The media is abuzz again this week in the wake of Pope Francis’ statement about the need to simplify the annulment process for Catholics. Those familiar with Church teaching recognize that nothing has changed doctrinally – marriage is still a sacrament, and annulments are still a necessary prerequisite for Catholics who wish to remarry in the Church.
That said, his efforts to streamline the process that surrounds the nullification of marriage have the potential to have a real impact on the lives of those currently in marital limbo. By expediting and simplifying annulments, the pope is demystifying a process that has a reputation for being complicated and expensive.
In many ways, the move is expected and grounded in Francis’ experience “on the ground’ as an archbishop. In the past, he said that half of all marriages in the Buenos Aires archdiocese were invalid because the husband and wife did not understand the weightiness of marriage vows and the life-long commitment that it involves. Francis knows first-hand that many ecclesiastical marriages have been entered into lightly.
Certainly Francis has no intention of changing Church teaching. In the documents detailing the reforms, he reasserted the Church’s position on the indissolubility of marriage. So why implement changes at all?
Francis’ actions appear motivated by a combination of compassion and practicality. He noted, “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.” As it currently operates, the annulment process can appear arcane, unnecessarily authoritarian, lengthy, expensive, and emotionally destructive. Often respondents in an annulment case simply decline to participate at all. According to a Pew study, of the 25% of US Catholics who are divorced, only slightly more than a quarter of those seek an annulment.
By authorizing bishops to confer fast-track annulments and abolishing the mandatory appeal for all, Francis is not only expediting the process; he is limiting the extent to which participants feel subject to repeated judgment and hurtful scrutiny. It is not only faster, it is also more private.
In the case of an individual seeking an annulment on the grounds of spousal abuse, they would be able to secure it from a bishop and without repeated appearances in front of a tribunal and, potentially, their former spouse. Francis’ reforms might limit the emotional distress a battered wife would experience in the annulment process. These measures thus are not only practical, but in terms of tone, they are a subtle half-step away from a juridical model and a small move toward a confessional one.
Practically speaking, Francis’s statement may make a difference both to the lives of Catholics and to the number of Catholics returning to Church. Individuals who divorce and desire to remarry need an annulment if they want to marry within in the Church. Otherwise, remarriage places them out of communion with the Church. But the lengthy, public, and expensive process of securing an annulment can act as deterrent, with the result that divorce becomes an exodus point for people. This is particularly true in cases where finances are strained and individuals want to remarry quickly.
Traditional Catholics might object that the Church should not, by making annulments more accessible, implement changes that undermine the position of marriage in the Church. But Francis is not only concerned with the married couple. He has another group of congregants in mind: the children of the divorced.
Since conversations about the status of the divorced and remarried began last October at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, Francis has repeatedly raised the issue of the well-being of children raised in irregular families. The final report of the synod described children as the “real victims” of divorce and recognized that it leads to an interruption of “the transmission of faith” between parents and children. Ministering to the divorced became a concern “particularly when children are concerned.”
Francis knows that if people leave the Church because of divorce, they will take their children with them. This affects the spiritual health of the entire family, including the family of the Church. His actions are propelled both by compassion and pragmatism: he recognizes the dangers of spousal abuse and the reality that many modern marriages are undertaken without full consideration. He wants to extend the olive branch of forgiveness to those who feel alienated, secure the spiritual future of their children, and uphold the sanctity of marriage.
Candida R. Moss is a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.