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Roman Catholics: The Law’s Delay

4 minute read

From Rome last week seeped word that the Sacred Rota of the Vatican had given to Princess Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy’s younger sister, an annulment of her first marriage to transatlantic Socialite Michael Canfield. The ruling, which was quietly handed down in November 1962, left Lee free to celebrate a church wedding last July with her thrice-wed second husband of nearly five years.

Lee’s annulment—technically, a ruling that no true marriage had ever existed because of an essential flaw in the marital contract—was not easy to get. The Roman Catholic Church believes that marriages blessed in heaven cannot be dissolved on earth, and does not permit divorce. It will agree that some marriages were null and void from the beginning, butsuch cases are rare. In 1962, the diocesan and regional marital courts of the church around the world probably annulled fewer than 2,000 marriages. The Rota, Rome’s final court of appeal for most annulment claims, handled only 124 cases, gave decrees of nullity to a mere 64 claimants.

Technical Sin. Lee’s troubles began back in 1958, when she obtained a civil divorce from Canfield. In March 1959, she wed Stanislas (“Stas”) Radziwill* before a Virginia county clerk. But the church does not recognize the validity of civil marriages by Catholics; nor, since Lee had wed Canfield before a priest, could it accept her divorce.

Technically speaking, she was an adulteress, living with her prince and two children in a state of sin.

However, before marrying Radziwill, Lee had already applied for a decree of nullity from the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, which handles some cases involving mixed marriages, only to be told that the case first had to be heard by a diocesan tribunal.

When an archdiocese of Westminster court in London, where the Radziwills live, hemmed and hawed on the case, Lee applied again to Rome, got permissionto take her appeal to the Rota.

The Rota served as both a court of first resort and an appeal court, and two panels—each with three ecclesiastical judges—took turns hearing the evidence in the case.

Blow for La Dolce Vita. Many marital cases drag on for ten years or more, but the lawyer who argued Lee’s case before the Rota denies that she got any special favor. “I deliberately asked that this case be handled with severity,” insists Dr. Fernando Delia Rocca. Since Lee was not saying, and the Rota does not publish its decisions until ten years after the ruling, Vatican insiders could only guess that her grounds were that Canfield refused to have any children.

Other frequently used grounds: belief in divorce, coercion, refusal to honor premarital agreements (such as raising children as Catholics).

Decrees of nullity are becoming harder to get—especially for the rich and famous of Italy, who have to turn to the Rota because their country has no divorce law. Pope Paul VI, who seems to be somewhat more concerned about sins of the flesh than John XXIII, warned the judges of the Rota last December to be extremely careful in making annulment decisions. While doing its best to discourage la dolce vita, the Rota is more determined than ever to resolve cases of genuine hardship, spiritual as well as financial. In future, Rota decisions may come a little slower for those who can afford its court costs (up to $5,000), a little faster for the 50% of the appellants whose fees are paid from a special fund for the poor.

*Whose own previous marriages presented no barrier to a proper Catholic nuptial. His first was annulled by the Vatican before he married Lee; his second was a civil ceremony that ended in divorce and had never been recognized by the church.

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