Pope Francis makes annulment of marriages cheaper and easier

By Delia Gallagher and Daniel Berke, CNN Religion Editor

(CNN) – Pope Francis on Tuesday radically revised the process by which Catholics may annul their marriages, streamlining steps that many in the church considered too cumbersome and costly.

The move is the latest in a series of reforms by Francis as he seeks to make the church more responsive to the real needs of lay Catholics, especially those who have long felt marginalized by the hierarchy. Without the annulments, Catholics who remarry are not allowed to receive Holy Communion, which many describe as a painful exclusion from the church’s chief sacrament.

The Vatican announcement also comes just weeks before Francis makes his first-ever visit to the United States. Americans accounted for about half of the nearly 50,000 annulments granted in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available.

“This move is in accord with the Pope’s oft-repeated image of the Church as a ‘field hospital’ that goes out to meet people where they are most in need, and then to treat their most serious wounds first — rather than stay at home and wait for people to come to them,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, an expert on papal affairs at Boston College.

The three main changes announced on Tuesday are are:

• Eliminating a second review by a cleric before a marriage can be nullified.

• Giving bishops the ability to fast-track and grant the annulments themselves in certain circumstances — for example, when spousal abuse or an extramarital affair has occurred.

• The process should be free, except for a nominal fee for administrative costs, and should be completed within 45 days.

The Pope’s reforms came Tuesday in the form of two “motu proprio” documents, Latin for “by (the Pope’s) own initiative.” They become part of Catholic canon law on December 8, the beginning of Francis’ declared “Year of Mercy.”

While Francis reaffirmed the “indissolubility of the marriage bond,” he also said in Tuesday’s documents that “charity and mercy demand that the Church, as mother, be close to her children who consider themselves separated.”

In the end, the church’s many laws and institutions must be aimed at one chief purpose, the Pope said — “the salvation of souls.”

One prominent Catholic priest called Tuesday’s announcement “an act of mercy from a pastoral Pope who listens carefully to the concerns of the people.”

‘People give up’

Francis has said that obtaining annulments can be too onerous, dragging on for years and costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

“Some procedures are so long and so burdensome,” the pontiff said in 2014, “and people give up.”

Here’s what one former Catholic had to say: “25 years ago this would have changed my life. They wanted $8000 to process my husband’s annulment! I’m a Jew now,” Desirée O’Clair tweeted.

That sentiment is supported by statistics.

Just 61% of African Catholics seeking annulments in 2012 completed the process, according to a study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In the more wealthy Western world, where Catholics can afford to hire canon lawyers, 86% received annulments.

“This is not because tribunals in Africa were more likely than those in the Americas to rule contrary to nullity,” the center said in its analysis. “It is more a reflection of more people seeking annulments in Africa than in the Americas not completing the annulment process.”

In the United States, 28% of Catholic marriages end in divorce, according to the General Social Survey. That’s lower than the general population, but still equivalent to 11 million adults.

The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorces. Instead, its theology holds that marital unions sanctified by God are indissoluble.

Annulments, once available only through church tribunals, state that the marriage contract was fundamentally flawed from the start, and hence invalid in the eyes of the church. In the 1980s, the church added another step to the process, requiring a second review before an annulment can be granted.

Without an annulment, a divorced Catholic who remarries is considered an adulterer and may not participate in some sacraments, including Holy Communion. Led by Pope Francis, the church is holding high-level meetings, called synods, to debate that teaching. The next synod is to be held in October.

 The ‘Year of Mercy’

Tuesday’s announcement is yet another step in Francis’ efforts to reform the church, making it more welcoming to those who may have felt excluded after running afoul of Catholic teachings.

On September 1, he announced that during an upcoming “Year of Mercy,” Catholic priests around the world will be able to forgive the “sin” of abortion. Under canon law, absolution of certain serious sins, including abortion, is usually reserved only to bishops.

