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Pope Francis urges marriage annulment reform, with emphasis on children’s fate

Francis' remarks to the Roman Rota follow his 2015 changes to canon law that made annulments simpler and less costly.

Pope Francis cuddles a baby as he exchanges greetings with Vatican employees in the Paul VI hall , Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Speaking to members of the Vatican’s highest appellate tribunal, Pope Francis called for greater attention to the consequences of marriage annulments, especially their effects on a separated couple’s children. 

“Sentences of the ecclesiastical judge cannot ignore the memory, made of lights and shadows, which marked a life, not only of the two spouses but also of the children,” said Francis during an audience with members of the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s highest judicial tribunal, on Friday (Jan. 29).

“Spouses and children constitute a community of persons, which is always and certainly identified with the good of the family, even when it has crumbled,” he added.

The Catholic Church doesn’t recognize divorce, but marriages may be annulled if conditions such as mental or physical infirmity or the lack of Catholic faith in one of the spouses predated the marriage, or if consent to marry was gained by verbal or physical violence.

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Francis reformed the process for annulments in 2015, empowering diocesan bishops to act as judges to nullify marriages, eliminating the requirement that the Roman Rota sign off with its own sentence. That reform measure also pushed for making the procedure free.

In his speech to the Roman Rota, some of it delivered sitting down to ease the pain of his chronic sciatica, the pope noted that his reform “has received, and continues to receive, a lot of resistance.”

After eliminating the Roman Rota’s role, “I received letters, many, I don’t know how many,” said Francis. “They were almost all from lawyers who were losing clients.”

He added, “In Spain they say; ‘Por la plata baila el mono,’ meaning the monkey dances for money. It’s a saying that says a lot.”

He justified giving the diocesan bishop power to grant annulments, saying, “The judge is the bishop,” and called the order a “return to evangelical truth.”

The pope’s concern for children in his speech is tied to the year of reflection on Amoris Laetitia, Francis’ 2015 apostolic exhortation written after the Synod on the Family five years ago. In that document, Francis emphasized the need to consider children who had seen their parents’ marriage end.

With the “Amoris Laetitia Family” year beginning March 19, the anniversary of the exhortation, he asked the Roman Rota and bishops to “open up even more to the challenge posed by this topic.”

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