Monday, November 19, 2007

Marriage Tribunal, the Judge, and the Cross

Lodged in the center of the Church matrimonial court is the judge. Off hand one may portray him as a cold individual, withdrawn, stern, detached, unyielding. For after all he is sworn to ferret the truth out of conflicting issues and to hand down objective judgment among the contending parties. So, he must be a serious individual, forbidding in stature. But that is an unfair picture of the most important person in the ecclesiastical court of justice. For if it is true to aver that the judge must be impartial and fair, it is as well true to say that any good judge worth his salt must be humane, possessing that sensitivity of a person who understands well what it is to be human and therefore has a good grasp of how fallen human nature expresses itself in its behavior.

Deciding what justice, mercy and compassion demand is the primary work of the judge. It is no easy task, rarely pleasant, to have to pass judgment on issues wherein the interests of one must give way to the rights of another. And yet that is the burden placed on the shoulder of those who exercise judicial power in the Church. It is a burden that should be felt no less in marriage cases than in other judicial or extra-judicial matters a tribunal is asked to address. Indeed, in marriage cases the burden should be felt even more intensely, as here people’s lives and their faith are affected in powerful ways. The judge cannot set aside his responsibility to judge, to choose, to balance, solely because he is afraid that his decisions might adversely affect the lives of those who come to the Church tribunal for answers.

In law, the judge has to be faithful to the canonical procedures. This is a modus operandi demanded from one who exercises the judicial power, a series of activities that is to be carried out by the judge in accordance with the procedures laid down by the legislator. They are not arbitrary rulings or mere formalisms, but the fruit of proven experience that will shield him from subjective acts or decisions prejudicial to the parties involved.

On the other hand, in his struggle to reach a fair judgment in concrete cases as he faithfully observes the rigor and demands of procedural law, he is at the same time asked to dig deep into his core, touching base with his wisdom born from continuous study of the law and his vast experience. After all he is dealing with the complexity of human persons who are breathing realities with feelings and all. For that he should ever be aware that each concrete case demands a treatment that goes beyond the mere interpretation of the law or its rigid application. Process presupposes a judge who meticulously weighs all circumstances of the case and reaches a decision that is just in the concrete case. It is a mental act, subjective in essence, but in the assessment of the concrete case it takes equity foremost in the mind. This truly is an act of a wise man.

The judge is therefore placed in a delicate task of mediating between the canonical system and the persons submitted to its action; between the majesty of the law and the messy reality of flesh-and-blood individuals who are fighting tooth and nail for their God-given rights; between the matrimonial bond that is defined by law as indissoluble and the spouses who contest that from the start there was no such bond. A grave task it is for any judge. But Mother Church steps in for help. She proposes that he should consider well the personalist objective as presented by John Paul II in his Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 27 January 1997 . Here, the Holy Father observed that the Second Vatican Council’s vision of marriage and family contains personalist aspects. As this view of marriage has entered in the codification of 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Holy Father has been asking what would be the juridical consequences that would necessarily flow from these personalist aspects of marriage and family. His answer is to place the persons at the center of the civility of love. For him this approach will not exclude the law. In fact “it demands it, leading to a rediscovery of law as an interpersonal reality and to a vision of juridical institutions that highlights their constitutive link with persons themselves, which is so essential in the case of marriage and the family” (Address of John Paul II, 27 January 1997, 3). It means that correct interpretation of the law and its application can only happen when the person involved is considered in all his/her reality and duly appreciated. Law is an interpersonal reality; juridical institutions demand the constitutive link with persons themselves. Hence, there is no conflict between law and the interpersonal aspects of marriage. Take for instance the “relations between the spouses, in fact, like those between parents and children, are constitutively relations of justice, and for that reason have in themselves juridical significance. Married and parent-child love is not merely an instinctive inclination, nor an arbitrary and reversible choice, but is rather a love that is due” (op. cit.).

In the same breath the judge, assuming a personalist approach in handling matrimonial cases, should also be aware that making decisions about other people’s lives is to take up a heavy cross. We cannot avoid this burden by removing from the judicial processes those parts which are particularly difficult and those instances where our decisions are likely to be unpopular or unpleasant to the parties in question. To lay down this cross, that is, to attempt to avoid the pain that attends the decision making process is to remove from our deliberations, from the workings of our tribunals, the very thing that makes all that we do human and holy. It is to remove the very thing that connects us with the people we are serving.

On the other hand, to bear this cross must lead to some suffering on the part of the judge who helps in making decisions about people’s lives. But this cross also leads to a recapturing of the life and excitement that comes from the working with the law and the facts, and with the human experience grounding those facts. This cross illuminates the dignity in the judge’s work.