Pope Changes Annulment Process. What Does it Mean?

Sometimes, it's obvious that there was no sacramental marriage. Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Keith https://www.flickr.com/photos/outofideas/

Sometimes, it’s obvious that there was no sacramental marriage. Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Keith https://www.flickr.com/photos/outofideas/

My ignorance of canon law is showing.

Pope Francis issued two Apostolic letters, which are edicts affecting the entire Church this morning. These letters reform the process by which members of the laity — and those wishing to enter the Church who have  marital baggage from the pasts — can obtain an annulment.

I have questions out to canonists so that I can give you a more exact and accurate understanding of exactly what the Holy Father did, but there are a few things I can say, just from reading the documents. One critical reform that he has instituted is that the process of obtaining an annulment should be offered to the faithful without charge.

The diocese in which I live does not charge for annulments. That is the way it should be, everywhere. The reason I feel so strongly about this is that a complex marital arrangement can block people from entering the Church, and it can also keep them from taking Communion. That makes the annulment process a roadblock to Jesus. There should never have been a charge for someone seeking to partake of the Body and Blood of Our Savior.

If I understand what I read correctly, the Pope has put the annulment process in the hands of the local bishop, who has been given the option of appointing one person to act on his behalf in this matter. Pope Francis calls this person “a single judge under the responsibly of the Bishop.” One of the things I need to learn more about is how this would affect the existing tribunals.

The important point is a bit further down when the document states clearly “the bishop is judge.” I interpret that to mean that the local bishop is the first voice of appeal if there is disagreement about his designee’s decisions. It also means that the bishop is always directly responsible for the annulment process in his diocese.

The letters says that “a briefer form of trying nullity cases has been designed — in addition to the documentary process already approved and in use.” This simplified process “is to be applied in cases in which the accusation of martial nullity is supported by particularly evident arguments.” I interpret this to mean that this shorter process is for cases cases in which the facts say on their face that the marriage was not a sacramental marriage. That would probably include things such as common law marriage, forced marriage, child marriage, or marriages performed by atheists/pagans/justices of the peace/ship’s captains, etc.

As I said, I’ve asked people who are Canonists to help me understand what these changes will mean to the people in the pews. My guess is that these new rules will be abused by some, but will also help many people who are shut away from the sacraments by a past they cannot change. I think they will also remove what has been unmovable barriers to people who have messy marital pasts and who have converted and changed and are now following the call of Christ to enter the Catholic Church. I personally know people whose conversion to the Catholic church was blocked by their inability to fill out the paperwork required by the current process.

Marriage is a vastly important commitment. When you marry, you chose this one person as your life’s partner. You will create other people with them, people that are part of each of you, but are uniquely themselves. Your spouse is the one who stands beside you in life’s trials, the one who shares your future.

We have degraded and damaged marriage to the point that family itself has lost its meaning to many people. In many ways, these changes in the annulment process are a recognition of the fact that Western society has fallen into such deep and widespread marital sin that the necessity of reconversion means that we must accommodate these things in order to bring the converted to Christ.

Western society has fallen into depravity that has become the norm. But the message of the Gospels is unchanged. That message is simple and straight foward: Jesus Christ the Way to eternal life.  Not only that, but there is no sin we can commit that is greater than His forgiveness.

That’s what I think these changes are about. They are a way to telling people that no matter what kind of mess they’ve made of things, nothing they’ve done is greater than Christ’s mercy.

Here, from Vatican Radio, is the summary of the Apostolic Letters Pope Francis issued today:

  1. That there be only one sentence in favor of executive nullity – It appeared opportune, in the first place, that there no longer be required a twofold decision in favor of marital nullity, in order that the parties be admitted to new canonically valid marriages: the moral certainty reached by the first judge according to law should be sufficient.

  2. A single judge under the responsibility of the Bishop – The constitution of a single judge in the first instance, who shall always be a cleric, is placed under the responsibility of the Bishop, who, in the pastoral exercise of his own proper judicial power shall guarantee that no laxity be indulged in this matter.

  3. The Bishop is judge – In order that the teaching of the II Vatican Council be finally translated into practice in an area of great importance, the decision was made to make evident the fact that the Bishop is, in his Church – of which he is constituted pastor and head – is by that same constitution judge among the faithful entrusted to him. It is desired that, in Dioceses both great and small, the Bishop himself should offer a sign of the conversion of ecclesiastical structures, and not leave the judicial function completely delegated to the offices of the diocesan curia, as far as matters pertaining to marriage are concerned.

  4. Increased brevity in the legal process – In fact, beyond making the marriage annulment process more agile, a briefer form of trying nullity cases has been designed – in addition to the documentary process already approved and in use – which is to be applied in cases in which the accusation of marital nullity is supported by particularly evident arguments. In any case, the extent to which an abbreviated process of judgment might put the principle of the indissolubility of marriage at risk, did not escape me [writes Pope Francis – ed.]: thus, I have desired that, in such cases the Bishop himself shall be constituted judge, who, by force of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline.

  5. Appeal to the Metropolitcan See – It is fitting that the appeal to the Metropolitan See be re-introduced, since that office of headship of an Ecclesiastical province, stably in place through the centuries, is a distinctive sign of the synodality of the Church.

  6. The proper role of the Bishops’ Conferences – The Bishops’ Conferences, which must be driven above all by the anxious apostolic desire to reach the far-off faithful, should formally recognize the duty to share the aforesaid conversion, and respect absolutely the right of the Bishops to organize judicial power each within his own particular Church.



