BY MARK GREAVES
CHURCH tribunals' should stop granting annulments simply to help couples in difficult situations, Pope Benedict XVI has said.
In a speech to the Roman Rota, the Church's highest court of appeal for annulments, the Pontiff pointed to a "crisis" in the way marriage was understood.
He said that Catholics and even tribunal judges were affected by the secular idea of marriage as merely the "formalisation of emotional bonds".
In "some ecclesiastical realms" this idea has caused annulments to be granted for the sake of the couple's well-being rather than because the marriage was invalid.
"The crisis over the meaning of marriage has affected the way many faithful think," the Pope told judges and officials of the Roman Rota last Saturday. "The indissoluble conjugal bond is denied because it's treated as an ideal that cannot be made 'obligatory' for 'normal Christians'" He continued: "In fact, the [secular] conviction has spread even in some ecclesiastical realms, according to which the pastoral good of individuals in irregular marital situations would call for a kind of canonical regularisation of their situation, regardless of the validity or invalidity of their marriage, that is, regardless of the 'truth' about their personal condition."
Pope Benedict's speech called on Church tribunals to uphold the truth of marriage, which could not be understood in a culture of "relativism and juridical positivism".
When marriage is seen only as an emotional bond, the Pope explained, "it not only becomes contingent as human affections can be contingent but appears as a superimposed legal structure which human will can manipulate as it pleases, even denying its heterosexual character". Marriage is based on more than just the whims of human affection, the Pontiff explained. "The indissolubility of marriage does not derive from the definitive commitment of the two parties involved; rather it is intrinsic to the nature of the potent bond established by the Creator."
The Pope contrasted the Church's understanding of marriage with secular culture's "subjective and libertarian realisation of sexuality".
He said the Church must defend its teaching even when the Western world had lost all understanding about the meaning of sexuality.
The Pope appealed to tribunal judges to face the truth about marriage "without allowing yourselves to be seduced by interpretations that entail a break with the tradition of the Church".
He added that the judges had "a very significant value" in overcoming the modern world's marriage crisis.
Some Catholic commentators have long held that annulments are not always the result of an objective inquiry into the validity of a particular marriage.
Catholic writer Cristina Odone claimed that the annulment process was damaging to the authority of the Church. She told The Catholic Herald: "The terrible thing about annulment is that it leaves the Church open to accusations of Machiavellian machinations and contortions.
"It's wholly admirable for the Church to say marriage is wonderful and sacred, and divorce, because it breaks it, is an abomination, but it is very difficult to take that line seriously when they say, by the way, there are a couple of thousand incidents where we will make an exception if you happen to be well-connected or have the money to spend," she said.
Pope Benedict delivers a speech to the 20 judges of the Roman Rota every January, at the beginning of the judicial year.
According to Fr John Conneely, judicial vicar at the Westminster matrimonial tribunal, the speech is regarded as "essential reading" for tribunal judges around the world.
"All tribunals like to read it for guidance, and sometimes it's more applicable to them than other times. But it's something we do look forward to reading each year," he said.
Vatican statistics show that the Roman Rota granted 67 marriage annulments in 2005 out of 262 cases that came before the tribunal. The statistics also revealed that appeals for annulments are increasing, with the largest number, 27, coming from Italy.
Additional reporting: Edward Pentin