Pope Francis' reformed rules for marriage annulment cases, making the process simpler, quicker and less expensive, respond to calls that bishops from around the world have been making since before the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the family convoked by St. John Paul II.
Catholic marriage tribunals do not dissolve marriages, but assess whether or not a valid sacramental marriage was present from the beginning. Catholics whose first unions are declared "null"—meaning there never was a marriage—are free to marry in the church and receive the sacraments, including reconciliation and Communion.
With the new rules released Sept. 8, Pope Francis made the process quicker, but did not make it easier for couples to prove a union was not a marriage. He removed the requirement that all decrees of nullity must be confirmed by a second panel of judges; he urged dioceses around the world to make the process free or as close to free as possible; and he established a "brief process" by which diocesan bishops can recognize the nullity of a union when both parties agree and have overwhelming proof their union did not meet at least one of the Catholic Church's requirements for a sacramental marriage.
"I think these decrees [on the annulment process] are another indication of Pope Francis' pastoral concern and fleshing out that concern with a practical and viable strategy," said Father Kevin McKenna, J.C.D., pastor of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Community in Rochester, N.Y. "He has not changed the dogmatic and theological principles which underlie the annulment process. He has instead worked to make it less cumbersome and less expensive.
"Eliminating the automatic conforming sentence should move the process along. He has also created an expedited trial process for certain cases when the evidence is abundant and both parties are in agreement." Father McKenna added, "Hopefully tribunal personnel will be reinvigorated in the upcoming Year of Mercy to work with applicants with compassion and to utilize the new procedures as a form of ministry to those who come to them from a difficult domestic situation."
According to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: "A valid Catholic marriage results from five elements: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they freely exchange their consent; (3) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (4) they intend the good of each other; and (5) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized church minister."
The need to reform the annulment process and cut the costs was supported by an overwhelming majority of bishops—about 90 percent—at last year's extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family.
Pope Francis' new rules respond to that request. He said that except for what is needed for an appropriate salary for tribunal workers, the annulment process should be free "so that, in a matter so closely tied to the salvation of souls, the church—by demonstrating to the faithful that she is a generous mother—may demonstrate the gratuitous love of Christ, which saves us all."
Lawyers working at the Roma Rota, a Vatican court, are paid 300-400 euros (about $330-$450) for each case even if those cases take several years to complete, said Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Rota. He did not say what other fees are charged, but "70 percent to 80 percent" of the cases are heard for free.
The U.S. bishops' website notes that the fees vary from diocese to diocese within the United States with several dioceses already waiving all fees. "Most tribunals charge between $200 and $1,000 for a formal case depending on how much the diocese subsidizes the work of the tribunal," the bishops' website says.
According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church 2013, a Vatican-published catalogue of statistics, just over 26 percent of the cases in the United States are heard for free; close to 30 percent require partial payment by the petitioner; and in 44 percent of the cases, the petitioners pay all costs.
Worldwide, the Vatican statistics say, in just under 48 percent of the cases, the petitioners bear the full cost; in more than 27 percent, they pay part of the costs; and in close to 24 percent, the fees are waived.
According to the U.S. bishops' website, the time it takes to complete the process "can vary from diocese to diocese, often taking 12 to 18 months or longer in some cases."
Msgr. Pinto, who was president of the commission that drafted the new rules, told reporters that most processes worldwide take "not less than two years and up to five years, but sometimes 10 years."
Although the new rules respond to most bishops' sense that the annulment process was too cumbersome, they do not resolve all the cases of Catholics who want to return to the sacraments after they are divorced and civilly remarried without having an annulment.
When German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a well-known theologian, former diocesan bishop and Vatican official, suggested to the College of Cardinals in February 2014 the possibility of a "penitential process" that could lead some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back to the sacraments without an annulment, he insisted it would respond to the needs only of a small portion of divorced and remarried Catholics.
Most should seek an annulment, he said. For those who have little or no chance of proving their initial union was not a marriage and cannot leave their current partner, the penitential path would—in a reflection of God's mercy—tolerate their second union and allow them to receive Communion. It would not entail denying their sacramental marriage was indissoluble and it would not permit them to marry again in the church, Cardinal Kasper said.
The "penitential path" option still is expected to be debated at the world Synod of Bishops in October.
Cardinal Kasper and others insist mercy is the highest expression of God's justice and love, and that the church has the power to forgive those couples, who want to start again, living the Catholic faith in their new relationship.
Other church leaders insist just as strongly that Jesus himself made it impossible to dissolve a valid marriage and that without a decree stating the valid marriage never existed couples in a new union are, in effect, living in adultery.