“Indissolubility and the Synod of Bishops: Reflections of a Canon Lawyer” by Msgr. John A. Alesandro, JCD, JD (Paulist Press, 2015, pp. 84, $12.95)
The book was inspired as Pope Francis was inviting the bishops of the world to a Synod in Rome on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
The pope has just issued “Amoris Laetitia” or “The Joy of Love,” the post-synod exhortation addressed to “bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, Christian married couples and all the lay faithful.”
Msgr. Alesandro is a distinguished doctor of canon law and holds a juris doctor degree in civil law. He is past president of the Canon Law Society of America. He has over 40 years of pastoral and tribunal experience in helping Catholic couples deal with the heartache and anxiety connected with divorce and the seeking of annulments.
His book will help in understanding some of the changes in Church law that have already been enacted and others that are anticipated.
Many couples have encountered a complex juridical process when they approach the Church for an annulment. Msgr. Alesandro outlines a theological, scriptural and canonical revision of current practices. Several of the points he makes about streamlining the process were also recommended by the papal commission and eventually approved by Pope Francis last December. Some revisions have already been implemented in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Msgr. Steven Aguggia, judicial vicar, wrote a series of articles in The Tablet last fall on some changes that have already been put in place in Brooklyn and Queens.
The author describes the historical process as marriage law in the Church evolved over many centuries. The legal reformulations often overlooked biblical and sacramental implications. It is time for these rich dimensions to be restored in Church law. He recommends six specific revisions in the present Code of Canon Law that now “hinder theological and pastoral development.”
Further, he recommends “a complete revamping of the process the Church uses to address marriages that have ended in divorce.” In this area, he suggests 11 revisions of present canonical procedures.
Msgr. Alesandro does not hesitate to write: “…the Church’s canonical construct of marriage and the procedure of applying it both need radical surgery. We are losing the battle for marriage as a sacrament of the new covenant both in the parish and in the tribunal.”
He notes that Catholic marriages in the U.S. have declined by 52 percent over the past 25 years while the overall Catholic population has been increasing. His research in a sampling of 13 tribunals in the U.S. revealed that formal decisions about nullity totaled 6,942 in 1988, but only 2,170 in 2013, a decline of 69 percent.
‘Newness of Christ’
As he nears the conclusions of this analysis, Msgr. Alesandro writes: “For too long, the Church has unnecessarily juridicized marriage, downplaying its truly sacred and, in many cases, sacramental character. … The Code should be purged of whatever norms are inconsistent with the sacrament (of marriage); and at the same time, jurisprudence should be empowered to rediscover the newness of Christ in today’s marital experiences.”
He agrees with the new norms that allow the presence of a single judge rather than three judges as in the past. But Msgr. Alesandro would go further, offering the role of judge to qualified lay people, women and men, rather than being limited to priests and deacons as it is now.
This book is technical in some sections and may require a patient reading, but it is well worth the journey. Even if the legal and historical formulations are not so easy to penetrate, the pastoral concern for the women and men who are seeking to be helped by the Church today is admirable and most welcome.
The overall impact of this book is a refreshing look at a crucial moment in Church life and a valuable insight into what Pope Francis is asking of the Church today.
Msgr. Martin Geraghty is the pastor emeritus of St. Robert Bellarmine parish, Bayside.