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from issue no. 05 - 2004

SACRA ROTA. Analysis of the data on the causes of marriage annulment broken down by nation

Till the Rota does you part

Surveying the new data on first degree courts, one discovers that throughout the world the requests for recognition of null marriage end up being accepted in the vast majority of the cases. And almost always because the consent of the couple was flawed

by Gianni Cardinale

Session of the Sacra Rota, miniature from a codex in the Vatican Secret Archive

Session of the Sacra Rota, miniature from a codex in the Vatican Secret Archive

Every year when the Pope receives the prelates of the Roman Rota in audience he has strong words to say in defense of the institution of marriage and seems to scold the tribunals of the Catholic Church for a certain laxity in recognizing nullity. This year, for example, on 29 January, at the opening ceremony of the judicial year of the Apostolic Tribunal, John Paul II declared that «the tendency to instrumentally amplify nullity, forgetful of the aspect of objective truth», leads to «structural distortion of the entire process».
This solemn reprimand was not addressed to the judges of the Rota, which, as we shall see, is rather restrictive in recognizing the nullity of a marriage, as much as to the diocesan or regional courts of first and second instance where the overwhelming majority of this type of case is dealt with.
In order to understand the scale of the phenomenon and see in which countries it is particularly widespread, one simply has to analyze the data given at the back of the Statistical Yearbook of the Catholic Church, an annual publication edited by the central Office of Statistics of the Holy See coordinated by Monsignor Vittorio Formenti. The latest edition, covering 2002, has recently been published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana. The following data are to be found there.

A cause of annulment every 62 marriages
To get an idea of the global scale of the phenomenon, one first of all needs to say that during 2002 54,247 cases for annulment in first instance were brought in diocesan and regional tribunals throughout the world (cf. table on p.25). Taking into account that in the same period 3,384,730 canonical marriages were celebrated, one sees that overall a case for annulment was brought for every 62 canonical marriages celebrated two years ago. Comparing that with the Statistical Yearbook for 1978 one finds that in that year the ratio was one case for every 73 marriages. Though there was in that year a small decrease in cases seeking annulment (56,875 in 1978), in 24 years there has been an out-and-out collapse in canonical marriages, which have drastically decreased in absolute terms (in 1978 there were 4,125,264), but especially in ratio to the number of baptized. In 1978 in fact there were 54 marriages for every 10,000 Catholics, in 2002 there were barely 32 (with even more pronounced downward trends in North America and Oceania, cf. tables on this page).
In 2002, 0.5 cases for annulment were brought for every 10,000 baptized. That is the general datum. Then if figures for continents and single countries are broken down one sees there are great differences among the various local Churches.

United States: cases on the decrease but still a record
What immediately jumps to the eye is the figure for the United States. The American Church counts for little more than 6% of the world Catholic population, but during 2002 over half – 57% – of cases for matrimonial annulment in the first instance brought worldwide opened in its diocesan tribunals: 30,835 out of 54,247 (cf. table p.25). Italy follows a long way behind (2,817), as do Poland (2,400), Canada (1,907) and Spain (1,762). Undoubtedly twenty four years earlier in 1978 the incidence of US cases on the total was even greater (38,608 out of 56,875, equal to about 68%) but still today the US record is overwhelming. And it is a record, as we have seen, in absolute terms but also in ratio to the number of faithful (cf. table p.25). In this case however behind the United States, which numbers 4.7 cases of annulment brought for every 10,000 baptized, come other countries such as Malta (3.7), Japan (2.7), and New Zealand (2.0). In this special “league table” Lebanon (1.5), Syria (1.3) and Ireland (0.9) also have leading positions.

Local tribunals 94% for annulment, Sacra Rota 46%
A spectacular figure, which perhaps justifies in a particular way the pontifical reprimand in January, is that of the verdicts given by the ecclesiastical tribunals. Looking at the first grade verdicts given in 2002 one finds that the judges were in favor of annulment of a marriage in 94% of cases. Breaking down the data by continent (cf. table p. 25) one further sees that the relatively more severe tribunals are the European ones with verdicts in favor of annulment at “only” 85%, whereas the figure is 97% for North America and Oceania. Coming down to individual countries (cf. table p. 25) one sees the always very relative “restrictiveness” of the judges in Poland (verdicts for at 75%) and Germany (82%), and the extreme “liberalism” of their colleagues in Mexico (99%), the United States and Korea (97%), the Ukraine and Australia (96%).

It is to be noted that this “lar­g­esse” in recognizing the nullity of marriage is in contrast with the figures from the tribunal of the Pope, the Sacred Rota, which functions as a final court of appeal, consulted in cases where the two first grades of judgment do not agree and to which recourse can be made after a first grade verdict on account of the principle whereby every member of the faithful can always appeal to the Holy See. In 2002 the Rota issued 135 verdicts in cases of marriage annulment. And in what is – or should be – the tribunal with exemplary jurisprudence for the whole church, the majority of the verdicts – 73, 54% of the total – were pro vinculo and therefore against annulment. A figure diametrically opposed to that of the overwhelming majority of the diocesan and regional tribunals in the Catholic world. Here it is worth noting – as a curiosity - that in only four countries were the verdicts of the local ecclesiastical judges – as with the Rota – largely against the recognition of nullity: Zambia (5 verdicts in the first grade pro nullitate, 18 pro vinculo), Belize (1 to 4), Singapore (4 to 5) and Belarus (7 to 8). But this has to do – as one sees from the figures – with statistically marginal cases.

Annulment almost always for «flawed consent», in other words for «immaturity»
As for the reasons for which marriages are recognized as null one can say that in the overwhelming majority of cases (98.7%) it has to do with a «flaw in consent» (cf. table p.26). And in this category the «grave defect of discretion of judgment» is included: the canonical definition of immaturity, which – as Avvenire reported on 6 May last – by itself constitutes 83% of the reasons for annulment in regional Italian tribunals.
In this case there are no great differences between different geographical areas. The «flaw in consent» reigns everywhere. The cases of annulment for a «flaw in form» (0.2%), for «other impediments» (0.6%) or for «impotence» (0.5%) are numerically marginal. A curiosity about the latter reasons. Of the 244 cases brought in ecclesiastical tribunals worldwide, a good 204 of them occurred in Italy.

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