Pope Francis announced changes to the Catholic Church’s annulment procedures today.
The church does not recognise civil divorce so if a Catholic couple want to end their marriage, they must first seek an annulment from a church tribunal. An annulment declares the marriage contract was flawed from the outset, and is invalid. In the 1980s the process was complicated when the church added the need for a second review from a separate diocese before granting an annulment.
A Catholic who obtains a civil divorce, without seeking an annulment first is seen as an adulterer in the eyes of the church, and is not allowed to take Communion.
The main changes announced today are:
- Getting rid of the need for a second review
- Allowing bishops to fast-track and grant annulments themselves in some circumstances, such as in cases of spousal abuse or extra martial affairs
- Making the process free, except for a nominal fee
The layers of complexity and cost of annulments have meant that many people start, but don’t complete the process. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) studied the number of Catholics who completed the annulment process in 2012. They found that 61 per cent of African Catholics seeking annulments completed the process, compared with 86 per cent in the Western world. It’s speculated that the difference can be explained by the fact that wealthier western Catholics can afford lawyers specialising in church law.
In 2014 Pope Francis stated:
“Some procedures are so long and burdensome…and people give up.”
Andrew Chestnut, an expert on religion in Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University calls the announcement part of a wider strategy “to create a more inclusive church and reach out to lapsed Catholics who might have left the fold over issues such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality.”
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found one in four US Catholics have gone through a divorce and around one in ten have remarried. Only a quarter of divorcees got an annulment before they divorced. Approximately 50 per cent of US Catholics did not view divorce without an annulment as being a sin.
The changes to the annulment don’t represent any major theological shift. However, next month the Pope is scheduled to hold a synod – a major church meeting – to talk about major family-related issues.