Today we commemorate the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, who lost his head for defending marriage. Fr. Jaimes Ponce, author of a new book comparing how Catholic Tribunals in the U.S. handle nullity cases in contrast to the authorities at the Vatican, could be a modern John the Baptist. In nullity cases, a Catholic Diocesan Tribunal is asked to decree that a valid marriage never existed. In Ponce’s book, “Lack of Internal Freedom on Matrimonial Consent: An Analysis of Rotal Jurisprudence and American Sentences,” he explains that while doing research, he was cautioned by his peers. “Some tried to dissuade me by stating that I was treading on forbidden territory. Others stated that my career would end with the defense of the dissertation.”
 
In doing his research, Fr. Ponce, with a letter from his bishop requesting their cooperation, sent surveys to tribunals requesting some statistical information as well as copies of two tribunal decrees. Ponce writes, “Out of the 75 questionnaires sent, only six of them provided all the information requested.  Another six provided only partial information, which proved to be useless for this research.”
 
Those surveyed were promised that their identity would remain anonymous.  Ponce’s purpose was to explore how the lack of internal freedom to exercise one’s will affects one’s ability to consent to marriage as it relates to canon 1095, n 2. Ponce describes the opinion relayed in a personal interview by a Judicial Vicar (director) of one tribunal in the Southwest:
 
[The Judicial Vicar ] “states that one reason for the overwhelming use of this canon throughout the United States tribunals, and in particular in his tribunal, is that ‘we all feel more comfortable with can. 1095, n. 2.  Even if evidence abounds for other grounds, we prefer to use this canon because it is very broad and it is easier to develop a sentence based on it.  In other words, can. 1095 is more easily applied to any case.  We do this in spite of being reminded every year to read the allocutions to the Roman Rota.’”
 
Ponce continues, “The allocutions of our Popes to the Roman Rota are a constant reminder to Catholic Tribunals from around the world to follow some guidelines in adjudicating cases concerning matrimonial nullity.”
 
Familiarity with basic canonical principles might be a prerequisite for a reader to appreciate Ponce’s book, which focuses on one particular aspect of grounds for nullity: lack of internal freedom relative to canon 1095, n 2.  Publisher, Bai Macfarlane, director of “Mary’s Advocates” says, “I hope we find an author who explores another aspect of canon 1095, n 2. We need Vatican clarification defining the ‘essential obligations and rights of marriage’ about which the parties must have adequate discretion of judgment. I’ve heard that Catholics mistakenly think that nullity should be granted based on lack of discretion of judgment, after one spouse alleges that he didn’t know the other well enough before marriage.”
 
From the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Bishop Michael Sheridan provided endorsement on the back cover of “Lack of Internal Freedom on Matrimonial Consent.” He states, “The most overused and misused canon in the judgment of the validity of marriages by the tribunals of the United States is canon 1095, n 2.”
 
Deacon Edward Peitler, a Catholic licensed counselor with a Masters in Clinical Psychology in the Diocese of Charleston, recommends that clergy and clinicians who are involved in the annulment process read Ponce’s book. After previewing it, Peitler says, “I have been asked on a number of occasions to complete annulment questionnaires on couples I have seen for marriage counseling who later divorced.  I routinely refuse to answer questions asked of me in the tribunal questionnaire because I am required to make a clinical judgment on the mental state of the petitioners at the time of their marriage that in most cases predated the counseling I did by many, many, years.  This is tantamount to crystal ball reading - a talent I do not possess.”
 
Fifteen years ago, Oxford University Press published a book by retired University of Notre Dame professor of sociology, Robert Vasoli. In the conclusion of his book, “What God has Joined Together: the Annulment Crisis in American Catholicism,” Vasoli says, “Until the needed changes occur,  de facto the American Tribunal system will continue to be in virtual schism with Rome with respect to defective consent annulment.”
 
Macfarlane, publisher of “Lack of Internal Freedom on Matrimonial Consent” says “We wanted to publish Fr. Ponce’s book because we are disappointed by how little support we found for marriage amongst Catholics, especially amongst the clergy. When a spouse chooses to abandon marriage and force divorce on the family, too many times the faithful spouse (who never wanted the divorce) is advised that the marriage never really existed in the first place, and the pastoral solution is to get an annulment and find a new partner.”
 
Mary’s Advocates works to uphold marriage, and includes a network of lay people who assist each other using canon law to defend their marriages against accusations of nullity in U.S. Catholic Tribunals. Macfarlane says, “Some of the simplest rights of the defendants are disregarded. For example, when the case first starts, defendants are not even provided a copy of the petitioner’s complaint, as required by law. So defendants don’t even know in a general way the alleged facts being proposed to prove that they never had a valid marriage.”
 
“Lack of Internal Freedom on Matrimonial Consent: An Analysis of Rotal Jurisprudence and American Sentences,” copyright 2012 by Fr. Jaimes Ponce is available at Mary’s Advocates and Amazon for about $35.00. 643 pages


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