Should the State recognize marriage annulments declared by the Catholic Church’s Matrimonial Tribunals?
In the present scheme of things, our Civil Law recognizes the civil effects of marriages solemnized in the Church. However, when it comes to marriage nullity, the State has yet fallen short of acknowledging the declaration of nullity rendered by the (Catholic) Church’s matrimonial courts – albeit, a veritable number of bills in both Congress and Senate of the Philippines have been filed but all have failed to reach becoming a law.
Let me first lay down both the similarities and dissimilarities of the grounds for marriage nullity between the Civil Law and Canon Law (the internal legal system of the Roman Catholic Church).
The parallel grounds for nullity are: a) in general – lack of consent, lack of form, lack of legal capacity; b) in particular – lack of age, antecedent and perpetual impotence, previous existing marriage, murder of a spouse, consanguinity, affinity, legal adoption, either party of unsound mind, fraud in obtaining consent, force and intimidation, undue influence, reappearance of an absent spouse, mistake in identity of person, lack of celebrant’s authority, and psychological incapacity.
The following are void marriages that are found only in the Family Code: proxy marriage, parties below 18 years old, false affidavit under Article 34 on Five-Year Cohabitation, failure to deliver prescriptive legitime, failure to record in the Civil Registry of the Judgment of Annulment; and failure to record in the Registry of Property regarding the partition of properties of the former spouses.
The void marriages in Canon Law only are: disparity of cult, sacred orders, public perpetual vows of chastity, public propriety, lack of due discretion, ignorance, conditional marriage, and invalid proxy mandate.
The Church’s Matrimonial Tribunals (or Courts) have been created in response to the ever-increasing marital breakdowns and in order to safeguard the integrity and sanctity of marriage and at the same time resolve challenges to the validity of canonical marriage.
Now, in the area of the State’s civil annulment of marriage, the hard reality is that innumerable marital breakdowns are denied of definitive legal closure through annulment due to two basic reasons: 1) the procedure is long and tedious; 2) it is costly or expensive.
Long and tedious, as exacerbated by the fact that the Courts are overburdened with cases – which, according to 2013 statistics analyzing data compiled between 2005 and 2010, lower courts had an annual average case load of more than 1 million, which would mean an average of 4,000 cases daily.
Costly or expensive, because it seems that civil marital annulment is good only for those who can afford as free legal services are hard to come by for pauper litigants. Result? A vast majority of our broken marriage populace, especially the poor, are better off remaining estranged and un-annulled.
My former seminary classmate, who’s now a lawyer, aptly observes:
“On the average, for a civil annulment litigation, it usually takes at least two or three years to complete, depending if there are properties involved, and would cost some P250,000 to P500,000 at the least for the litigant.”
This sordid situation of unresolved or un-annulled marital breakdowns provided the impetus for Bishop Nolly C. Buco of the Antipolo Diocese to come up with his doctoral dissertation, entitled: “The State Recognition of the Canonical Declaration of Marriage Nullity: A Juridico-Processual Presumption.”
Bp. Buco successfully defended his dissertation in 2021 and obtained his Doctoral degree in Juridical Science (JSD) from the San Beda University Graduate School of Law.
Referring to the lack of civil effects of the declaration of marriage nullity pronounced by the Church, Bp. Buco notes: “As a priest, a pastor of souls, I cannot simply ignore these sad and pitiful situations and leave these parties of conjugal misfortune being cynical and embittered people…(I have) to stand alongside the troubled and distressed couples, take some of the weight of their burden, and free them from the bondage of guilt, and ascertain that their conscience is in place.”
According to Bp. Buco, in his dissertation, the recognition by the State of the Church’s marriage nullity is deemed plausible based on several reasons.
First, for practical reasons.
“The practical dimension of government recognition lies this way: It de-clogs the Regional Trial Court; it spares the couple of financial burden; it avoids duplication of proceedings,” writes Bp. Buco.
Second, for historical reasons.
“Based on its historical fact, the Church courts antedated the State. The proposal seeking State recognition, in effect, requests for the restoration of the lawful prerogative it once had…for the benefit of its common client system,” Bp. Buco notes.
Third, for sociological reasons. Bp. Buco argues that the Church’s matrimonial tribunals alleviate social imbalance brought about by broken marriages, as
“it is the not intent of the Church to set itself at loggerheads with State in declaring marriages null and void, but it rather helps the State maintain the societal equilibrium.”
Fourth, is Constitutional reason. While hard-nosed critics have assailed that it is unconstitutional for the State to recognize Church declaration of nullity, that it violates the principle of the separation of State and Church or non-establishment of a religion in preference to others, Bp. Buco argues otherwise.
“The proposal (for State recognition of the Church’s nullity declaration) does not ask either for a preferential treatment so as to fall into the pit of class legislation…Government recognition shall be open to all Christian churches who have matrimonial courts with qualified officers. The proposal seeks the same concession the government gave to the Muslim Filipinos as made possible by P.D. 1083…And if P.D. 1083 does not violate the non-establishment clause, neither will a law recognizing Church declarations of nullity of marriage do,” Bp. Buco argued.
“The question lies: Should there be strict separation or should there be coordination of powers for the good of citizens? The answer, it is submitted, is there should be coordination of powers. Why? Firstly, both State and Church exist and work for the same client system. Secondly, the Christian is at the same time a citizen of the State. He or she needs and has the right that a peaceful co-existence be guaranteed him or her on the part of those men or women who represent both powers – that is, he or she can co-exist with the State and Church…For the ultimate criterion is: will it serve the best interest, material and spiritual, of the common subjects?”
In sum, on candid estimation of Bp. Buco’s dissertation arguments, it is fairly plausible for the State to recognize the Church’s marriage nullity declaration.
But HOW? That’s another question to tackle and would entail another space for this column.