The Pontiff today addressed this issue when he met with judges and lawyers of the Roman Rota, the Holy See´s Court of Appeals that, among other things, pronounces on sentences of marital nullity dictated by ordinary ecclesiastical tribunals.
According to the Code of Canon Law, ecclesiastical tribunals are competent to decide if a marriage is invalid, that is, that it has never existed.
These declarations must respond to specific causes, for example, that the marriage took place under duress or out of fear, by deceit, or by rejecting some of its essential elements (see Canons 1095-1107).
In that case, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains (No. 1629), "the parties are free to marry, although they must fulfill the natural obligations stemming from a previous union."
Nullity has nothing to do with divorce -- which is not accepted by the Catholic Church by the express teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:3-12 -- which implies the rupture of a valid and licit marriage.
In his traditional meeting at the beginning of the year with the judges and lawyers of the Roman Rota, the Holy Father explained that their mission is decisive, because "without the processes and sentences of the ecclesiastical tribunals, the question of the existence or nonexistence of an indissoluble marriage of faithful would only be relegated to their own consciences."
This question of conscience otherwise would be very complicated, especially if one keeps in mind "the obvious risk of subjectivism, especially when there is a profound crisis of the institution of marriage in civil society," the Pope stressed.
Therefore, "every just sentence of validity or nullity of marriage is a contribution to the culture of indissolubility both in the Church as well as in the world," the Bishop of Rome clarified.
"Not only does it give certainty to the individuals involved, but also to all marriages and families," he added.
Therefore, John Paul II warned, "an unjust declaration of nullity, opposed to the truth of the normative principles or of the facts, is particularly serious, because given its official relation with the Church, it favors the spread of attitudes in which the indissolubility is affirmed in word, but obscured in life."
Because of this, the Pontiff called for the commitment of lawyers and judges of ecclesiastical tribunals to be at the service of the indissolubility of marriage, which "does not obviously mean prejudice against the just declarations of nullity."
The Roman Rota is one of the oldest tribunals in the world, although its name, "Rota," emerged belatedly in the 14th century, in reference, perhaps, to a sort of circular table at which the judges sat.
Beginning in the 17th century, it was also involved with marital cases. And two centuries later, at the time of Gregory XVI, it finally became a court of appeals for ecclesiastical causes and those of the Papal State.
This Tribunal does not receive ordinary proceedings of declarations of nullity, which are left to diocesan marriage tribunals.