Pope Francis has announced new procedures that make it faster, cheaper, and potentially easier for Catholics to be granted annulments, streamlining the process for worshippers who wish to end relationships and marry someone else.
The Vatican unveiled two documents on Tuesday detailing new rules for annulments, or when the Catholic Church formally dissolves a marriage by declaring that it was never valid in the first place. This process is often arduous: It can sometimes takes up to a year in the United States, where it can also cost $1,000 or more and requires direct input from the Vatican. Catholics who remarry without an annulment are barred from receiving Communion, and the system can leave some people locked — spiritually speaking — in relationships that are fraught, exploitative, or even abusive.
The impulse for reform is fed by the enormous numbers of the faithful who … are too often alienated from the juridical structures of the church.
But the revised regulations — which represent the largest change to the annulment system in centuries — dramatically streamline this process. Officials struck down the traditional requirement of two judgements for each annulment, and empowered local bishops to personally rule on cases where the argument for annulment is “particularly evident.” The Vatican also decreed that the process must be free, and called on bishops to create programs within dioceses to help guide parishioners through the process.
The cumulative effect, according to Pope Francis, is to make it so that “the heart of the faithful that wait for the clarification of their state may not be oppressed for a long time by the darkness of doubt.”
“The impulse for reform is fed by the enormous numbers of the faithful who … are too often alienated from the juridical structures of the church,” he added.
However, Francis insisted that the changes don’t alter the Church’s historic opposition to divorce, arguing they simply allow Catholic officials to be better ministers.
“It has not escaped me how an abbreviated judgment might put at risk the principle of indissolubility of marriage,” the pope writes. “Indeed, for this I wanted that in this process the judge would be composed of the bishop, that in the strength of his pastoral office is, with Peter, the best guarantee of Catholic unity in the faith and discipline.”
The news is likely to attract significant attention in the United States, where roughly half of all Catholic annulments are granted — even though American Catholics only represent 6 percent of the Church. As veteran Catholic journalist David Gibson points out over at the Religion News Service, several of the reforms reflect policies already adopted in many American dioceses: 11 currently waive fees for annulments, and many allow participants to use Skype or call into judicial proceedings.
This helps explain why almost nine in 10 of such cases in the U.S. result in an annulment, although requests for the procedure are actually declining. As Gibson points out, this is partly because many Catholics aren’t marrying, often choosing to live together without formal church recognition instead. Still other Catholics who end marriages don’t see the need for an annulment, regardless of the Church’s stance: A new Pew study released last week reported that more American Catholics say getting remarried after a divorce without obtaining an annulment is not a sin (49 percent) than say it is a sin (35 percent), and more than 60 percent believe the church should allow people who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion. Roughly the same percentage agreed that Catholics who cohabitate should also be allowed to receive the sacrament.
Francis has called for more dialogue within the Church about Catholics in these sorts of relationships, and the topic will likely be discussed when he visits the World Meeting of Families in the U.S. later this month — as well as the upcoming high-level Synod on the Family conference in October.
Tuesday’s declaration is consistent with the more conciliatory tone of Francis’ papacy. Since he became pontiff in 2013, Francis has repeatedly taken steps to uphold traditional Church teaching while simultaneously scaling back judgmental rhetoric and revamping systems that have historically kept some people from the Church. In fact, today’s declaration is the second major procedural shift announced by Francis in as many weeks: Last Tuesday, he unveiled a similarly streamlined the system for forgiving women who have had abortions.
The reforms to the annulment process are scheduled to take effect December 8, the beginning of what Francis has decreed to be the Jubilee Holy Year for Mercy.