VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Members of a marriage tribunal, including the official responsible for defending the bond of marriage, must aim to provide justice but also pastoral care to the couples involved, Pope Francis said.

“Workers involved in the ministry of church justice” act “in the name of the church,” the pope said Nov. 8 during a meeting with members of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, the church’s highest tribunal.

“The service of justice is a commitment of apostolic life,” he said, and “must be exercised with one’s gaze kept fixed on the icon of the Good Shepherd, who bends down toward the lost and wounded sheep.”


The Apostolic Signature, in addition to hearing appeals of lower court decisions and administrative decisions by Vatican congregations, oversees the functioning of church tribunals and procedures.

Part of that responsibility, Pope Francis said, is to help diocesan bishops identify and train “ministers of justice,” including the marriage tribunal official known as the “defender of the bond.”

The advocates of those seeking annulment must present evidence that the marriage was null from the beginning; the defender of the bond, on the other hand, seeks to prove that an indissoluble marriage bond exists.

While Pope Francis has been seeking advice from bishops on making the annulment process quicker and more merciful, he told members of the Apostolic Signature that truth and justice must be protected.

“The defender of the bond who wants to serve well cannot stop at a quick reading of the acts, or at bureaucratic and generic responses,” the pope said. “In his delicate task, he is called to harmonize the prescriptions of the Code of Canon Law with the concrete situations found in the church and society.”

Pope Francis asked members of the Apostolic Signature, which is headed by U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, to “persevere in the search for a transparent and correct exercise of justice in the church in response to the legitimate desires that the faithful address to their pastors, especially when they ask for an authoritative clarification of their status.”