Blurred lines between Church and State

Pope Francis’s reform has now streamlined the Ecclesiastic Annulment process by (among other things) scaling back the excessive bureaucracy that had bogged the process down. 

Few can deny that Pope Francis has had a profound impact on the global Church since his election in 2014. 

Apart from eschewing the pomp and ceremony that have traditionally accompanied the role of Pontiff, the former bishop of Buenos Aires has also embarked on reforms which have transformed the Catholic Church: not only in terms of how it is perceived, but also in how its often archaic (and sometimes obsolete) internal mechanisms function.

The most recent reform concerns Ecclesiastical annulment procedures: and this has a particular sensitivity here in Malta, where widespread dissatisfaction with these same procedures had been a major factor in the divorce referendum campaign of 2011.

Before the introduction of divorce, annulment – either Civil or Ecclesiastical – was the only form of legal marriage dissolution which allowed for the possibility of remarriage. As with many other parts of the Catholic world, there were many complaints concerning the Ecclesiastical version of this process. In Malta, however, the procedures were regarded as exceptionally long even by international standards, with Church annulments often obtainable much faster elsewhere.

This already cumbersome process was also greatly complicated by a 1995 Church-State agreement (since dissolved) that gave the Ecclesiastical Tribunal precedence over the Civil Tribunal, when cases were brought before both courts at the same time.

In practice, this meant that civil procedures would have to await the outcome of their lengthy Church equivalent before commencing, resulting in double the waiting time. In cases where the two courts reached different verdicts, the Ecclesiastical tribunal’s decisions were considered final.

Needless to say, this complicated set-up provided several opportunities to unnecessarily delay or stall proceedings for several years: a tactic which became common, especially in cases where the marriage break-up was not mutually agreed upon. 

The bottom line, however, was that an anachronistic blur between the separate roles of Church and State – in this case, concerning marriage – was making life more difficult for ordinary people caught up in ordinary circumstances. And it is arguably this ‘inconvenience factor’ that ultimately sealed the result of the divorce referendum: a result the Church fought against tooth and nail. 

Beyond all the legalistic and moralistic arguments, there was also a sense of social exasperation underpinning the issue. The system was clearly not working, and the resulting chaos had affected enough people to (narrowly) tip the balance in favour of a ‘Yes’.

But while the divorce act of 2012 greatly altered the landscape regarding the dissolubility of marriage, the same Ecclesiastical Annulment procedures were kept in place until the reform announced this week. They are in fact still in place today, as the reform actually comes into force in December.

As for the 1995 Church State agreement, this was formally rescinded in 2014. In view of the Pope’s admission that the Ecclesiastical process was flawed, this did not come a moment too soon.

Pope Francis’s reform has now streamlined the Ecclesiastic Annulment process by (among other things) scaling back the excessive bureaucracy that had bogged the process down. This is significant, as it points towards a cognisance that the global Church is systemically (as opposed to morally or theologically) flawed – and, like any other institution, flaws in its interface with the broader community can only have a deleterious impact on that institution’s public reputation.

The same (belated) cognisance can also be discerned in Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s reaction. “We simply need to respect the truth of the situation and the change gives us the opportunity to do that with speedy procedures,” he told a local newspaper.

The irony is inescapable to those who followed the divorce referendum. Had this realisation occurred sooner, the same ‘inconvenience factor’ might not have arisen at all, and the final result might have been different.

The overall message seems to be that rational societies tend to punish institutions whose anachronistic ways seem intent on hindering people from the pursuit of happiness.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this message has been taken on board. Mgr Scicluna has indicated he will resist a reform of Malta’s assisted fertility legislation to permit embryo freezing: an altogether different issue, but one which likewise touches upon an intrusion into the choices made by others.

Although not in itself an abortive procedure, embryo freezing is known to result in ‘excess’ frozen embryos, raising ethical questions as to how these should be stored, etc. One appreciates the moral sensitivities at stake; but to oppose the technology in principle because it ‘might’ lead to abortion is taking the precautionary principle slightly too far. 

The truth is that the law as it stands has resulted in a low success rate for infertile couples seeking to have children through IVF. The government argues that the change is intended to increase the success rate for these couples; and while the Church is free to advise its faithful in any way it pleases, the prerogative to legislate for all citizens (regardless of faith) falls to the State, not to the Church.

As with annulment, blurring the lines between Church and State ultimately harms the interests of both. Pope Francis has clearly understood this; what remains to be seen is how far-reaching his vision will prove.  

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