The Holy See
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Thurday, 5 February 1987


1. This annual meeting with you, dear brothers, who carry out your activity in the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, gives me great joy. I am grateful to the dean, the prelate auditors, the other officials, and also to the advocates for the constant and diligent cooperation which they offer me in carrying out the judicial function (munus), which belongs to the successor of Peter for the universal Church. It is a valuable work offered to me by people who are highly qualified in the field of law and who represent the variety of languages and cultures from all parts of the earth where the Church of God fulfills its mission.

I am grateful to you for your promise of fidelity to the gospel and to tradition, as well as for the effort to meet the new needs of the Church, and deepen the knowledge of the authentic human reality in the light of revealed Truth.

From this perspective, I wish to devote particular attention today to psychic incapacities, which especially in some countries have become the ground for a high number of declarations of nullity of marriage.

2. We are well aware of the great progress which has been made by contemporary psychiatry and psychology. It must be appreciated how much these modern sciences have done and are doing to explain the psychic processes of the person, both conscious and unconscious, as well as the help which they give by means of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy to many people in difficulty. The immense research carried out and the remarkable dedication of so many psychologists and psychiatrists are certainly praiseworthy. However, it must be recognized that the discoveries and achievements purely in the fields of psychology and psychiatry are not capable of offering a truly complete vision of the person. They are not capable of resolving on their own the fundamental questions concerning the meaning of life and the human vocation. Nevertheless certain trends in contemporary psychology, going beyond their own specific competence, are carried into such territory and are introduced under the thrust of anthropological presuppositions that cannot be reconciled with Christian anthropology. Hence, there arise difficulties and obstacles in the dialogue between the psychological sciences on the one hand and the metaphysical and ethical sciences on the other.

Consequently the trial of cases of nullity of marriage on the grounds of psychic or psychological limitations demands on the one hand the help of experts in such subjects, who consider in accordance with their competence the nature and degree of psychic processes which impinge upon matrimonial consent and the ability of the person to assume the essential obligations of marriage. On the other hand, it does not dispense the ecclesiastical judges, in the use of experts’‘ reports from the duty of not allowing themselves to be influenced by unacceptable anthropological concepts that would eventually involve a misunderstanding concerning the truth of the facts and their meaning.

In any case, there is no doubt that a profound knowledge of the theories developed and of the results achieved by the aforementioned sciences offers the possibility of evaluating the human response to the vocation of marriage in a more precise and discriminating manner than philosophy alone or theology alone would allow.

3. From what has been said already it appears that dialogue and constructive communication between the judge and the psychiatrist or psychologist are easier if the starting point for both is within the horizon of a common anthropology, in such a way that the vision of one remains open to that of the other, yet within their difference of method, interest, and purpose.

If, however, the horizon within which the expert, psychiatrist or psychologist, moves is opposed or closed to that within which the canonist moves, dialogue and communication can become a source of confusion and misunderstanding. The very serious danger which derives from this second hypothesis as regards decisions about the nullity of marriage is obvious to all. The dialogue between the judge and expert, which is built on ambiguous premises, can in fact easily lead to conclusions that are false and damaging to the real good of the parties and of the Church.

4. Such danger is not merely hypothetical if we consider that the anthropological vision, from which numerous trends in the field of contemporary psychological sciences originate, is on the whole decidedly irreconcilable with the essential elements of Christian anthropology. This is so because that vision is closed to values and meaning which transcend the immanent factor and which allow human beings to tend towards the love of God and of their neighbor as their final vocation.

Such a closure cannot be reconciled with the Christian vision which holds that humans are beings “created ‘’in the image of God,’‘ with the capacity to know and love their creator” (GS, no. 12), and they experience internal disunity within themselves (see GS, no. 10). The psychological trends referred to either on the one hand start from a pessimistic view according to which humans could not conceive any other aspiration than that imposed on them by their impulses or by social conditioning; or they take an exaggeratedly optimistic view according to which humans have within themselves their fulfillment and that they can achieve it on their own.

According to some psychological trends the vision of marriage is such that it reduces the meaning of the marriage union simply to a means of gratification or of self-fulfillment or of psychological release.

Consequently, for the experts who take their inspiration from such tendencies every obstacle which requires effort, commitment or renunciation, and still more, every failure in fact of a marriage union, easily becomes proof of the inability of the presumed spouses to understand correctly and to succeed in their marriage.

Expert examinations carried out on the bases of such a reductionist anthropology do not in practice take into consideration the duty, arising from a conscious undertaking on the part of the spouses, to overcome even at the cost of sacrifice and renunciation the obstacles that interfere with the success of their marriage. Hence they regard every tension as a negative sign, an indication of weakness, and an incapacity to live out their marriage.

Expert evidence of this kind therefore is inclined to extend the heading of incapacity of consent to include situations in which, due to the influence of the unconscious on the ordinary psychic life, people experience a reduction, but not however a deprivation of their actual freedom to strive for the good they have chosen. They consider easily even cases of slight psychopathological disturbance, or straight away failures of the moral order as proof of the incapacity to assume the essential obligations of married life.

Unfortunately it can happen that the said approaches are sometimes uncritically accepted by ecclesiastical judges.

6. The aforementioned vision of the person and of the institution of marriage cannot be reconciled with the Christian concept of marriage as “an intimate sharing of married life and love” in which the spouses “give themselves to each other and accept each other” (GS, no. 48; cf. c. 1055, §1).

