Damian Thompson

Pope Francis gets it right: today’s changes to the marriage annulment process are bold and brave

Pope Francis gets it right: today's changes to the marriage annulment process are bold and brave
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Pope Francis today made sweeping changes to the procedures by which Catholics get their marriages annulled – that is, receive official permission to marry again because their first marriage was invalid.

Here's part of a news story by Reuters Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella:

Pope Francis on Tuesday made it simpler and swifter for Catholics to secure a marriage annulment, the most radical such reform for 250 years, and told bishops to be more welcoming to divorced couples.

Under the old norms, it often took years to win an annulment, with hefty legal fees attached. Francis said the procedure should be free and the new rules mean that a marriage might be declared null and void in just 45 days in some cases ...

In a document known as a Motu Proprio, Latin for 'by his own initiative', Francis reaffirmed traditional teaching on the 'indissolubility of marriage', making clear that the Vatican was not in any form promoting or sanctioning divorce.

However, he said he would make it easier for separated couples to obtain an annulment — a ruling whereby the Church decides that a marriage was not valid in the first place because certain prerequisites such as free will, psychological maturity and openness to having children were lacking.

Francis eliminated a previously mandatory review of an annulment decision by a second tribunal and gave bishops sweeping powers to judge quickly the most clear-cut cases.

He said he had decided to streamline procedures so that Catholics who sought annulments should not be 'long oppressed by darkness of doubt' over whether they could have their marriages declared null and void.

Some quick thoughts:

1. This 'fast-tracking' doesn't change the criteria by which the Church judges a marriage to be invalid (see above). Nor does Francis even hint that he favours relaxing the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. Conservatives opposed to fast-track annulment reform may be mollified by the Pope's silence on this matter. They'll certainly approve of his references to the indissolubility of marriage.

2. The moto proprio will end the scandal whereby, to quote Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith in the Catholic Herald, British Catholics (among others) 'have been forced to wait up to five years for the process to play out, even though the outcome of that process has been clear from the beginning'. It will also help Catholics in parts of Africa where there is no diocesan tribunal and therefore no hope of an annulment.

3. The Pope's ruling gives new powers to the bishops to judge clear-cut cases. Given that some bishops are hardline conservatives and others feelgood liberals, won't that mean it's easier to obtain an annulment in some dioceses than in others? Maybe. But if the cases genuinely are clear-cut, for example if a woman was coerced into marriage, then this shouldn't be too much of a problem. And variation between dioceses is a lesser evil than endless paper-shuffling by two tribunals, causing delays that sometimes rob one or both of the partners of the opportunity to marry the right person at the right term.

4. John Allen of Crux makes the interesting point that Francis is 'Americanising' the Church's annulment system. More than half the world's annulments are granted in the US, which has a reputation for being a soft touch in this area. But Allen argues that American dioceses are more efficient at organising tribunals, and that this explains some of the discrepancy between the US and the rest of the world. In Italy, for example, the wheels of any sort of justice grind exceedingly slow: just ask Amanda Knox. But now there will be fewer excuses for obfuscation.

5. Allen also reckons Francis has cleverly removed a casus belli at the forthcoming Synod on the Family, which 'won’t get bogged down debating what a hypothetical annulment reform might look like, because it’s now a fait accompli'. Actually, I'm not sure that fast-track annulment reform is opposed by all conservatives. To quote one priest: 'This is more likely to annoy control-freak canon law types than practical conservatives like me. I'm thoroughly fed up with seeing decent people, previously trapped in an invalid marriage, unable to marry properly because bureaucracy gets in the way.'

6. Finally, today's radical and coherent reforms make Francis look statesmanlike. He's been accused by Vatican insiders of 'forgetting that he's Pope'. Not today he didn't.