What the new Motu Proprio really means
My editor Luke Coppen has flagged up a new Motu Proprio coming out of Rome which heralds some changes to Canon Law. Motu Proprio Omnium in mentem looks like it is mainly revising laws that have to do with people formally leaving the Church and getting married. It looks like it might be a generous revision. I asked a canon lawyer what it meant. Here is the reply:
Essentially the motu proprio Omnium in mentem does two things:
‘1) It clarifies that deacons do not act “in persona Christi capitis” (in the person of Christ the head), and corrects what was probably no more than an oversight in the phrasing of canon 1008 which made it appear that the phrase “in persona Christi capitis” applied to all three degrees of the sacrament of Holy Orders, rather than just the episcopate and the presbyterate. There’s no change to the substance of the law here; the change simply expresses better in the text of the law what is already the teaching of the Church.
‘2) The motu proprio removes certain exceptions to matrimonial law for those who had “formally defected from the Catholic Church” (in common parlance, “left the Church”). Hitherto such people did not need to observe canonical form (i.e. marry in front of an authorised cleric and two witnesses), and needed no permission or dispensation to marry non-Catholics. These had been intended as generous provisions by the Church, but in fact caused many problems. One particular situation to which the motu proprio alludes would go as follows:
‘Alice, a Catholic, goes to university, where she meets and falls in love with Bob, an anti-Catholic evangelical protestant. Bob persuades Alice to reject her Catholicism, and she writes a letter to the bishop saying that she no longer wishes to be considered a Catholic. Alice and Bob then marry in a registry office.
The marriage turns out to be a disaster, and after many unhappy years Alice leaves Bob, eventually finding her way back to the Catholic Church. She then meets a lovely Catholic man called Charlie, with whom she would like to live happily ever after.
‘Under the 1983 Code as hitherto, and all things being equal, Alice’s marriage to Bob is considered valid; as she had “formally defected” from the Church, she wasn’t bound to canonical form (c. 1117). She didn’t need to ask permission to marry a baptised non-Catholic (c. 1124), and indeed could even validly have married an unbaptised person (c. 1086 §1). So while the Church would welcome her back with open arms, marriage to Charlie would not be possible as the Church would consider her marriage to Bob as a valid sacramental marriage.
‘Under the Code as modified, Alice would continue to be bound to canonical form, to the impediment of disparity of cult (i.e. Catholics can’t validly marry unbaptised people without a dispensation) and to the requirement that permission be sought for a mixed marriage (i.e. Catholics need permission to marry baptised non-Catholics). Her “marriage” to Bob would be considered non-existent because of lack of canonical form, and she would be free to marry Charlie. She wouldn’t even need to go through a nullity process. So she would be welcomed back to the Church in the status she was in when she “left” the Church. Both for her and for Charlie that would be a rather happier outcome.
‘There is a saying “semel catholicus, semper catholicus” – “once a Catholic, always a Catholic”. Three small relaxations of that rule have now been removed, which should make things simpler and easier – both for canonists and for those who wish to return to the bosom of the Church.
‘Perhaps it is worth noting that this provision is not retroactive – it only applies to marriages celebrated after it comes into force, three months after the date of the issue of Acta Apostolicae Sedis in which it is published (cf. c. 8 §1).’