Pope Changes Annulment Process. What Does it Mean?

Pope Changes Annulment Process. What Does it Mean? September 8, 2015

Sometimes, it's obvious that there was no sacramental marriage. Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Keith
Sometimes, it’s obvious that there was no sacramental marriage. Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Keith

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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6 responses to “Pope Changes Annulment Process. What Does it Mean?”

  1. That would probably include things such as common law marriage, forced
    marriage, child marriage, or marriages performed by an
    atheists/pagans/justices of the peace/ship’s captain, etc.

    I sincerely hope so – that would make my case a slam-dunk.

  2. Can I ask a silly question? Why do marriages need to be annulled in the first place? Why can’t the person who has divorced and wishes to stay in the church just confess, receive absolution if remarried, and then the new marriage sanctified all in one hour?

  3. I’ve long thought that the bishop should have authority to decide thorny cases, presuming the bishop actually gets partially involved with the situation. Naturally, some bishops will be annulment machines, but I suspect that is already a problem.

  4. Because a true sacramental marriage can not be dissolved by any human device. Jesus made this clear. This is from Mark, Chapter 10
    2Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

    3“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

    4They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

    5“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’a 7‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,b 8and the two will become one flesh.’c So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

    10When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

    Jesus also instituted marriage as a sacrament at the Wedding at Cana. He actually spent a lot of His time, teaching about marriage. He issued one of His most direct commandments concerning marriage in the Scripture I quoted above.

    What all this means is that no one — including the Church — can undo a sacramental marriage. Marriage is of God, and it is between one man and one woman for life.

    Annulments do not dissolve sacramental marriages. They declare that there never was a sacramental marriage. The obvious examples would be when someone is married by an individual who does not believe in Christ. Obviously. that person can not perform a sacramental marriage. There are other situations. The annulment process is designed to determine if that kind of thing has happened with the marriage in question.

    I’ve read that Senator Edward Kennedy got an annulment because he testified that he never intended to keep his vows when he took them, that he always intended to be sexually unfaithful. if that story is true, it sounds like a good reason for granting an annulment, since the Senator took his vows with his fingers crossed behind his back.

    Confession deals with sin. The Senator certainly should confess these sins of taking such an important oath dishonestly and committing sacrilege. He also should confess his sins of infidelity and cruelty to the woman he married.

    But this confession does not even address whether or not the marriage itself was a valid sacrament.

  5. Frankly the whole thing about declaring a marriage was not sacramental in the first place is hokey. God joined it together, didn’t He not? All of sudden someone can look at it years later and say it was never joined properly in the first place, so you have our blessig to go to Go and collect $200. What about people who work through their marriage difficulties and don’t get divorced? If the circumstances had been differrent they could have had it annulled, but because they worked through it the marriage remains valid. Where did Jesus say you could annull marriages?

  6. The practice of charging a “user fee” for the marriage tribunal’s services is likely an artifact from a time when such cases were relatively few and therefore seen as an extra-cost service not related to the Church’s mission. It may be that the process and fee were in part intended to be disincentives to couples divorcing.

    The current situation is far, far different. For a variety of reasons, the authority the Church can exercise practically in people’s lives has eroded substantially. The abuse crises (plural is intentional) severely damaged the Church’s morale internally and prestige externally. Poor catechesis following (but not caused by) Vatican II didn’t merely poorly prepare young Catholics for marriage; they simply had little or no philosophical, theological or spiritual formation at all. So not only was marital failure vastly more likely, once it occurred the rationale behind the Church’s firm stance on the indissolubility of marriage was incomprehensible to them, particularly the spouses who did not choose divorce but had it thrust upon them. These same poorly-catechized young people had little interest and no intellectual basis for discerning orthodox Church teaching from the maelstrom of discord and dissension following the publication of the remarkably prophetic Humanae Vitae. So when the only alternatives on offer were celibacy or an expensive, painful process with no assurance of success, many left the Church to welcoming Protestant congregations and most of those who remained did so as “cafeteria Catholics”, often enough with the tacit if not outright support of their pastors.

    Enter the New Evangelization, the target of which is the reconversion of the formerly Christian West, with a new and refreshing emphasis on the Divine Mercy. For this Mercy to reach those who feel alienated from the Church by her previous demands of strict justice, reform of the process is essential, as well as entirely consistent with the Gospel. The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints, so it is incumbent on her to offer spiritual treatment to her wounded children, particularly since to some degree she is complicit in their problem.

    In the resentment voiced by some of those who (to their credit) paid the price of making their marriages endure one can hear an echo of the ancient Donatists, for whom readmission to the Church of those who in weakness had succumbed to the prevailing culture was anathema. The current culture is arguably even worse, since there is little perceived risk in “going with the flow” now compared to the certainty of torture or worse then threatened in Roman North Africa. On a more prosaic level, it is in the enlightened economic self-interest of the Church to bring back her lost members. One only has to compare the one-time cost of processing a case to the present value of the contributions to be received over the remaining life of the penitent to realize that generally it is a reasonable investment on purely financial grounds.

    While I would refer anyone with an interest in canonical details to Edward Peters’ blog “In the Light of the Law,” it seems to me that the current process is excessively burdensome even for the current volume of cases and therefore entirely inadequate to handle a substantial increase, which is the hoped-for result of this initiative. One must recall that the Church has the world’s oldest continuously functioning bureaucracy, headquartered in Italy, so her processes can reflect long memory and “la dolce vita.” It takes a lot of energy and a certain brashness (could this be a reason why the Cardinals elected Pope Francis?) to overcome centuries-old inertia. For example, the practice of second-level review in Rome for every case worldwide is ineluctably anachronistic, as is requiring a trial, with witnesses, in a great many cases.

    While it is entirely reasonable to retain the presumption that a marriage is valid, the standard of proof seems to have been “beyond any unreasonable doubt.” It is true that there is no need for mercy without justice, but it is axiomatic that there is no justice without mercy. So if at one time this standard was appropriate (which is another topic), holding it for today’s Catholics given the factors mentioned above would be demonstrably unjust as well as inimical to the spread of the Gospel.

    Suggesting that rational administrative processes and realistic juridical standards place Catholics seeking annulment in their proper context is emphatically not tantamount to a rubber stamp. Rather it is merely seeking the truth in love, without requiring a bacteria count on the milk of human kindness.