Pope Francis reformed the process for annulling marriages on Tuesday, overhauling centuries of church doctrine by creating a new fast-track process.
The new law on annulments comes into effect on December 8, the start of Francis’s Holy Year of Mercy, a year-long jubilee during which the pope hopes to emphasise the merciful side of the Catholic Church.
It will speed up and simplify the annulment process by placing the onus squarely on bishops around the world to determine when a fundamental flaw has rendered a marriage invalid.
A Catholic needs a church annulment to remarry in the church, and a divorced Catholic who remarries without one is considered an adulterer living in sin and is forbidden from receiving Communion.
The Communion issue is at the centre of debate at an upcoming synod of bishops. Progressive bishops favour a process by which “divorced” Catholics could have access to the sacraments should they repent.
Conservatives say there can be no such wriggle room, and that church teaching is clear that marriage is indissoluble.
Catholics have long complained that it can take years to get an annulment, if they can get one at all. Costs can reach into the thousands of dollars for legal and tribunal fees, though some dioceses have waived these costs.
“With this fundamental law, Francis has now launched the true start of his reform,” said Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, the head of the Roman Rota, the church’s marriage court. “He is putting the poor at the centre — that is the divorced, remarried who have been held at arms’ length — and asking for bishops to have a true change of heart.”
Reasons for granting annulments vary, including that one spouse didn’t want children.
The new law also says that “lack of faith” can also be grounds for an annulment, conforming to the belief of Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before him that a sacramental marriage celebrated without the faith isn’t valid.
Francis’ biggest reform involves the new fast-track procedure, which will be handled by the local bishop and can be used when both spouses request an annulment or don’t oppose it.
Previously, most people seeking annulments needed to go before a three-judge panel unless a regional bishop’s conference gave a bishop permission to hear the case himself or to appoint one judge to handle it.
The new law makes that an immediate option, meaning annulments should be easier to obtain in dioceses that don’t have enough priests to make up a three-judge panel, which is especially common in poor countries.
The fast-track procedure can also be used when other proof makes a more drawn-out investigation unnecessary, such as medical records indicating that the wife had an abortion, that one spouse hid infertility or some other grave contagious disease from the other, or that violence was used to coerce a spouse into marriage.
The law calls for the process to be completed within 45 days. The longer, regular process should take no more than a year.
Another reform is the removal of the appeal that automatically took place after the first decision was made, even if neither spouse wanted it. An appeal is still possible, but if one of the sides requests it.
Officials said that the new law is not retroactive: The abolition of the automatic appeal, for example, will only apply to annulment cases decided after December 8.
In the document announcing the new law, Francis insisted that marriages remain indissoluble unions and that the new regulations aren’t meant to help dissolve them. Rather, he said, the reform is aimed at speeding up and simplifying the process so that the faithful can find justice.
The overall goal, he said: “Is the salvation of souls.”
Candida Moss, professor of Biblical studies at the University of Notre Dame, said: “It is a democratising move focused on easing the course of reintegration into the church for women, in particular.
“His actions are propelled by compassion and pragmatism: He recognises the dangers of spousal abuse and the reality that many modern marriages are undertaken without full consideration.”
Significantly, the reform places much more importance on local bishop in handling marriage cases and reducing the need for recourse to the Vatican’s own courts — part of Francis’ overall reform of the Catholic Church itself to decentralise power back to bishops.
The reform, which was the result of a year-long study by scriptural experts, is the second major initiative Francis has taken in as many weeks that may have reverberations across the world. The first was the change in rules about granting absolution for abortions.
Already, some conservatives have criticized Francis’ abortion initiative as running the risk that some might misinterpret it as a softening on the church’s opposition to terminations. Conservatives have also warned that simplifying the procedure could imply the church was making it easier for couples to get a “Catholic divorce.”
Francis has long called for the church to be less legalistic and more merciful and understanding of the needs of its flock.
In the document, Francis called for fees to be waived, except for reasonable renumeration of tribunal personnel.
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