Resolved: The canonical annulment process should be scrapped and the Catholic response to divorce should be reformed following the model of the Orthodox Churches.
Fr. Peter Daly, a pastor in the DC area and a columnist for NCR, argues this point in a very powerful blog post. He is approaching it from a pastoral, not a doctrinal point of view, and he makes clear some of the painful issues he confronts. Some highlights:
It is pretty clear from the Gospels that Jesus did not approve of divorce and remarriage. He says it amounts to adultery, which is pretty strong language, especially coming from Jesus. But if we are his followers, we have to at least try to deal with his teaching. Our annulment process is an attempt to take his teaching seriously and still allow people a second (or third) chance.
The problem with the process in the Roman Catholic church is that it takes what ought to be a pastoral matter and turns it into a legal one. It is complicated, often unfair, and frequently unintelligible to the participants. Some tribunals are easy. Some are hard. It can be very capricious.
One place where this is of particular concern for him are couples he meets in his RCIA program:
Annulments come up every year in our RCIA program….The thornier annulments involve people who were not Catholics at the time and had absolutely no reason to get married in a Catholic church. Ironically, they have to go through a full legal process before a church tribunal.
It is painful and pointless. They have to find witnesses, get records, take statements, dig up old contacts, and open old wounds. All of our language is legal, not pastoral. We speak of petitions, tribunals, witnesses, advocates, petitioners, defendants and evidence. It is Kafkaesque. It turns pastors into bureaucrats, to no purpose.
If I were pope, I would leave the decision about annulments and reception of the sacraments entirely up to the parish priest. It should be resolved in the internal forum of the confessional. The emphasis should be on mercy, not law. End of story. Move on….Let divorced and remarried people make a good confession and offer sincere contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. Then let them start again. God has forgiven us much worse.
Your response? I am sympathetic, but I can see drawbacks, particularly given the way in which secular values have permeated the Church. Paradoxically, I think this approach might work, but only if the Church took a harder line on divorce in the process.
UPDATE: a few hours after posting this and having read the first few comments, I realized that it would be helpful to post a thorough description of the Orthodox practice regarding divorce and remarriage. Bishop Athenagoras Peckstadt is the assistant Bishop of the Orthodox Archdiocese of Belgium, and he gives a very detailed overview of Orthodox theology and practice in this area.
UPDATE (1/16/14): The German bishops seem to be taking steps in this direction, despite objections from Cardinal Mueller at the Vatican.