Pope Francis recently announced new procedures aimed at reforming the annulment process within the Church. The Church teaches that marriage is sacred and indissoluble. However, there is a process for those marriages which, due to several reasons, are null and void and thus not binding on either of the would-be spouses. A person arguing that their marriage is null and void seeks an annulment, which states that the couple was never truly married in the first place. Situations such as people saying wedding vows under coercion or children being forced to marry by their parents without understanding the Sacrament of Matrimony make for obvious examples of when annulments are granted, but most cases are more complicated and currently require a lengthy process of a number of people reviewing the evidence in favor of and against someone seeking an annulment.
The purposes of the reforms are to simplify and expedite a process that many argue is too expensive, slow, and feasible only to a small number of people. In the past, Francis has expressed that
he believes the annulment process is not an opportunity for the Church to make money, and should be free excluding small fees towards maintaining the tribunal process so that Catholics deserving
of annulments are not deterred by costs. Some have suggested that the changes he is enacting are also part of a larger move to have the Church be more responsive to the needs of Her married and
divorced members and re-integrate those who may have felt alienated from the Church after a civil divorce. The Pontiff, for his part, clarified in this declaration that no marriage that is
ratum et consummatum (valid and consummated) can be dissolved. The present move does not address the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, a resolution of which is expected after
the coming Synod on the Family in October.
Cardinal Kasper—a proponent of the idea that divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to partake in Holy Communion—has asserted that Francis has expressed the view that many, even half, of Catholic marriages are invalid, arguing that people marry without maturity, freedom from social pressure, or the expectation that the marriage will last. While the Church views marriage as indissoluble, some argue that many annulments are the equivalent of Catholic divorce and to give them out more freely would be to undermine the importance of the vows couples take on their wedding day. Although comprising only 22% of Catholics worldwide, over half of the annulments granted are to Catholics the US. This may be because they tend to have the funds to obtain them and because dioceses in the US are very efficient in handling cases; it will be interesting to monitor how this reform affects annulment numbers worldwide. The reform is largely aimed at helping the poor and marginalized access inexpensive annulments in an appropriate time frame.
Local bishops will now have greater authority over the process and can either directly oversee a case or pass on oversight to the local diocesan panel that may include lay members. One of the two Church tribunals is now eliminated which will streamline the process considerably. Certain cases may soon be heard 30 days after a couple files for annulment for reasons such as lack of faith, brevity of married life, abortion, or adultery. Although the changes appear to be the most significant to the annulment process in centuries, the Church will not be altering its dogmatic teachings on marriage or divorce after the Synod on the family in a few weeks’ time.