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Will Pope Francis’ annulment reforms impact U.S. Catholics?

Pope Francis speaks to journalists onboard the papal plane during his return to Rome, from Asuncion, Paraguay on July 12, 2015. Photo by Alessandro Bianchi, courtesy of Reuters
High resolution version of Graphic_2012-Annulment-cases_LOW_101714.jpg

“2012 Worldwide Catholic Annulment Cases.” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen

(RNS) The streamlined marriage annulment procedures unveiled by the Vatican are aimed at simplifying what is often a tedious gauntlet of red tape. But it’s not clear how much effect the reforms ordered by Pope Francis will have in the U.S., where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.

That’s largely because in recent decades American dioceses have taken a number of steps to make the process less cumbersome and time-consuming, some of which were reflected in the new procedures announced Tuesday (Sept. 8) in Rome.

The new rules, the most sweeping reform in centuries, eliminate an automatic review of any “decree of nullity” by a second panel of church judges, and they provide for what is being called a fast-track option that allows for an annulment to be granted by the local bishop within 45 days if both spouses request an annulment or don’t oppose it.


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Annulment rulings can currently take up to a year, or more, and cost upwards of $1,000, though in the U.S. fees can be waived.

It’s an issue that potentially affects millions of people: in the U.S., 25 percent of Catholics have been divorced; 26 percent of them say they sought annulment, according to Pew Research.

Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment are barred from receiving Communion because they are considered to be committing adultery. It’s a sensitive issue that is among several contentious issues leaders of the world’s bishops will debate at a Vatican summit next month, called a synod, presided over by Francis.


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The Catholic Church does not allow divorce but has long recognized that in some cases a marriage was never valid — if one party, for example, never intended to be faithful or was still married to another person at the time, or if impotence prevented consummation of the marriage or, most commonly, if one or both parties were judged too psychologically immature at the time to understand what they were doing.

Pope Francis speaks to journalists onboard the papal plane during his return to Rome, from Asuncion, Paraguay on July 12, 2015. Photo by Alessandro Bianchi, courtesy of Reuters

Pope Francis speaks to journalists onboard the papal plane during his return to Rome, from Asuncion, Paraguay, on July 12, 2015. Photo by Alessandro Bianchi, courtesy of Reuters

Francis has said that half of all marriages in the Buenos Aires, Argentina, archdiocese, which he headed before being elected pope in 2013, were invalid because the husband and wife did not view their vows as a lifelong commitment.

Still, critics see the annulment process as tantamount to “Catholic divorce.” They often cite the cost and complexity of the process, and the fact that in the past annulments have been granted to couples — some of them wealthy and well-known — who have been married for decades and have had several children together.

In the two documents detailing the changes, Francis reaffirmed church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage but said “the impulse for reform is fed by the enormous numbers of the faithful who … are too often alienated from the juridical structures of the church.”


READ: Did Pope Francis really tell a divorced woman to take Communion?


The streamlining is in keeping with the pope’s focus on the church to reflect the mercy of God, and to veer away from a focus on what he has called “small-minded rules.” In fact, annulment reform was done just a year after Francis ordered it, a remarkably speedy turnaround for the snail’s-pace Vatican.

“It is a democratizing move focused on easing the course of reintegration into the church for women, in particular,” said Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. “His actions are propelled by compassion and pragmatism: He recognizes the dangers of spousal abuse and the reality that many modern marriages are undertaken without full consideration.”

Moss also noted that the timing of the moves is important because they come ahead of Francis’ Sept. 22-27 visit to the U.S., his first. “Francis has set the agenda for these conversations and smoothed the path for his visit later this month,” Moss said. “The messaging is clear: Francis doesn’t want to change church teaching but he doesn’t want to focus on punishing people either.”


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The new procedures also demonstrate Francis’ desire to decentralize authority in the church; one of the main features of the new reforms is that, while an appeal to Rome remains an option, local bishops are given more leeway to decide and dispense with annulment cases.

On this issue, bishops around the world may be looking to the American hierarchy for guidance.

Some of the steps announced this week were used on a trial basis decades ago by the U.S. bishops, who have also led in efforts to reduce the complexity of the process.

The Rev. John Beal, a leading canon lawyer who teaches at Catholic University of America, said recently that American church tribunals in each diocese have allowed for applicants to submit written affidavits or even use Skype instead of having to appear for every hearing in person.


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“We chop off a lot of formalities like taking oaths and other things that give a rough juridical edge to the process,” Beal told the National Catholic Reporter, noting that many other countries have not taken those steps.

That’s one reason why America accounted for nearly half of the nearly 50,000 annulment cases launched each year by church tribunals around the world in 2012. Nearly nine in 10 cases in the U.S. result in an annulment, though that rate is lower in other regions.

The elimination of the automatic appeal could speed up the process significantly, as could another trend that Francis encouraged again in his announcement this week: making the annulment process free.