In the Christian plan human beings are called to union with God as their last end, in whom they find their proper fulfillment although they are impeded in the achievement of their vocation by the resistance which arises from their own concupiscence (see Council of Trent, DS, 1515). The dichotomy affecting the modern world is in fact, “connected with a deeper imbalance rooted in the human heart” (GS, no. 10). In relation to marriage this means that the realization of the meaning of the conjugal union, by means of the mutual self-giving of the spouses becomes possible only by means of a continuous effort, which also includes renunciation and sacrifice. The love between the spouses must in fact be modelled on the love of Christ who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2 and 25).

Research into the complexity and conditioning of psychic life ought not to lose sight of this integral and total conception of humans, who are called by God and saved from their own weaknesses by means of the Holy Spirit (see GS, nos. 10 and 13). This is especially true when one wishes to outline a genuine vision of marriage which has been willed by God as an institution fundamental to society and elevated by Christ to a means of grace and sanctification.

Therefore the findings of the experts, who have been influenced by the afore-mentioned views constitute a real occasion of deception for the judge who does not advert to the initial anthropological misunderstanding. With the use of this expert evidence psychic maturity which is seen as the goal of human development ends up being confused with canonical maturity which is rather the basic minimum required for establishing the validity of marriage.

7. For the canonist the principle must remain clear that only incapacity and not difficulty in giving consent and in realizing a true community of life and love invalidates a marriage. Moreover, the breakdown of a marriage union is never in itself proof of such incapacity on the part of the contracting parties. They may have neglected or used badly the means, both natural and supernatural, at their disposal; or they may have failed to accept the inevitable limitations and burdens of married life, either because of blocks of an unconscious nature or because of slight pathological disturbances which leave substantially intact human freedom, or finally because of failures of a moral order. The hypothesis of real incapacity is to be considered only when an anomaly of a serious nature is present, which, however it may be defined, must substantially vitiate the capacity of the individual to understand and/or to will.

8. The judge therefore cannot and ought not to expect from the expert a judgment on the nullity of marriage, and still less must he feel bound by any such judgment which the expert may have expressed. It is for the judge and for him alone to consider the nullity of marriage. The task of the expert is only that of providing the elements of information which have to do with his specific competence, that is, the nature and extent of the psychic and psychiatric realities on grounds of which the nullity of the marriage has been alleged. In fact, the Code in cc. 1578-1579 explicitly demands from the judge that he critically evaluate the reports of the experts. In this evaluation it is important that he should not al low himself to be misled either by superficial judgments or by expressions that are apparently neutral but which in reality contain unacceptable anthropological presuppositions.

However, every effort is to be encouraged in the preparation of ecclesiastical judges who know how to discern and understand the anthropological premises implied in the evidence of experts, and also in the preparation of experts in the various human sciences which promote a real integration between the Christian message and the true and continuous progress of scientific research conducted according to the criteria of a proper autonomy (cf. GS, no. 62).

The arduous task of the judge that of treating responsibly difficult cases, such as those involving psychic incapacities for marriage, and always taking into consideration human nature, the vocation of humans, and, connected with this, a correct conception of marriage is certainly a ministry of truth and charity in the Church and for the Church. It is a ministry of truth insofar as the genuine Christian concept of Christian is safeguarded even in the midst of cultures and fashions which tend to obscure it. It is a ministry of charity towards the ecclesial community which is preserved from the scandal of seeing the value of Christian marriage being practically destroyed by the exaggerated and almost automatic multiplication of declarations of nullity of marriage in cases of the failure of marriage on the pretext of some immaturity or psychic weakness on the part of the contracting parties. It is also a service of charity towards the parties themselves out of love of the truth if it is necessary to deny the declaration of nullity. In this way they are at least helped to avoid deceiving themselves as to the true causes of the failure of their marriage, and they are saved from the probable risk of finding themselves in the same difficulties in a new union sought as a remedy to the first failure, without having first tried all the means of overcoming the obstacles which they experienced in their valid marriage. Finally, it is a ministry of charity towards the other pastoral institutions and bodies in the Church. By preventing the ecclesiastical tribunal from becoming an easy way out for the dissolution of marriages that have failed and of irregular situations between spouses, it prevents in fact any carelessness in the preparation of young people for marriage, which is an important condition for approaching the sacrament (see Familiaris consortio, no. 66; cf. January 24, 1981, supra p. 167); it also brings about an increased commitment in the use of resources for pastoral care of people after marriage (see Familiaris consortio, nos. 69-72), and especially for the care of difficult cases (ibid., nos. 77-85).

In this way the work of the judge in the ecclesiastical tribunal is linked in a real way and must always become more closely linked to the rest of the entire pastoral activity of the Church, as the dean has mentioned. It ensures that the refusal of a declaration of nullity will become an occasion of opening new ways of solving the problems of spouses in difficulty who have recourse to the ministry of the Church. It is never to be forgotten that every solution passes through the paschal mystery of death and resurrection, which demands the whole commitment of the spouses themselves to be converted to salvation in order to be reconciled with the Father (cf. Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15).

Finally, I express the wish that your diligence, nourished by the love of Christ and of his Church as well as by pastoral zeal, may, through the publication of the volumes which contain your decisions, be a valid contribution to clarifying the discussion of the cases of which I have spoken and may have a beneficial influence on the activity of lower tribunals. I assure you of my continued good will and impart my heartfelt blessing.


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