My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Pope Francis recently gave his annual address to the judges of the Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota, which serves as a court of appeals principally for marriage annulment cases. In his remarks on Jan. 23, the Holy Father said, "Sacraments are free of charge. The sacraments give us grace. And marriage processes touch on the sacrament of marriage. How I would like all marriage processes to be free of charge!"
As is often the case, Pope Francis was expressing a wish, but not legislating a requirement. Nevertheless, it is an admirable wish shared by many, so we should look into its feasibility. This pertains to each individual bishop, since dioceses must pay their own bills without financial help from the Vatican. In fact, it works the other way around: Dioceses from around the world contribute financially to the Holy See to provide funding for the work of the Vatican. Even the Roman Rota does not handle all marriage cases for free. According to official data, 53 percent of the processes adjudicated at the Rota are free, and the contribution to the expenses of the procedures consists in a onetime fee of $650.
Here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, our fees have been the same since 1990, ranging from $10 to $450 depending on the nature and complexity of the case. Very frequently fees are reduced or waived based on financial problems which petitioners describe and document. Payment or lack of payment has no effect whatever upon the speed with which we process cases.
The economics that go into managing our diocesan finances work just like anyone else's: balancing income and expenses. The only way to provide a service for free is either to cut expenses or increase income elsewhere. So let's look at the numbers regarding our Diocesan Tribunal, which handles the annulment proceedings for marriage cases from the 129 parishes spread across 28 counties here in central Illinois.
We currently have three judges handling marriage nullity cases in our Tribunal, all of whom are priests with canon law degrees who also have parish responsibilities. Father Kevin Laughery, who serves as Judicial Vicar, usually comes into the office four days a week for an estimated 30 hours per week. In addition to judging, he processes prenuptial papers with requests for dispensations that come through the parishes. He is pastor of four parishes. Father Dean Probst, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Rochester, gives two days per week to tribunal work whether at the Catholic Pastoral Center or in his parish office or rectory. Msgr. Kenneth Steffen, parochial administrator of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Alton, is assigned 20 percent of the defective-consent petitions, which he handles from his rectory office in Alton, while Father Laughery and Father Probst each handle 40 percent.
Our Tribunal has a full-time office manager, Becky Donaldson, and a part-time notary, Brother Joel Mark Rousseau, FFSC. We send cases to one of four psychologists for evaluation (per-case fees range from $55 to $85), and we have about a half dozen defenders of the bond to whom we outsource cases (at $50 to $60 per case). In sum, then, our Tribunal has one full-time office manager, a part-time notary, three part-time judges, and outsourced experts and defenders working on a per-case basis. That is really a bare-bones operation for the amount of work, which in 2014 included 104 defective-consent cases handled locally plus 15 Petrine cases sent to Rome.
In his speech to the judges of the Roman Rota, Pope Francis asked for an increase of the number of canon lawyers available at local tribunals so that cases can be heard more expeditiously. In fact, I have been previously advised by the Holy See that we need to increase the number of judges in our Tribunal. Hence, Father Daren Zehnle is currently studying canon law in Rome. So cutting our Tribunal staff to save money would have the negative consequence of slowing down the processing time for our cases, which would be counter to the Holy Father's desire for a speedy resolution of nullity cases.
If we can't cut the Tribunal budget, the only other way to reduce overall expenses would be to cut the budget for some other ministries of the Catholic Pastoral Center, but that would mean fewer resources available in some other important ministry, such as the Office for Social Concerns and Respect for Life, Catholic schools or catechesis, but I don't think most people would want to reduce our capacity for these essential services in order to process annulments for free.
So if we can't cut expenses, the other option is to increase income. One option to do that would be to increase the assessments and taxes on parishes, which would probably not be a very popular approach. That leaves increased giving to the Annual Catholic Services Appeal (ACSA), major gifts, bequests, corporate contributions, foundation benefactors or other extraordinary donations as the only other realistic options.
The current year budget for Tribunal is $174,356 in total expenses with $44,400 in revenue or a net subsidy from the ACSA of $129,908. While we already cover nearly 75 percent of the cost of these cases, completely eliminating the fees would require another $44,400 to be covered by our ACSA or other extraordinary donations.
Keep in mind that ACSA also funds the education of our seminarians. Since 2010 we have more than doubled the number of seminarians, from 11 to the present 23. The cost of tuition, room and board and other expenses (including stipends, books, fees, insurance and travel) is about $32,000 per year for each seminarian. We have not seen a commensurate income in ACSA or the seminary collection to cover the increased number of seminarians.
The bottom line is that we can only provide as much as we have the resources to do. If we want more priests, we will need more funds to pay for their education and formation. I would hate to have to cap the number of seminarians and turn away qualified candidates because we could not afford them. Similarly, if the people of our diocese value providing annulment processes for free, then we would need to see increased giving to make this possible. So I leave it up to you, our faithful and generous donors: If there is a sufficient increase in our ACSA and extraordinary donations to cover our larger number of seminarians as well as make up the difference of lost fee income from annulment cases, I will direct our Tribunal to eliminate the fees for processing marriage nullity cases.
May God give us this grace. Amen.