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In the past year, as many as a dozen of the nearly 200 American dioceses have waived all fees for the annulment process. The cost has ranged anywhere from $250 to just over $1,000, and fees were often waived for hardship reasons.

But there seems to be a trend toward automatically eliminating fees, which could increase following Tuesday’s decrees by the pope.

Whether any of these changes will result in more annulments, or will draw Catholics back to the sacraments, is unclear.

Annulments are declining in the U.S. Just over 23,000 cases were begun in 2014, down from nearly 61,000 in 1985. Church officials note that fewer Catholics are getting married in the church, more are living together without getting married, and many who divorce see no reason for an annulment.

Here is a list of U.S. dioceses, compiled by RNS and using information from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that waive annulment fees. The list will be updated as information is received:

LM/AMB END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

40 Comments

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  • Isn’t it interesting?

    When it is inconvenient for heterosexuals, it can be determined that the marriage never happened, even if there are decades together, even if there are children. The civilly and religiously married couple can then get a civil divorce, and live happily ever after, or until the next annulment. Civilly, of course thAt marriage, and that divorce, did indeed exist.

    It seems that the church really does understand the difference between a civil and a religious marriage.

    Convenient.

  • Hi,
    I was married the first time through the Catholic church (about 10 years ) which means I divorced and re-married through civil proceedings. I am seeking anullment from my first marrage in order to re-marry through the Catholic church.

    I need to know what will the new anullment procedures look like and what to do to that effect.

    Jose Sanchez

  • Why make fun of what you don’t comprehend? Civil marriages are recognized by the Catholic Church, but an annulment is not necessary since the marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church.
    Vows taken before God are taken seriously by the Church, and the priest has no way of knowing beforehand if the bride or groom are hiding something that will endanger the couples fidelity for life. Society always grants divorce at huge costs, and cares not a wit about any vows taken civilly before God or even the State. At least the Church reminds the couple of the great responsibility it took on when they decided to wed. Consequences for lying are to be expected.

  • Since the recent Pew survey reported by RNS shows only 8% of Americans attend Mass at least once a week, and the number among them who would refrain from remarrying because it is barred by the Church would be infinitely smaller, this is just another effort to keep the pope in the headlines before his US trip.

  • An absolute asinine theology whose vacancy is apparent to all. What is the Biblical support for such a maneuver? Can I buy some indulgences from the infallible Pope?

  • The annulment process may seem scary, but stick with it. You will find it to be a lot of hard work, deep soul searching and maybe a little painful. But believe me, the process is so worth it.

    God will be by your side the entire time. Trust me!

    God Bless You with Love,
    Anne

  • What is there not to comprehend?

    We have a church which is notorious for making arbitrary pronouncements which are hideously out of step with rational living in the modern age. As such those rules are largely ignored except among the most fanatical and least reasonable types.

    Rather than revise such rules, they play legalistic games to make end runs around them. Keeping the letter of the laws but ignoring the spirit of it. Making a workaround for public appearances rather than admit a policy is a failure in practice.

  • Actually, this is not entirely true. The church recognizes ALL marriages – Civil and Religious and not just those that took place within the Churc – as valid, and requires annulments for all if any parties involved desire to re-marry in the church.

  • Society is out of step with morality, let’s say. The Church holds one accountable for vows they take, just as society should. Atheists needn’t concern themselves with religious responsibility, since they have digressed to a pre-pagan outlook on the world;” I only believe what I see.”

  • Assinine? If deception was present at the time of marriage, the marriage contracted was false. The priest would not have blessed the marriage had all factors been known to him, ergo the marriage is null and void.

  • Thanks for worrying about the Church, Betty, but if the streamlined annulment process leads to one more person returning to the Faith, it is worth it. And I don’t think that this most beloved of Popes needs anymore PR than he has already garnered by being a good man

  • “The cost has ranged anywhere from $250 to just over $1,000, and fees were often waived for hardship reasons.”

    Jesus doesn’t care about money (supposedly)
    Funny how he can’t go far without it.

  • Dominic, you have demonstrated many times you have no concept of morality. Moral thinking is not following arbitrary codes of conduct, just because. Without forethought and contemplation of one’s actions in light of their impact on others, there is no morality. Society by moving away from these arbitrary useless rules is becoming far more moral than your church can ever be.

    You are simply demonstrating what I was saying.

    That the rules involved are without reason, rationality or moral thinking. The only people who feel the need to comply with them are the most fanatical.

  • Bwahaaaaaa. How convenient. The priest can never know all the factors, and that is not necessary anyway. This is a copout for those who want out, and supposed men of God grant it under some bizarre theology with no biblical reasoning. Lack of detailed knowledge per the priest does not invalidate a marriage.

  • “Will Pope Francis’ annulment reforms impact U.S. Catholics?” It should read: “Will Pope Francis’ divorce reforms impact U.S. Catholics? ”

    Which brings us to:

    Matthew 19:
    Divorce

    “19 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

    3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

    4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

    7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

    Continued below

  • 8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

    11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

    “Annulment” in the RCC today is a joke (as is the RCC). Obviously, they fit sexual immorality into every situation.

