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Pope Francis on Marriage, Annulments, and the Good Judge

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It is a speech that typically goes unnoticed by the news media, and this year has been no different. Annually, however, it is one of the more significant speeches any pope delivers. And that is his address to the Roman Rota.

The Roman Rota is one of two Vatican "supreme courts," and it is the court that most typically deals with petitions for marriage annulments. Popes therefore have used the occasion of the speech, which is delivered late each January, to stress important aspects of marriage and the larger culture.

In 1991, when Pope John Paul II wanted to defend marriage against what he perceived to be emerging threats, he used his speech to the Rota to lay out a natural-law case for marriage. He acknowledged that marriage is shaped by culture, but contemporary secular culture, he warned, had now become hostile to marriage. Freedom had become "absolutized," and the pontiff wished to make clear where the boundaries lay.

Three years later, in 1994, Pope John Paul II admonished the Rota against the ease with which annulments were being granted. Judges must know the truth, and the truth "is not always easy." Avoid "the temptation to lighten the heavy demands of observing the law in the name of a mistaken idea of compassion and mercy."

One of Pope Benedict XVI's last major acts was his speech to the Rota in January 2013. Like John Paul II, he wished to warn against "contemporary culture." Culture, he feared, had been overcome by "accentuated subjectivism and ethical and religious relativism." And this relativism has caused dangerous ideas to take hold. Pope Benedict warned against the disordered pursuit of "self-fulfillment" and feared that a quest to lead an "autonomous" existence could result in the callous shedding of human relationships when they were no longer gratifying.

It was Pope Francis's turn to address the Rota on Friday, Jan. 24. He did not repudiate his predecessors. And, indeed, who can quarrel with the assertion that the truth is difficult? Or that human relationships are worthy of respect and must never be thrown away or discarded in the pursuit of an easy hedonism?

But the subject matter and tone of Pope Francis's address could not have been more different. First, it was far shorter. Where John Paul II and Benedict were accustomed to delivering intricate, finely wrought commentaries on marriage and family life that ran for pages, Pope Francis's address ran for seven short paragraphs, if you count the final blessing.

What he delivered was a beautiful meditation on Jesus and the qualities of the good judge. The judge, he began, must be fully and maturely human. He or she (and canon law permits women to exercise the judicial office) must never be legalistic, must avoid dry abstractions, and must instead serve the ends of real justice. And justice, he stressed, required full awareness of the needs of the persons before the court. Attend to the person, he emphasized, in his or her "concrete realities."

Judges, he was quick to add, must be "judicious." They must know the law, they must not be easily swayed by emotion, and they must be impartial. And who can argue with these attributes? These are the qualities every judge should possess.

But most importantly, the pope declared, judges must be pastoral. And this is where the pope made his most interesting remarks. All church life, even the church's law, must be dedicated to pastoral concerns. And to be pastoral means to imitate the Good Shepherd. Just as Jesus the Good Shepherd went in search of the lost sheep, so must the judge. The judge, after all, is Jesus's servant. And just as Jesus sought to rescue sinning humanity through love, so must the judge.

This is not a speech likely to gain much attention in the United States. It is available only in Italian, although an English translation will doubtlessly be forthcoming. But it is a speech with potentially large implications for the direction Pope Francis hopes to move the Church.

Note first what was missing. Remember, this is a speech that has annually served as a call to arms in the culture war. And there was none of that in the pope's address. Pope Francis was not holding up the Church as the guardian of truth in a hostile world. He was not denouncing contemporary culture. He was not pulling up drawbridges. He was not admonishing judges to avoid going easy on people. No. This was a homily that appreciated the need to direct everything back to Jesus. "Love," Francis informed the gathered judges, constitutes the "soul" of the "judicial function." Talk about how a change in tone changes the subject!

Second, this speech at least hints at the possibility that we could see changes in the Church's practice of granting annulments. That line about imitating the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep: How do we understand it? In context, it could well mean that the pope wishes to find new ways to reconcile divorced and remarried Catholics with the Church.

In truth, there is an arbitrariness in the way annulments are granted. Most annulments are now issued on psychological grounds -- one party or the other was not emotionally ready to assume the obligations of marriage. And that is always, as they say, a "judgment call." What one ecclesiastical judge sees as an invalidating defect another will see as a normal aspect of human personality. Uniform and predictable results are hard to come by.

How do I understand this speech? As a suggestion of changes to come. Will they be drastic? Will the pope suddenly abolish the indissolubility of marriage? No. But might he find a way, consistent with the law, to welcome back divorced and remarried Catholics who have encountered difficulties in obtaining annulments. Quite possibly.