VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Tuesday reformed the process by which Catholics may annul their marriages, in yet another sign of his desire to make the church more welcoming and responsive to people on the margins.
The three main changes are:
• Eliminating a second review by a cleric before a marriage can be nullified.
• Giving bishops the ability to fast-track and grant the annulments themselves in certain circumstances, for example when spousal abuse or an extramarital affair has occurred.
• The process should be free, except for a nominal fee for administrative costs.
The reforms came Tuesday in the form of two “motu proprio” documents, Latin for “by (the Pope’s) own initiative.” They become part of Catholic canon law on December 8, the beginning of the Pope’s declared “Year of Mercy.”
‘People give up’
Francis himself has said that obtaining annulments can be too cumbersome and costly, dragging on for years and costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
“Some procedures are so long and so burdensome,” the pontiff said in 2014, “and people give up.”
That sentiment is supported by statistics.
Just 61% of African Catholics seeking annulments in 2012 completed the process, according to a study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In the more wealthy Western world, where Catholics can afford to hire canon lawyers, 86% received annulments.
“This is not because tribunals in Africa were more likely than those in the Americas to rule contrary to nullity,” CARA said in its analysis. “It is more a reflection of more people seeking annulments in Africa than in the Americas not completing the annulment process.”
In the United States, 28% of Catholic marriages end in divorce, according to the General Social Survey. That’s lower than the general population, but still equivalent to 11 million adults. The church granted about 40,000 annulments in 2012, according to CARA.
The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorces. Instead, its theology holds that marital unions sanctified by God are indissoluble.
Annulments, available only through church tribunals, state that the marriage contract was fundamentally flawed from the start, and hence invalid in the eyes of the church. In the 1980s, the church added another step to the process, requiring a second review before an annulment can be granted.
Without an annulment, a divorced Catholic who remarries is considered an adulterer and may not participate in some sacraments, including Holy Communion. Led by Pope Francis, the church is holding high-level meetings, called synods, to debate that teaching. The next synod is to be held in October.
The ‘Year of Mercy’
Tuesday’s announcement is yet another step in Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the church. On September 1, he announced that during an upcoming “Year of Mercy,” Catholic priests around the world will be able to forgive the “sin” of abortion. Under canon law, absolution of certain serious sins, including abortion, is usually reserved only to bishops.
With the abortion and annulment announcements, Francis seems to be signaling a “third way” to govern the church through thorny issues. He’s not rewriting the catechism, but he’s encouraging Catholic clergy to be more merciful and at times more flexible in how they enforce church rules.
Francis’ experience in his native Argentina, where many of his parishioners were poor, gives him a different view of the church and how its complex set of rules can alienate some Catholics, said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on religion in Latin America and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Chesnut called the Pope’s annulment proposal part of an overall strategy to create a more inclusive church and reach out to lapsed Catholics who might have left the fold over issues such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality.
“The church has been in sharp decline in both Latin America and Europe,” Chesnut said, “and Pope Francis sees such reforms as key to reversing the long-term slide.”
It remains to be seen, though, how conservative Catholics receive the changes. Many have argued in recent years that the church should hold a firm line against what they see as widespread sexual immorality, particularly in the modern West.
Researchers have found little evidence of a “Francis effect” in the United States. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 89% of ex-Catholics say they cannot imagine themselves ever returning to the church, even though they like Pope Francis.