  • And Jesus’ comments about divorce are by rigorous historic testing authentic. e.g. http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb015.html

    An excerpt;

    “Professor Luedemann [Jesus, 67] notes that the form of the tradition in Mark 10 reflects Roman divorce law, not local Jewish practice. He also observes that “the radical repudiation of divorce by Jesus is attested in both the Q tradition (Matt. 5.32/Luke 16.18) and by Paul in 1 Cor. 7.10-11. It follows that according to all the earliest material Jesus emphasizes the indissolubility of marriage.” On Matt 19:12, Luedemann [Jesus, 209] suggests that the saying about eunuchs is probably an authentic Jesus tradition growing out of his own practice as a single male.

  • Jose, I can sense that God is calling you back home to his Church. Just go to the nearest Catholic Church, and get the process started. I’m not sure how long it will take until the streamlined process takes effect, but whenever it does, your annulment will be expedited at that point. Just remember, an annulment has to do with the day you took your vows in the Church, and brought God Almighty in as a Witness. And if something was out of order, from the very beginning, that usually is a hint that an annulment can be granted. In other words, God knows us better than we ourselves do, so He will either join you together at that moment (Mark 10:9), or He will refrain from doing so. The latter is annulable. May God Bless you in your quest for Him.

  • I think both John Paul II, and Benedict communicated that it might be better to have a smaller Church, with full fidelity to God, than a large one, which is full of lukewarm Christians. What did our Lord communicate to St. John? “Because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16).

  • Bernardo, the Church must address the age in which it exists. And in our day, the Devil reigns supreme, causing mortal sin to be the norm in nearly every part of the world, creating division, destruction, denial of God, sexual filth of every sort, and sending souls directly to hell upon death. So when times are bad, the Church must loosen up and recognize that the society in which we are now living is ten times worse than Pagan Rome every was. And by the way, it is not that every sin has been defined as sexual by the Church (Matt 19:9), but rather, whether God actually joined the two souls together at the time of their vows (Mk 10:9). If He did, then no annulment can be granted, but if He did not, then the marriage is reduced to a civil marriage, and then the man and woman are free to remarry.

  • @Greg1,

    “The devil is supreme”

    Nonsense. You can’t have it both ways.
    When things are awful Christians screech the devil is in charge. But when things are good – as they are now – the Devil can’t also be in charge!

    Isn’t it interesting that America has become less violent
    since Religion started to die off here 40 years ago?*

    Atheists and non-religious
    are the fastest growing segment of the population and outnumber American Jews, Muslims and Hindus combined.

    *Pew Research

  • Atheist, if you believe times are good, then the Devil has blinded you. The America we once knew is no longer here; this country is a cesspool full of self centered people who no longer want to live the moral life, and work to support it. The two kingpin pillars of work and religion have made this country what it is today. This country will be nothing without those two staples in a very short period of time.

  • @Greg,

    “this country is a cesspool full of self centered people who no longer want to live the moral life…”

    You don’t seem to understand.

    American’s are living longer.
    People can access the world’s libraries from any location.
    Crime has dropped so much since the 1960s we need to hire professionals to explain the phenomenon.
    Black people are no longer randomly lynched as they were 60 years ago in the South.
    Many Cancers can now be cured.
    Fewer people smoke cigarettes.
    American children are less likely to die in childbirth.
    Fewer Americans die of starvation.
    fewer American have bad teeth.
    More Americans have health insurance than 10 years ago.
    There are fewer wars than at any time in history.
    An intense effort is finally underway to stop global pollution.
    Women are finally getting some equal rights.
    Fewer gays are being killed.

    The primary threat to these improvements is religion.

  • And all of your progress notes, Max, have everything to do with a Christian mentality of loving thy neighbor. Atheists have no moral law that is unchangeable.
    Atheistic countries have given us war, genocide, medical experiments on humans, famine, greed, abortion, and euthanasia.

  • @Dominic,

    “Atheists have no moral law that is unchangeable…”

    Wrong.
    Humans naturally cared about other humans long before your insipid monster screwed everything up. Your God’s unchangeable morality is disgusting – no wonder he is being abandoned:

    “You shall give these slaves to your children as inherited property and you shall make them slaves for life…” – GOD (Leviticus 25:44)

    You should hide under a rug for endorsing that despicable, inhuman moral code.
    Shame on you.

  • Shame on me? What a laugh. The goodness of God is too well documented to debate, and only His intervention into human history raised us out of selfish barbarism. That’s what makes atheists so reviled; they remove the clockmaker from the clock and just go about saying “we made it”. Yet when the clock breaks…they can’t fix it.

  • Dominic,

    “‘If a..daughter…disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.” – GOD (Leviticus 21:9)

    “All of God’s Laws must be followed” – JESUS (Matthew 5:18)

    If you follow Jesus, you should consider surrendering to the police before you injure someone.

    Shame on you.

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