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 meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family convoked by St. John Paul II. With the new rules released on Sept. 8, Pope Francis has made important changes to the annulment process, but he did not make it easier for couples to prove a union was not a marriage.
“I think these decrees are another indication of Pope Francis’ pastoral concern and fleshing out that concern with a practical and viable strategy,” the Rev. Kevin McKenna, a canon lawyer who is pastor of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Community in Rochester, N.Y.. told America. “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.”
In two apostolic letters—one for the Latin church and one for eastern-rite churches—Pope Francis 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 that their union did not meet at least one of the Catholic Church’s requirements for a sacramental marriage.
“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,” Father McKenna said.
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 sacramental marriage—are free to marry in the church and receive the sacraments, including reconciliation and Communion.
The need to reform the annulment process and cut its costs was supported by an overwhelming majority of bishops—about 90 percent—at last year’s meeting of the Synod of Bishops. The U.S. bishops report that most tribunals charge between $200 and $1,000, and the process can take 12 to 18 months. Some go on for years.
James Conn, S.J., professor of the practice of canon law at Boston College, suggested that the pope’s decision to respond to calls to reform the annulment process now has moved the subject off the table for the upcoming synod on family life in October. That should allow synod participants to focus on other problematic challenges related to divorced and remarried Catholics. Although the new rules respond to most bishops’ sense that the annulment process was too cumbersome, they do not resolve the cases of Catholics who want to return to the sacraments after they are divorced and civilly remarried without having received an annulment.
When Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, 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 sacramental 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, Cardinal Kasper said. It would not entail denying that their sacramental marriage was indissoluble, and it would not permit them to marry again in the church.
That “penitential path” option is expected to be debated at the world synod of bishops in October.