Cardinal says process can only be shortened with the explicit consent of both parties

A top Vatican official has clarified the use of fast-track annulments amid disagreement among canon lawyers.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said that annulments could only be fast-tracked with the explicit consent of both parties.

His clarification, in a letter to a priest in the United States, surfaced as the subject was being contested at a conference of the Canon Law Society of America.

Canon lawyers say the intervention makes clear that the fast-tracking of annulments – introduced in the Pope’s landmark apostolic letter Mitis Iudex – will be rare.

In his letter Cardinal Coccopalmerio said: “The brief process cannot be used if the respondent remains silent, does not sign the petition or declare his consent.

“This explicit consent is foremost necessary because the brief process is an exception to the general norm,” he wrote.

Canon lawyer Dr Edward Condon said the intervention was significant because in Britain and the United States one partner was “declared absent” from the process nearly half the time – “either because he will not respond to the tribunal or because he cannot be found”.

“If in these cases the shorter form process cannot be used, that rules out as many as half of all cases in some dioceses.

“This underscores that the full process is, and will remain, the ordinary process and the shorter form is truly exceptional,” he said.

Dr Condon added: “It’s also significant because there was considerable debate about exactly this point among many canonists. It shows that the reforms of Mitis Iudex are, while very welcome in and of themselves, not sufficient unto themselves – they need proper explanation for them to be put into practice.”

He said the clarification also upheld the principle that consent was a “positive act of the will and cannot be presumed from silence”.