Deacon Greg offers an excellent news summary of the letters here.

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Cardinal O’Malley: The Church Won’t Change Its Teaching on Marriage

Cardinal O’Malley, who is a member of the Papal G8 that Pope Francis appointed to consider reforms in the Church, says that the Catholic Church is not going to change its 2,000-year-old teachings on marriage.

The Church will not change her teaching on the dissolubility of marriage, he said in an interview with Joan Frawley Desmond of the National Catholic Register. 

He goes on to say that there may be a simplification of the annulment process, which he says “would be a wonderful first step for addressing a crucial pastoral problem for the Church.”


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Do Easy Annulments Degrade the Value of Marriage? The Pope Says Yes.

Some people call it the “Catholic Divorce.”
It is often treated as a pro forma ritual that divorced people go through to “normalize” their relationship with the Church.

It requires a lot of paperwork, but it doesn’t cost much money. In fact, the Church will waive any fees if they would prevent people seeking it.

The “it” I’m talking about is annulment. Annulment is the somewhat lengthy process Catholics go through when they want the Church to “invalidate” their marriage.

As I understand it, the whole process is predicated on the fact that marriage is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ. This is the same Jesus who did away with divorce with the statement “What God has put together, let not man put asunder.”

Marriage is a life-long commitment between a man and a woman. It involves, among other things, a willingness to create life through the bodily union of these two people. Marriage is the nest, so to speak, in which young human beings are nurtured and shaped into responsible and productive adults who can then repeat the cycle with their own marriages and children.

As such, marriage is of premier importance, not just to the two people who marry, but to the whole of society. Without responsible, productive adults who can marry and raise their own children to be productive and responsible adults, our society and indeed, all of civilization will founder.

Marriage is not only essential to the good of society, it is also holy.

This holiness is where annulments come in. Since marriage is a sacrament instituted by Our Lord, it is not possible for people — including priests, bishops and popes — to undo it or, to phrase it as Jesus did, “put it asunder.” Our Lord told us we can not do this. Not, notice that we may not, we can not, for the simple reason that marriage is created by God.

What God creates in this deep sacramental fashion, no one can uncreate.

However, there can be instances in which no marriage actually took place. For instance, the infamous “shot gun weddings” in which one partner or the other was forced into the marriage would not be a sacramental marriage because at least one of the parties involved did not consent to it.

There can be many ways in which consent or understanding or an intention to be married in the full sacramental sense was not present at the time of the marriage vows. I am not a canon lawyer, so I would not and could not begin to discuss them in depth. This is the purview of the marriage tribunals of the Church who, on the request of the couple, review the marriage in question to determine if it is a sacramental marriage, or, as they put it, if it is “valid.”

The process is called an “annulment.” It has become something of a scandal in the Church because of the easy way these annulments are granted.

This is complicated by the many converts who come into the Church with matrimonial baggage. There are other people who should be granted an annulment but can’t get through the paperwork for some reason. If the former spouse and the marriage witnesses are violent, dangerous, out of pocket or simply uncooperative, they can exercise what amounts to veto power on the annulment process.

This happened to a friend of mine who was a refugee from a violent and troubled past before attempting to convert to the Catholic Church.

The whole process appears, at least on the outside, to be fraught with troubles. One of the many problems is that it can seem that these same tribunals who sometimes refuse a just annulment over an inability to fill out the paperwork also sometimes grant annulments almost like slot machines for those who can wend their way through the process successfully.

I don’t think for a minute that there is any deliberate desire to harm people or to cheapen marriage by any of this. I believe that the priests who do this work want to help people. I believe they grant annulments more easily out of compassion for the people involved. On the other hand, the intransigence over paper work in situations that are life-threatening confuses me. I honestly don’t understand it.

Pope Benedict has weighed in on all this, echoing the thoughts of Pope John Paul II on the same subject. They both came down on the side of greater discretion in granting annulments. One of the reasons Pope Benedict  gave was that the practice of granting annulments too easily created pessimism in the public mind about our ability to “engage in lifelong commitments to love another person.”

I agree with the Holy Father about this. I think our divorce culture has damaged us in deep and difficult to heal ways, including teaching many of our young people that marriage is a futile and hopeless enterprise.

As a woman who has been married to her only husband for 30 years, I can tell you that this is untrue. I can also say that marriage is a wonderful, sustaining and nurturing lifestyle that enhances your life in ways that you cannot imagine until you partake of them.

Unfortunately, we have damaged many of our young people so badly with our serial marriages and serial monogamies that they don’t value stable relationships, and don’t know how to form them even if they want to.

We have a lot of things to answer for from our excesses and self-indulgences, and this destruction of the ability to marry for life and raise children who will become stable, productive adults in our young people is one of the most serious.

A CNS article describing Pope Benedict’s recent statement about too-easy annulment says in part:

Pope cautions tribunals against granting annulments too easily

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Granting marriage annulments too easily and without real cause plays into a modern form of pessimism that basically says human beings are not able to make lifelong commitments to loving another person, Pope Benedict XVI said.

“We run the risk of falling into an anthropological pessimism which, in the light of today’s cultural situation, considers it almost impossible to marry,” the pope said in a speech Jan. 29 to members of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota.

The tribunal mainly deals with appeals filed in marriage annulment cases.

Pope Benedict said there is still a need to deal with a problem Pope John Paul II pointed out in a 1987 speech to the Roman Rota, that of saving the church community from “the scandal of seeing the value of Christian marriage destroyed in practice by the exaggerated and almost automatic multiplication of declarations of nullity.”(Read more here.)

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