In his latest reform move, Pope Francis on Tuesday issued two new legal documents, each technically known as a motu proprio, the thrust of which is to make it faster, easier, and less expensive to obtain an annulment.
In Catholic parlance, an “annulment” means a ruling by a Church court that a union between a man and a woman, even if it featured a Church wedding, is not a valid marriage because it fails one of the traditional tests, such as a lack of genuine consent or a psychological incapacity to undertake the obligations.
Annulments are hugely important at the retail level of the faith, because for Catholics whose relationships break down and who want to get married in the Church to someone else, they first have to obtain one.
It’s no accident that Francis is making this move on the cusp of a special “Holy Year of Mercy” that he has decreed will begin Dec. 8, the same day these changes take effect. On Tuesday, he said the decision was driven by a pastoral desire to lift the “darkness of doubt” from people’s hearts about their marital status.
While experts will pore over the details in the days to come, here are three immediate observations about what it means.
The decision will recalibrate the discussion at October’s second edition of the Synod of Bishops on the family, likely reducing the emphasis on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and creating space for other issues to emerge.
Last October, the matter of whether the traditional ban on Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church ought to be softened was the hot-button issue par excellence, with cardinals and other senior leaders exchanging barbed commentary and activist groups on both sides egging them on.
All along, reform in the annulment process seemed the most obvious compromise measure, a way of giving both camps at least part of what they wanted. Those opposed to revising the Communion ban could take comfort that the Church was not softening its stand on divorce, while progressives would be pleased that the Church was at least trying to show greater compassion and outreach.
By implementing the compromise in advance, Francis has not quite resolved the Communion debate, but he’s made it less burning. He’s also ensured that the synod won’t get bogged down debating what a hypothetical annulment reform might look like, because it’s now a fait accompli.
Whatever people may think of the fine points, everyone will be realistic enough to grasp that in the immediate wake of one major reform, it will be a while before the time is ripe for another.
Francis has expressed concern several times that the synod shouldn’t become focused on a narrow canon of contentious issues, but should instead consider the broad range of challenges to family life, including the impact of poverty, war, and forced migration, and should also focus on how the Church can support families where they’re thriving.
The possibility of that actually happening looks like less of a long shot in the wake of this decision than before it.
The reform may lead over time to a cultural shift within the canon law community — the lawyers, judges, academics, and others engaged in the theory and practice of Church law.
In recent decades, a general tendency among many canon lawyers has been to try to make the annulment system as user-friendly as possible, on the grounds that it could be unwieldy, time-consuming, and costly.
As this new reform is rolled out, it may be that concern over cumbersomeness will be replaced with concern about the possibility of abuse, a fear that the system is becoming so fast-tracked that it’s too easy, not too difficult, to reach the finish line. (That’s despite the fact that Francis said the idea is not necessarily to grant more annulments, but simply to speed the process along.)
If concern over abuse does mount, some canon lawyers may find themselves in almost the same spot as before, only from a different angle – trying to inject balance by slowing things down a bit, rather than pressing to hurry them up.
On a related note, one could read the pope’s decision as a vote of confidence in the canonical system. In effect he’s saying, “I’m going to loosen up here a bit, and I’m trusting you not to let things get out of hand.”
On the eve of his first-ever trip to the United States, one could argue that Pope Francis has delivered a major thumbs-up to American Catholicism.
Over the years, bishops, canon lawyers, and other Church personnel around the world sometimes have complained that America makes it too easy to obtain an annulment, with some going so far as to call the United States an “annulment factory.”
US prelates and canonists often reply that America is one of the few countries that takes the annulment process seriously, investing significant resources in training lawyers and judges and making the process available to whoever wants it.
Famously, the United States accounts for at least half, and sometimes more, of all the annulments granted by the Catholic Church every year, even though it represents only 6 percent of the global Catholic population.
As a result, the United States is likely to be the country where the reforms decreed by Francis have the least immediate impact, though some of the changes will have consequences here, too, such as eliminating the need for a second review in uncontested cases.
For those in the States who’ve been involved in the annulment process, the move may produce a sense of vindication by seeing the pontiff steering the global Church in the direction of what might loosely be called an “American” approach.
Presumably these weren’t the main factors behind Francis’ decision, which one assumes was made in the first instance on the merits.
Yet Francis is a savvy political thinker, which means that while these implications may not have been the foundation of his thinking, it also strains credibility to think they didn’t occur to him somewhere along the way.