution for the church’s work. But we will no longer assess fees of any kind for the legal processes of the diocesan tribunal.”
“We offer the tribunal as a court of justice, and a prophet of mercy, without any consideration of cost. I pray that those who are searching for the truth might avail themselves of the church’s judgment,” he added.
Marriage, he said, “is God’s first gift to humanity. ‘In the beginning’ God created one man and one woman, and he joined them together, instructing them to be fruitful and multiply. God created us for families, in his own image, through the gift of marriage.”
Marriage is “a life-long partnership of spouses, which exists to form families in the procreation and education of children, and to assist the spouses in the pursuit of holiness,” he continued. “Marriage is a permanent and exclusive union, which, when the spouses are baptized, is a sacramental union, in which Christ’s presence is manifested in grace.
The choice to marry is “beautiful and serious” and should be made by an adult who “is capable of making an unencumbered and rational decision,” Bishop Conley said. The choice “must be free, honest and mature,” and couples must be faithful to one another, be open to having children and realize it is a lifetime commitment.
It is clear, however, that today’s culture “is not conducive to healthy marriages,” he said.
“The media devalues fidelity, permanence, and fertility. We are accustomed to egocentric instant gratification,” he added. “The culture of death erodes the integrity of families, and that problem compounds with each generation: Children who grow up without healthy families as role models are unlikely to form healthy families of their own.”
For many reasons, there are people who want to marry but are not mature enough, free enough or prepared enough — personally, intellectually, emotionally and morally — to make that choice.
Bishop Conley noted that some sociologists believe that a marriage that began in 2015 has a nearly 50 percent chance of ending in divorce.
“Only exceptional circumstances justify divorce: Married people are called to offer the sacrifices of their vocation, even in hardship, unless the gravest circumstances require separation,” he said.
But there are couples who separate, he said, and the Catholic Church for centuries has offered couples the annulment, or tribunal, process — “a legal process to determine whether those couples actually contracted marriage.”
That process, Bishop Conley explained, uses both the husband and wife’s accounts and testimony with witnesses and experts “to determine whether both parties were fully capable of consenting to marriage, and whether they consented to marriage without excluding its most essential goods and properties.”
The tribunal asks questions “about the very beginning of a marriage” to judge “whether the consent supplied on the day of the wedding sufficiently established marriage.”
It does not “find fault or assess blame,” he said. “It simply considers whether the words of consent corresponded to the object and capacity of the spouses’ wills.”
The bishop described the tribunal process as “a kind of mercy for the couple, because it clarifies the truth about their lives. Knowing the truth, and living in accord with the truth, brings us to freedom.”
It requires legal, theological and psychological experts to evaluate the situation of broken marriages; and also requires gathering testimony and facts, he said.
“It must be undertaken carefully, fairly and professionally,” Bishop Conley said. “The process is not without significant costs.”
“But clarifying the truth about marriage is an apostolate of mercy,” he said. “Helping people to know how God calls them to live is a part of the church’s essential mission. Inviting divorced Catholics to know and live as disciples of Jesus, in the full communion of the church, is a privilege, and a grace.”