Last month Pope Francis surprised the Catholic world with two decrees aimed at streamlining the annulment process in the church. The pope’s decrees did nothing to change church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but they should mean that Catholic couples who seek an annulment will not have to face what many had come to perceive as an unnecessarily onerous, costly and even punitive bureaucratic process.
We hope these reforms will encourage Catholics to reconsider the healing potential of the annulment process and perhaps open a path back to the church for many who thought an annulment was impossible for them. Only time will tell if that ambition is achieved. The current figures are not encouraging.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, about eight in ten of the U.S. Catholics who began an annulment case eventually received a decree of nullity. But CARA reports that only about 15 percent of divorced Catholics in the United States were willing to give the process a try. Many couples believe their marriage has broken down beyond repair but cannot accept the idea that their union was broken from the beginning. What to do about those who have no intention of availing themselves of the annulment process, or for whom it is not appropriate but who wish to remain connected to the church, will surely be among the priorities of the second meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome this month.
But also on the agenda are a number of other challenges to contemporary family life that have not received as much media attention. Nonetheless, they represent acute threats to the family that require the church’s attention, wisdom and even, at important junctures, advocacy. Since the synod’s first meeting in 2014, Pope Francis has dedicated his weekly general audience to catechesis on marriage and the family, and has spoken frequently of the deleterious effects of poverty, social exclusion, war and migration on these institutions.
In an address on family and work on Aug. 19, for example, the pope spoke of a “dangerous tendency” in modern organizations “to consider the family a burden, a weight, a liability for the productivity of labor.” In the United States this tendency and its devastating impact on working families are clearly evident in policies toward new mothers. An investigative report by In These Times (Aug. 18) tells the stories of women, mostly working and middle class, who had no choice but to return to work just weeks after giving birth. Natasha Long recounts crying as she pumped breast milk in the parking lot of the factory, which had no lactation room, to which she returned three weeks after her child was born. In a country where only 13 percent of workers have access to paid family leave, there are too many women like Ms. Long, who in the words of Pope Francis, are held “hostage” to work. Surely the church should be on the forefront of the fight to reclaim this sacred time of bonding between mother and child.
Beyond this country’s borders, threats to the family are even more immediate. The civil war in Syria and chaos across the Middle East and Africa have torn children from parents and husbands from wives as those who are able to flee seek refuge in Europe. Pope Francis has called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every shrine of Europe [to] house a family.” As important as such immediate acts of charity are, it is equally necessary for the church to continue to take a stand against those who would deny refugees their moral and legal right to flee persecution, whether at the U.S.-Mexico border or at the gates of Europe.
Catholics and people of good will all over the world will be watching the deliberations of the synod with hope as it grapples with these socioeconomic and political issues. We also hope that the relative paucity of references to these problems in the synod’s working document is not a sign that the synod will give little attention to these important matters.
Finally, there is another force assailing contemporary Catholic families that calls for careful consideration. While some perceive the growing public acceptance of same-sex unions as a grave threat to marriage, mere apathy may be doing far more harm to married life in America. CARA reports that in 1965 there were 352,458 marriages celebrated in the Catholic Church in the United States. In 2014 only 154,450 were celebrated, a decline of 56 percent.
The steep decline in sacramental marriage suggests that many couples do not see the need for spiritual support and strengthening of their family life. Along with the external challenges to family life, the church must also find a way to encourage deeper recognition among the faithful of the sacredness of marriage and the family.