The Rota is the Vatican's court of higher instance, usually at the appellate stage, charged by its governing document, Pastor bonus, with “safeguarding rights within the Church; it fosters unity of jurisprudence, and, by virtue of its own decisions, provides assistance to lower tribunals.”
Among the Rota’s primary responsibilities is to consider appeals in marriage nullity, or annulment, cases. The nullity process was streamlined by Pope Francis in December 2015, strengthening the role of local bishops and cutting the requirement that initial affirmative judgments be reviewed by a higher court.
In his speech, the Pope said the activity of the Rota is expressed “as a ministry of the 'peace of consciousness' and requires being exercised with the 'whole conscience.'”
The Pope told Rotal auditors, or judges, that “you place yourselves, in a certain sense, as experts on the conscience of Christian faithful,” he said, adding that judges are constantly required to ask for divine help in order to “carry out with humility and measure the serious task entrusted to you by the Church.”
He said conscience was an important theme during the 2014-2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family and the 2015 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
The synods, he said, placed a strong emphasis on the relationship between the “'regula fidei,' (rule of faith), which is the fidelity of the Church to the untouchable teaching on marriage” and the Eucharist, as well as the “urgent attention of the Church itself to the psychological and religious processes of all people called to the choice of marriage and family.”
The synods and Amoris Laetitia also emphasized the “urgent need” for pastors of the Church to listen to the “requests and expectations of those faithful who have rendered their own consciences mute and absent for many years,” but who through grace have come back to the Church to “have peace in their conscience,” he said.
Francis then referred to the suggestions he gave in Amoris Laetitia for marriage preparation, which include a longer process, with the involvement of more couples.
Careful preparation and “a continuous experience of faith, hope and charity is needed now more than ever so that young people may decide, with a secure and serene conscience, that conjugal union open to the gift of children is a great joy for God, for the Church and for humanity,” he said.
While this task is primarily the concern of pastors, Francis stressed that the care of consciences “cannot be the exclusive commitment of pastors.” Rather, “with responsibility and in different ways, it is the mission of all, ministers and baptized faithful.”
Marriage and family, he said, “are the future of the Church and of society.” Because of this, he said it's necessary to have a “permanent catechumenate” so that the consciences of those who have been baptized are constantly open to the Holy Spirit.
“The sacramental intention is never the fruit of an automatism, but always of a conscience illuminated by faith, as the result of a combination between human and divine,” he said, explaining that in this sense, “the spousal union can be said to be true only if the human intention of the spouses is oriented to what Christ and the Church want.”
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In order to help future spouses, the Church needs the contribution of bishops and priests, and also of other people involved in pastoral care, such as religious and lay faithful “who are jointly responsible in the mission of the Church.”
Pope Francis closed his speech cautioning members of the Rota not to allow their work in the exercise of justice to be reduced “to a mere bureaucratic task.”
“If the ecclesial tribunals were to fall into this temptation, it would betray Christian conscience,” he said.
“We must prevent the conscience of the faithful in difficulty as regards their marriage from closing to the path of grace,” he said, adding that this can be accomplished through pastoral accompaniment, the discernment of conscience and the work of the Church's tribunals.
“This work must be carried out in wisdom and in the search for the truth,” he said. “Only in this way can the declaration of nullity produce a liberation of consciences.”