With the abortion and annulment announcements, Francis seems to be signaling a “third way” to govern the church through thorny issues. He’s not rewriting core doctrines, but he is encouraging Catholic clergy to be more merciful and at times more flexible in how they enforce church rules.

Francis’ experience in his native Argentina, where many of his parishioners were poor, gives him a different view of the church and how its complex set of rules can alienate some Catholics, said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on religion in Latin America and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Chesnut called the Pope’s annulment proposal part of an overall strategy to create a more inclusive church and reach out to lapsed Catholics who might have left the fold over issues such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality.

“The church has been in sharp decline in both Latin America and Europe,” Chesnut said, “and Pope Francis sees such reforms as key to reversing the long-term slide.”

It remains to be seen, though, how conservative Catholics receive the changes. Many have argued in recent years that the church should hold a firm line against what they see as widespread sexual immorality, particularly in the modern West.

Researchers have found little evidence of a “Francis effect” in the United States. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 89% of ex-Catholics say they cannot imagine ever returning to the church, even though they like Pope Francis.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Enigma
    9 September 2015 at 8:49 am - Reply

    The Pope should be teaching the Gospel, not condoning things that are called sin in the Bible. His job isn’t to be popular, it is to bring sinners into saving Grace of God. The problem with the new Pope is he isn’t reading The Bible. It isn’t up to him to determine what is Right or Wrong; that has already been done for us by God in His Word.

    The Pope is like every other minister – The Lord’s Servant. He can either be a Good servant or a Bad one. Teaching against what is taught in The Word does not make a good servant.

    I think the Pope should stay out of politics. That is not his function.”There are no liberal Catholics and no conservative Catholics. There are Catholics and there are heretics.

  • Jesper
    11 November 2015 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    Julie, thank you for posting your qutieson and response. This has been something that I have been struggling with as well. On one hand I know that the Church sees marriage as joining of 2 souls to become 1 with one of the main focus of that marriage is to have children. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with being able to designate someone you love as being able to make medical decisions for you if you are unable, ability to avoid estate taxes when a person you lived with for 30 years passes away or have someone you can confide in. With the way the laws are set up the only way to achieve this is through marriage (unless you can afford a lawyer to prepare legal documents and this will only take care of some of these issues). The Church is not against love. It isn’t against two people of the same sex living a life together. What it is against is sex between two men or two women because that type of sex is not capable of producing children. So the way I see it is there are really 2 separate issues here that people are confusing as one. The Church is arguing that marriage between 2 men or 2 women is not right in God’s eyes because no children can come of that marriage. Don’t forget we refer to God as Our Father and Mary as Blessed Mother. The gay right movement is focused on the legal benefits of marriage. Being able to visit a partner in the hospital, avoiding tax penalties, provide health insurance to someone they love. I personally believe the gay right movement focusing on marriage and not civil unions is because they feel they would not be treated equally (it would be like a second class marriage). I do see the argument for this. We know how the south was segregated for so many years and how separate but equal was not truly equal. To me the real way to solve this to provide an easy way for someone to designate another that they would like to have the legal ability to make decisions (health, legal or otherwise), ability to designate one person (other then one’s children) that they would like to add to their health care plan, and the right to provide the house 2 people have shared for years to avoid being taxed outrageously when the other person passes. To me this would be more inline with what Jesus would be in favor of. Don’t forget that Jesus told John to take care of Mary after He rose from the dead. In our current legal and health system, John would not have been able to visit Mary if she was in the hospital or make legal decisions if she was not able to do so. I personally don’t think that is what Jesus would have wanted and we should look for a way to provide the benefits that have been attached to those that are married in the government eyes to those that do not fit into the one man/one women marriage role, but to those that are single and want to select their best friend of 20 years or two men or two women that chose to share a life together. As Catholics, we need to stop believing that the best way to stop sin is through the legal system and start looking for ways to support and truly show love to one another.

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